All was pervaded by a spirit of mystery, solitude and utter desolation…. It seemed indeed a phantom city.
WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES, 1897
Monte Albán, in Mexico, was one of the earliest and greatest cities of pre-Columbian America. Rising some 400 m (1,300 ft) above the surrounding alluvial plains, the massive hills at the centre of the largest valley in southwestern Mesoamerica were chosen around 500 BC as the site for a small community. The novelty of this occupation lay in the selection of the locality, particularly since the valley below had been settled for millennia and was dotted with innumerable villages and a few larger towns. Some trade-offs must have induced these first inhabitants to overcome the difficulties of settling and provisioning such an inaccessible place. Imbuing the hilltop location with a sacred character, affirming a territorial claim and taking advantage of its defensive properties were all surely part of the story, as processes of increasing social inequality and regional competition unfolded.
Within two centuries of its establishment, Monte Albán had grown to urban proportions, drawing thousands of people into the city and its most immediate hinterland. The city’s core, designed to be secluded but capable of accommodating large numbers of people for special events, became transformed, with a majestic Main Plaza surrounded on all four sides by monumental buildings, lofty pyramidal platforms, passageways and courtyards. Eventually, the urban sprawl affected even the lowermost slopes of the various contiguous hills, as the inhabitants modified the steep terrain to establish household plots and living quarters. The formidable city of red-coloured grand façades and whitewashed houses would have been visible from miles away. And those privileged to inhabit its highest points experienced a commanding view of the valley below.
View of the Main Plaza of Monte Albán from the south. Beneath the centre of the plaza, on the right side, is a cistern for the ritual management of water. The acropolis and the royal funerary memorial are in the background.
In some parts the urban planning integrated rocky promontories as the nuclei of platforms; other sections required thousands of tons of material to level the site. A sector in one of the eastern piedmonts saw the creation of a system of irrigation canals that turned inhospitable terrain into an area of small-scale agricultural production, and almost opposite it, in the lowermost western reaches of the city, a large expanse of flat terrain served as a marketplace. Parts of the city were walled, though at different times, to monitor access or to provide protection against raids. At some point in its history, the Main Plaza had a large cistern fed by at least two underground water channels carrying runoff rainwater from the flat roofs of neighbouring buildings. Eventually this system of ritual management of water was ceremonially ended, but underneath other built zones in and around the Main Plaza run intricate branches of drainage channels, with rainwater diverted first to steep gorges and then into reservoirs.
Between 400 BC and AD 200, the leaders of the city pursued an expansionist policy, increasing their economic, political and military control over formerly autonomous polities in the surrounding valley. By inscribing the megalithic blocks with which the façades of major structures were built, those early leaders conveyed to their audiences the ideal of an inclusive government, fostering a sense of communal identity while masking nascent internal inequalities. At its economic and political peak around the 7th century AD, Monte Albán had some 20,000 inhabitants and extended over more than 8 sq. km (3 sq. miles). Politically, it dominated the surrounding valley and several adjacent regions.
Through time, the increasingly powerful metropolis became internally organized into different wards. Each was led by high-ranking corporate groups focused on a residential structure and an adjoining temple with associated plaza, surrounding structures and small ancestor memorial. The central locus of the five most powerful districts had, in addition, a ballcourt. These playgrounds served as theatres where noble and regal warriors performed mock battles disguised as a competitive ball game against war captives. The paramount ward stood out even further, set as it was on an arresting northern acropolis with a large sunken plaza and associated buildings where policies were decided, treaties enacted, justice imparted and sacrificial rites performed. It also had, at its highest and most secluded point, a monumental arrangement of four shrines around a small courtyard, three atop high pyramidal platforms, and an ancestor memorial in the centre. These shrines probably contain, at depths not yet probed, the royal tombs that house the remains of marriage partners who, through the generations, formed the most powerful dynasties that steered the fate of the city. The identity of several of these male and female rulers is known from their hieroglyphic names.
Replicating on a more humble scale the royal funerary facility, the households of lower-ranking corporate groups had masonry crypts of varying size built beneath one of the four structures around a central patio that characterized most houses. Usually, the selected burial structure was on the west side, suggesting a symbolic link between death and the setting sun. These tombs served as the resting place of household heads over the generations, and were re-entered repeatedly to carry out obsequies or to enact rituals to invoke ancestral spirits. By the 4th century AD, the real or fictive prestige of high-ranking ancestors served to legitimate social privilege. Nobility and royalty used writing in funerary contexts – either carved or painted in various parts of the tombs, or on objects placed as offerings to accompany the deceased – to inscribe in the collective memory genealogical records that traced descent of lineage members from exalted founders. This strategy helped perpetuate or contest their social standing. Claims to landed estates and specialized offices, such as paramount rainmakers and sacrificers, were framed within an ideology that highlighted a preoccupation with agricultural production and the biological reproduction of noble and royal houses.
Ceramic effigy vessels from Tomb 104. The tableau, placed at the entrance of the crypt, mimics the quadripartite conception of the cosmos. The central piece depicts the occupant’s lineage founder. Dressed as a rainmaker and accompanied by four small containers that embody corn cobs, he recreates the origins of humans from maize.
CNCA-INAH, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.
By the end of the 9th century AD, the city experienced a political demise that had major regional economic and demographic consequences. Monte Albán was slowly but inexorably abandoned, and the polity centred on it dramatically reduced. During the following four centuries, as the centre crumbled into ruins, memories of its grandeur continued to attract pilgrims who left offerings amidst the rubble. By the 15th century, when the hegemonic interests of the Aztec empire were being felt, only a small Mexica garrison stood there. The eminences known by local natives of the 17th and 18th centuries as ‘Hill of the Lords’, ‘Hill of the Jaguar’, ‘Hill of the Riches’, ‘Hill of the Quetzal’ are now part of a World Heritage site bearing the name of Monte Albán (White Mountain). The original names of this great settlement, however, may remain forever beyond the grasp of modern scholarship.