I recently visited the two archeological sites in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mitla, was the religious capital of the Zapotec civilization and Monte Alban was the political capital. The ruins of these ancient cities are each breathtaking but for different reasons. At Monte Alban, sitting high on the north platform that overlooks the entire Oaxaca basin I ducked out of a whipping wind and took shelter against an 1500 year old rock wall. Feeling the warm sun on my face I sunk into the kind of reverie, kind of like the ones the “Choose your own adventure books” I remember from childhood—my favorite was the one about the Mayan pyramids. I found myself comparing the two ancient cities which had once bustled like Oaxaca city does today—no doubt full of fruit vegetable sellers, meats, tacos, textiles, sculptures, tools and trinkets sounds and smells and colorful sights. A series of questions burned into my mind. It struck me that these two ancient cities embodied something fundamental about the character of their purposes (if a city can have a purpose).
My mind reached 3,000 miles away towards the Great Basin of California, Nevada and Utah. How does traveling to these sites in Mexico inform my understanding of the Great Basin? My instinct tells me that there it a clear connection but my mind is clouded by overlapping objectives. Looking out onto the cascading plazas below I understood why Michael Heizer’s felt the need to build City. Although I have never seen it I imagine it to be structured like these ancient plazas–a kind of futuristic Monte Alban–a modern ruin.
What purpose does an already abandoned city serve? How does spirituality manifest in architecture differently than politics? How does a ruin inform us? It is pregnant with human information and with mystery but is no longer useful per se. Is an afterlife simply existence beyond life? Because the Albers’ saw shapes and lines and understood negative spaces in new ways precisely from looking at these pyramids, plazas and tombs I knew that I too would find something here and this is why I came.
Have North Americans been looking to Mexico for millennia? At Chaco there is a petroglyph of a macaw at one of the Southern posts. The Anasazi and the Zaoptecs had advanced systems for reading the stars. Surely they shared their knowledge and understanding of the heavens. Did the know how to build Chaco originate in Mesoamerica? If so than who made the long voyages from North to South?
Driving by Yagul a cave dwelling site near Mitla that dates back 80,000 years I gaze out at a giant petroglyph overlooking the highway. I long to get out of the van and trek over to the labyrinth of interconnected caves that span these hillsides but am on a tour, and not feeling all that well. I remember the guide at the botanical garden telling us that there are seeds of corn, beans, potatoes and chili found in these caves that dates back to the first known agriculture in the Americas and possibly the world.
When we arrive at Mitla we pass through town, along the skinny cobblestone streets. It is Sunday and the whole town is watching at a basketball game being played inside a pavilion. A few tattooed youngsters sit outside a tienda looking bored. They eye the tour bus as we pass through. You can see the new town that is built on the older pyramids. Mitla has ben occupied continuously since ancient times. Arriving at the ancient site, it is modest in scale, but the masonry is out of this world–literally. The cloud people who are buried there are said to enter the clouds from that portal. There are many friezes that overhang the high rectangular rock walled structures. Each one is different with geometric patterning that folds back in on itself in masterful positive and negative relief. There is no mortar between the stones. They are perfectly cut and placed, together like a perfect puzzle. I am transfixed on the friezes—and kept trying to quickly draw one after the other before we had to move on and let another group into the tight little rooms designed for people half our size.
At Monte Alban I thought about the differences between the two capitals, one political and the other spiritual. Monte Alban has vistas and grandeur. Mitla has intimacy and a sense of infinity that came from the interlocking patterning of the cut and layered stones. At Mitla there is geometric art. At Monte Alban there are steals with carvings of the human form. There are no human renderings at Mitla. Monte Alban has giant plazas, width and height and vantage points. It has a great astronomical pyramid that was angled at a diagonal to all of the others in the great plaza but no human life. Mitla, call it the spiritual center, has continuity, organized abstraction. Each has virtue, and a particular character. If only I could stay longer…At Monte Alban I make sure to skip the tour. I sit and draw all day, missing the bus home and I end of up hitchhiking. I think perhaps this has been a pinnacle moment in my life, a momentous day where grandeur and intimacy coexist together in my mind, neither cancels out the other but slowly reveals the architectonic mysteries of this Great Basin Interview.
Plaza on North Platform. Monte AlbanView from South Platform, Monte Alban