Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/November 1908/Monte Alban and Mitla as the Tourist Sees Them

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IN April, 1908, while investigating the Mexican cycads in the vicinity of Oaxaca, I took occasion to visit the ancient ruins on Monte Alban and at Mitla. A botanist could hardly be expected to speak with any authority upon archeological matters, but, having taken an excellent camera for photographing the cycads, I could not resist the temptation occasionally to point it at objects of mere human interest. Upon examining the photographs, a friend, who has made some reputation as an archeologist, suggested that an illustrated account, written from the standpoint of an ordinary tourist, would be of interest to the public, while the photographs might be useful to those better acquainted with the general subject.

Oaxaca is easily reached. Starting in the morning from Puebla over the Mexican Southern Railway, there is a pleasant ride of 228 miles through magnificent mountain scenery and prosperous plantations. From Tomellin to Las Sedas, forty miles, there is a grade so

Fig. 1. Some bear Pictorial Inscriptions.

Fig. 2. The Big Tree of Tule.

steep that I was told one could coast all the way from Las Sedas to Tomellin. On the trip back I tried it and found it to be delightfully true. On a small square platform, resting upon two pairs of freight car wheels, the trip was like a long, breezy shoot the chutes, the speed sometimes reaching more than thirty miles an hour. The precipitous cliffs, lofty mountains and deep gorges, together with gigantic cacti, are some of the sights of the Republic.

The station stops of greatest interest are Tehuacan and Tomellin. Tehuacan is beginning to be called the Carlsbad of the New World, for its wonderful mineral waters are producing cures which rival those of some of the famous Mexican shrines. The water certainly has a pleasant taste to recommend it and throughout Mexico one constantly meets people who have been cured of various kinds of kidney, liver and stomach troubles. At Tomellin, the Chinaman, Dick-Kee, who conducts

Fig. 3. A Building Facing a Large Court.

the railroad restaurant, makes you wish that you could stop for hours instead of only twenty minutes. On the way back, I had the pleasure of stopping at Tomellin and eating at my leisure, while I watched my less fortunate neighbors trying to eat three kinds of meat, with side dishes, pie, cake and ice cream in the regulation time.

Oaxaca, at an altitude of 5,000 feet, has a climate like a perpetual Indian summer. Already a prosperous town in the time of Columbus, it has grown until it has become an important commercial center, and

Fig. 4. One can hardly realize that he is gazing upon Ruins.

its numerous cathedrals with their paintings and gorgeous decorations have made it interesting to the artist and architect. The hotels are good and the obliging hosts are always ready to arrange trips to Monte Alban and Mitla.

Monte Alban is said to be about four miles from Oaxaca. It seems farther if you go on foot. The average tourist, even though a bad rider, had better get a horse. When the top is reached, more than a thousand feet above the city, the view of the valley, with Oaxaca spread out like a map, the little villages, rich plantations, and Tule in the distance, is well worth even the climb on foot. The summit of the mountain is covered by the ruin of an ancient city. Whether the individual buildings are temples, stores or palaces, the tourist can doubtless decide with far less hesitation than can the trained archeologist. Some of the stones are large and well cut, some, like Fig. 1, bear pictorial inscriptions, and some have outline images of the entire

Fig. 5. A Court with buildings arranged about it.

human figure, which to the novice look like Egyptian or Assyrian work. There are pyramids with rude passages leading through them and also chambers, perhaps basements of larger buildings with entrances of primitive construction. There are no arches anywhere. Floors, which in most cases are of a hard cement, resembling modern Portland cement, are still in a good state of preservation. Considering the fact that it is only recently that these ruins have been uncovered, it is not at all improbable that neighboring mountains may also have their ruins of temples and palaces.

Fig. 6. Hall of Mosaics.

There is nothing to eat or drink on Monte Alban; consequently those to whom twelve o'clock brings a restlessness which scenery and ruins can not relieve had better carry a lunch.

A trip to Mitla can be arranged any day. The six-horse coach with four horses abreast in front and two horses in the rear, is the usual means of transportation. Such a coach, which will carry four persons, can be hired for two days for $18 to $25 Mexican money.

About an hour's ride from Oaxaca is the little village of Tule. Even the ordinary tourist must stop here to see the big tree in the churchyard (Fig. 2), but the botanist should leave Oaxaca early by the little tram car and study the tree an hour before the rest of his party arrive. The tree is gigantic, measuring 154 feet in circumference six feet from the ground. This means more than 50 feet in diameter, thus
Fig. 7. Hall of Monoliths.

surpassing the big sequoias of California. The height, however, as may be seen from the picture, is not so great. Botanically, the tree is Taxodium macronatum, and it is commonly called the Montezuma cypress. The Noche triste tree in the City of Mexico belongs to the same species. The swamp cypress of our southern states, Taxodium distichum, belongs to the same genus, but not to the same species. Without trying to find any fault with the tree, one might hazard the suggestion that it may represent three trees grown together so that nothing but peculiarities in the branching remain to indicate a multiple origin. The Humboldt inscription, placed there by the great explorer, is on the opposite side of the tree from that shown in the picture, but is now almost entirely overgrown. There have evidently been other inscriptions, but they too are overgrown, and a formidable tablet warns the public against defacing the tree, perhaps referring to the vicious American habit of cutting unimportant names in conspicuous places. There are recent tablets, flat on the ground at the base of the tree, with large letters made of the teeth of cattle. If it is all one tree, its age could not be less than three or four thousand years. In the same churchyard there is another Montezuma cypress, twelve feet in diameter, which shows not only in its general habit, but in its branching, that it is a single tree.

The road from Tule to Mitla is sandy and dusty, but the scenery makes one forget such trifles. The mountains on the right are rocky and are covered with yellow and green lichens. Those on the left have some trees and the valley between is fertile, and the people—as everywhere in Mexico—are happy and contented. Not to be forgotten are a couple of little villages where one can get pineapple cider and lemon ices.

Arriving at Mitla about noon, one is surprised at the comfortable hotel with neat, airy rooms, clean beds and excellent fare. Even a fastidious fault-finder could live there and. worry because he could find nothing to criticize.

After luncheon, a five minutes' walk brings us to the ruins. The crude remains on Monte Alban had prepared me for a disappointment at Mitla, but the first view removed any such anticipation. One can hardly realize that he is gazing upon ruins so old that no one knows their age or who built them. The reader will admit that Fig. 4 looks more like the finished work of an up-to-date architect than a ruin. This picture shows the general style of the exterior of all the Mitla ruins. Everywhere there is the same elaborate ornamentation.

The interior side of a building facing a large court is shown in Fig. 3. The stair has been partially restored, but otherwise the description made by Cortez applies equally well to-day. Through the entrances at the head of the stairs one catches glimpses of the rooms

Fig. 8. A well-preserved Corner.

beyond. At present the rooms are not at all roofed over. On each side of the central entrance is a hole in the wall from which an idol has been removed. The court in front of the steps is of a concrete like that found on Monte Alban. Monoliths like the one in the foreground are fairly numerous. Another view of a court with buildings arranged about it is shown in Fig. 5.

The rooms of the buildings surrounding the courts are still very beautiful. Among these, the Hall of Mosaics (Fig. 6) seems to be the best preserved. If these long, narrow halls were ever covered by any heavy roof, the ventilation must have been bad, for even in their present open condition they are hot enough on a warm clay.

Fig. 9. The Stones above the Entrances are very large.

Another hall, considerably wider and with a row of six huge monoliths in the center, is called the Hall of the Monoliths (Fig. 7). These monoliths, which are about twelve feet high, seem to have supported some kind of a roof, and, judging from their strength, the roof must have been something more than cloth or palm leaves. The walls have no mosaic ornamentation, but seem to have been completely covered by a hard, thin coat of cement or plaster, which was painted a dark red. Just beyond the second monolith one sees in the wall a niche which may have contained an idol.

A well-preserved corner is shown in the following view (Fig. 8). Since the masonry has begun to crack, steel beams have recently been

Fig. 10. Details of the Mosaics.

inserted above these two entrances. The rooms beyond the entrance are narrow and elaborately ornamented with a pattern similar to that in the Hall of Mosaics.

The stones above the entrances are very large. The one shown in Fig. 10 is eighteen feet long. The side of the entrance, against which the children are standing, is also a single stone.

The dark spot on the cement floor, seen through the opening, is the entrance to a series of subterranean chambers. These are low,

Fig. 11. Picture Writing.

dark dungeons, ornamented with the mosaic patterns shown in previous views. A modern steel gate with a big lock keeps out unaccompanied travelers. After we enter, get candles and register our name and address, the guide conducts us from one room to another, sometimes coming up into rooms open above, but which we had not seen before, and then going down again until we get bewildered.

The details of the mosaics are interesting (Fig. 10). As is already seen from the picture, the design is partly cut and partly laid. The pattern projects about two inches and in the lower part is very peculiar in its angles and in the regularity of its irregularity. The entire structure, even the smallest pieces, is of stone, there being no bricks in the construction. Not only the mosaics, but all other parts of the buildings are put together without any mortar or cement. The fitting is extremely accurate and the edges of the stones, in many cases, are as sharp as if recently cut. The stone is like that found everywhere in the neighboring mountains.

Aside from the mosaics, the ornamentation has largely disappeared. The guide informed us that even within his memory there had been large patches of picture writing like that shown in Fig. 11, but that enterprising tourists had chipped off so much of it that the entrances to the chambers had been walled up as in this picture, so that they are now reached only when the steel gate is unlocked by the guide. By looking closely just above the walled portion, one can see the general character of this ornamentation. The groundwork is a hard plaster painted a dark red, while the tracing is in white.

What the buildings were for is a problem which the tourist is more ready to solve than those who are better informed. Perhaps these are the ruins of a great temple. To one tourist, at least, they seem to have been better adapted to the festivities of a great royal court. But whatever they may have been for, they prove that the people who built them were well advanced in art and architecture.