Friday, 13 March 2015

The Longlist: Monte Alban

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Monte Alban.

What do you get if you cross Teotihuacan with Machu Picchu?

Now, ok, let's not hype Monte Alban too much. It's no Teotihuacan and it's no Machu Picchu - but what is? Both these places are incredible. Yet Monte Alban captures essences of both. It may not be as grand and rigidly planned and alien as Teotihuacan, but it shares a style and a sense of geometry. And it may not have the spectacular lost-in-the-mountains drama of Machu Picchu, but it's still perched on a reasonably high hilltop, with terrific views on all sides.

Monte Alban is a ruined city near Oaxaca in southern-ish Mexico, and Danielle and I were there in September. We were both very impressed. At its peak in the 5th Century AD, up to 30,000 people would have lived there, spread across the hillside or within a few miles of it. The showstopper was the hilltop complex, a huge series of ceremonial platforms and temples set on a artificially-flattened ridge 400 metres above the valley.

Monte Alban belonged to the Zapotec civilisation, one of the many central American civilisations that bubbled up in the BC centuries. I should really call them the BCE centuries, but I don't really like the term. The Zapotecs have one of the better names going for ancient civilisations, although they've got the Aztecs to thank for that. The Aztecs called them the tzapotecah which means the far more pedestrian "inhabitants of the place of sapote" (sapote being a type of fruit). The Zapotecs called themselves Be'ena'a, which means simply "the people", although I think that has a far more sinister ring if you capitalise it: "The People." Monte Alban's name itself is a greater mystery. Danibaan in the Zapotec language means "Sacred Hill" so perhaps the Spanish took this and blended it with the Spanish surname "Montalban", maybe referencing the Alban Hills in Italy which in Spanish are called Montes Albanos. But that's all retroactively applied speculation.

Anyway, the Zapotecs and Monte Alban are intrinsically linked, as they both formed at the same time. Once upon a time, three different tribes lived it out and competed in the valleys. The hill was kind of a no-man's land between the tribes. But one day, one of them decided it would be nice to try living on the hill. It was a good idea. Although the hill wasn't quite as good for agriculture, it was possible to build terraces down the sides, and it was overall great for defence. The Zapotecs and Monte Alban were founded in around 500BC and after a few hundred years were dominant. Bye bye rival tribes.

By around 100AD, Monte Alban was a fortress-capital of a significant mini-empire with a population estimated with suspicious accuracy at 17,200. Possibly - although they're long gone - there were once walls up to 9 metres high and an amazing 20 metres wide ringing the entire settlement, making it impenetrable. By means of the military, colonisation of nearby tribes, and good old fashioned cooperation with others, the Zapotecs had expanded and continued to expand. Oaxaca valley was conveniently located along trade routes, so they benefitted from passing traffic, and generated traffic of their own. The Zapotecs might not have been world-beaters, but they were a regional force to be reckoned with. Among their contemporaries and kind-of-mates, they could include the likes of Teotihuacan. Within Monte Alban, there appears to have been a Teotihuacan-style guest house, and Teotihuacan returned the favour with an entire Zapotec neighbourhood. It's no wonder there's a certain similarity of style to the architecture.

With the Zapotecs and their fortified capital secure and prosperous, it was boomtime, and for several centuries they prospered. Most of the important big stuff on the ceremonial platform at the top of Monte Alban was built during this period. The main plaza is roughly 300 by 200 metres, and today we see a whole bunch of large platforms with monumental stairways but once there would have been temples and elite homes on top, built from wood so now long gone. There's a ballcourt, the same style as the Maya later made famous. These all ring the main plaza, but in the centre are a few more platforms, which we have to assume were the most important.

Handily, the Zapotecs had their own writing system and left behind various inscriptions. Less handy, we have no idea what it says. It was one of the first writing systems in America, and appears to have inspired the Maya and the Aztecs, but for all we know it could just be soup recipes. One temple has quite a few intriguing glyphs and carved stones. The stones appear to depict places or sacrificial victims, and include images of mutilated naked men. It's thought that the glyphs with upside-down heads are the neighbouring provinces that were taken by force, and the others are the ones that shrugged their shoulders and let the Zapotecs walk right in. Still, it doesn't seem to help with the deciphering. See if you can figure it out.

Monte Alban went the way of all ancient American civilisations - it just kind of faded away. Teotihuacan declined and disappeared, and Monte Alban seems to have mirrored that. By around 700AD, after about 1000 years of use, it was abandoned, probably a combination of an unsustainable population and a changing society. It wasn't the end for the Zapotecs however. Although their glory days were over, they continued as a low-level civilisation right up until when the Spanish came in and finished them off. Monte Alban was never forgotten about, as it was perfectly visible from the valley, but it was only in the 19th Century that interest was reignited. Explorers started poking around, and in Leopoldo Batres did some digging there in the early 20th Century. He's the guy who excavated Teotihuacan by putting dynamite in the Pyramid of the Sun - fortunately, he wasn't so destructive with Monte Alban. In the 1930s, some serious study and excavation begun, which uncovered the platforms and ruins we see today.

Monte Alban is a wonderful place to visit. It wouldn't at all shame itself on my shortlist. As I say, it's like Teotihuacan but not as grand, like Machu Picchu but not as spectacular. Yet, few places are. It's still very interesting, very distinctive, and yet another addition to a remarkable period of history that took place in and around Mexico in the 1500 years before the Spanish changed things forever.

Finally, take a look at this:

And then at this:

Does anything look at all similar? Jorn Utzon certainly saw something. He claimed that the design of the Sydney Opera House came from a peeled orange, but the platform and stairways were inspired by Monte Alban. Inspiration can come from diverse places.

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