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A Walking Tour of Monte Albán

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A Walking Tour of Monte Albán
The main plaza at Monte Alban, from North

The main plaza at Monte Alban, from the north

Nicoletta Maestri

Monte Albán, the capital of the Zapotec civilization, is one of the most fascinating sites in Mexico and one of the most ancient of Mesoamerican cities. Founded in 500 BC, Monte Alban is located in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, on top of a system of hills, ~400 meters high, overlooking the valley of the Atoyac river. The hillsides were extensively remodeled in prehistory, with hundreds of built terraces where the bulk of the population lived.

Monte Albán's archaeological zone is eight kilometers east of Oaxaca City, the modern capital of Oaxaca state. The ancient city of Monte Albán covered an area of about seven square kilometers, had a population of more than 30,000 people, and was distributed over five hills: the Tigre hill, also called Monte Alban, which includes the main plaza; the Gallo hill; the Atzompa hill; Mogotillo; and Monte Alban Chico.

The only area open to the public today is the Tigre hill, where the main plaza lies. The other hills, which are not extensively excavated as of yet, included both residential and public complexes. These were probably occupied during a second phase of construction.

Archaeologists still debate over the reason for the founding of the city in such an isolated and elevated position, in the middle of the valley. Possible reasons include the need for a defensible place during a time of social instability; and the necessity of a ceremonial center in a central position, where the surrounding communities could gather.

The Main Plaza: During Monte Alban's first centuries (500-100 BC) the main plaza was created by leveling the top of the hill to create a flat surface. it is possible that the plaza surface was originally covered with a plaster floor. Constructions on the plaza in this phase included part of the North Platform and the two sub-structures of Building IV and L, which included the "Gallery of the Dancers".

According to some interpretations, the Main Plaza symbolized the Zapotec cosmos, with the northern side related with the celestial realm and the southern one with the underworld and warfare. The two sectors would be connected by the Ball court which in many Mesoamerican cultures represented a connectiong point between the human world and the supernatural level.

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