Jenny laughed when I asked her if she has experienced earthquakes. “Sí,” she said. “Sí sí sí sí.” She may have told me that she remembers an 8.7 quake, although that number is so high that I must have misunderstood. This reminded me to ask something I’d wondered about when I visited Mitla, the ancient Zapotec religious center, a week ago: “Why are the walls…no se ‘vertical’…up? Por qué no ‘kaboom’ en temblores?” (Demonstrates with dramatic hand gestures.) Jenny was excited by this question. She leaped to the whiteboard and, while telling me that Mitla is her favorite ancient site, sketched a subterranean view of the walls that showed them riding on enormous underground rollers. She told me that the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec people had anticipated earthquakes by putting their buildings on bearings. This may be true, but I have not been able to find any references to it online, and it has the odor of one of those stories that my fellow tour guides used to invent for the customers of Alaska-Yukon Motor Coaches. During our training we were instructed, with no visible trace of irony, to tell anyone who asked about the blue color of glacial ice that it was caused by the peculiar phenomenon of “glacial ice absorbing every part of the spectrum except the blue light, which it reflects.” Some of my compatriots took absurdities of this kind as license to make up anything they chose, so many visitors to Alaska in 1983 returned home with fantastical tales, typically invented on the spot, about the strange habits of bears, moose, and drunks in the Alaskan wilds.
I don’t know why the walls of Mitla are still standing, after all the earthquakes they have endured for the last thousand years. I don’t know why the site looks so little like the other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sites throughout Latin America. I don’t know how many of the intricate geometrical decorations are original and how many of them have been replaced, down through the years, by conservators – and so I don’t know to what degree the ruins I visited were authentic.1 I don’t know why Monte Albán has nothing like the wealth of abstract decoration to be seen at Mitla, or why Mitla has none of the representational art that is so prominent at Monte Albán – although I suspect that this may have to do with the easy access to Mitla, down through the centuries, access that tempted unscrupulous thieves and outraged Dominicans.
Last Saturday morning, I caught a colectivo taxi outside Oaxaca’s cemetery, just as Kerry had instructed me – waiting for a cab whose windshield displayed the word “Mitla” and then holding out one finger to indicate that I was only one passenger. I was soon joined by other men and women, who were often carrying plastic buckets whose contents were covered by scraps of newspaper. The road was lined by small businesses whose functions were typically advertised by hand-lettered signs painted directly onto their concrete walls. Outside one used-car lot, someone was being paid to dance slowly in the awful heat while wearing a tattered fish costume that covered him from head to foot. It took more than half an hour to reach the village of Mitla. My companions in the car told me that I could find the “zona arqueológica” – a phrase I slaughtered, but not so badly that they couldn’t understand what I wanted – by following the street that veered off to the left.The first thing you see as you approach the site is a church, whose front steps were occupied by a wedding party when I got there. This church was built in one of the Zapotec/Mixtec courtyards of Mitla, using stones from the ruins themselves. The marble that used to cover Rome’s Colosseum was used for the facade of St. Peter’s, but the bones of the Colosseum remained standing; when the church at Mitla was built, the structures that supplied the materials were erased.
Mitla is fascinating, but it has nothing like the scale of Monte Albán. The most important ruins are in a relatively small area, protected by a fence and a visitor center, but other, sadder, remains are scattered throughout the village. I took my time, climbing the knee-high stairs of the palace, exploring the tombs, and trying to stay out of the way of the “vlogger” who was busy documenting his visit with a GoPro and a wind-protected mic, and whose entire visit to the site lasted no more than 15 minutes.
I have read that Mitla was the seat of religious power among the Zapotec and Mixtec people, whereas Monte Albán was the seat of political power, but this neat division doesn’t match the archaeology very well. The hilltop site of Monte Albán was occupied by about 300 BC; its power and influence disappeared with so much of Mesoamerica in about 900. Mitla’s origins are difficult to determine – Wikipedia gives a range of more than a thousand years – but it was occupied and functioning as the main religious center of the indigenous people when the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. The most important period at Mitla began in 750, shortly before the collapse of Monte Albán. The two sites do not overlap very neatly in geographic terms, either; they are separated by 30 miles of hard, dry road. The presence of the Mixtec peoples, who had largely supplanted the Zapotec by the time of the Spanish conquest, muddles the timeline and the questions of cultural continuity even further. Maybe the reason that Mitla and Monte Albán seem so dissimilar is that they had very little in common; their people, cultures, spheres of influence, and fundamental concerns were very different.On my walk back from Mitla’s main site, I found myself looking down a road that ended in a stone staircase that could only have been created by pre-Columbian people. No other cultures ever built such unforgiving stairs. This staircase climbed a steep hill that was crowned by a small brick shrine – a one-room building, topped by two small bell towers, looking just like a location in a Sergio Leone movie. I detoured to take a look, laboring up the stairs past a couple of layabouts under a tree and a family that was working its way down, having just laid an offering at the door of the shrine. The hill was obviously the site of an ancient temple, but there was nothing left of it except its outlines in the stone underfoot and one scrap of what I took to be Zapotec geometrical stone decoration, embedded in the tottering masonry on the north wall of the shrine. The building that once stood here may have been the source of the stone that built the church. As I approached the intersection where I hoped to find another colectivo, I walked past an unmarked collection of walls that I realized was another Zapotec site. This was undecorated and ignored by tourists, noteworthy mostly for the enormous blocks that had been used as lintels and for the abandoned courtyards, where weeds struggled up between the paving stones. In 1519 – exactly five hundred years ago – Cortez and his small army were sailing from Cuba to Mexico, and here, on these stones, philosophers and priests, oblivious, used all of their eloquence in debates about how best to serve their people and their gods.
It was a hard week for me. On Wednesday morning, while Manuel was attempting to make me understand the difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses, I realized with surprise that, unless I was very careful, I was about to burst into tears. I managed to get through the class without disgrace, but it wasn’t easy.
I don’t take my own moods very seriously; it is clear to anyone who has ever smoked a joint, taken MDMA, or had more than two beers, that simple chemistry plays a crucial role in one’s subjective experience of the world. Many people who have every reason to complain about their bad luck or their own shortcomings are instead full of passion and joy and self-confidence, whereas people like me, who have scant reason to complain about anything, spend an absurd amount of time mired in dark contemplations about the unregenerate idiocy of history, the reprobates who infest the globe, and especially about myself, perhaps the most unromantic beast to ever urge its squat thick bulk across the face of the protesting earth.2 I know that thoughts of this kind do not reflect reality, or at least do not necessarily reflect reality, or at least do not reflect reality in a manner that justifies my useless obsessions, so I suffer through these spells as I would the experience of having a cold. It is now Saturday – four days after my preterite catastrophe – and already the world seems a little brighter. I toured Oaxaca’s Botanical Garden this morning, where I met a woman from London who once had dinner with Oliver Sacks. Perhaps not everyone is a reprobate.
I also have recent memories whose vibrant colors offer strong evidence for the wisdom of happiness. Last Saturday, having returned from Mitla and spent a little time on the computer, I went out to dinner at an excellent restaurant. I ordered a local amber ale, an ensalada whose description included nopal leaves, and the lasagna I’d seen described on the chalkboard outside. The salad was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten – built sparingly and lovingly, with olive oil, local cheese, tomatoes, nopal, and some unidentifiable herb. And then the lasagna arrived. It had been made using platanos machos instead of noodles, which worked very well both as a surprise and as an entree. And then a band set up and started to play: two people on ukuleles, a man on bass guitar, a triple-jointed xylophoniast, a guy shaking and rasping the jawbone of a horse or a cow, a woman stomping out percussion on a wooden box, and the loud bellowing of all of them. When I left, having enjoyed the music for 20 minutes, I was walking south along Garcia Vigil when I saw a big commotion down by the Templo Santo Domingo – one of those inexplicable parades. I hurried south several blocks to get in front of it and watched the brass band and the enormous doll puppets and the religious symbols and the pretty girls in their long skirts and big, happy smiles as they all swept past. Just as I got home, scattered raindrops began to fall.
Dry weeds struggle up among the flagstones at neglected sites in the village of Mitla, but the people who walked in those courtyards would have been destroyed, and all of their aspirations brought to desolation, whether they and their gods were remembered or not. And each dry stalk is a wonder, too. Perhaps the ignominy of urging my squat thick bulk across the face of the protesting earth is shameful only when I forget what a waste it would be to do otherwise. My mood is improving.
1 – This is the “Ship of Theseus” problem, first propounded by Plutarch:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
2 – This magnificent phrase is lifted from Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. Surprise. I realize that I am not very squat, thick, or unromantic, but the words are so wonderfully venomous and condemnatory that I felt compelled to use them.
3 – An article in the Washington Post from 1982 makes my supposition seem more likely:
There are no active archeological digs in the Mitla-Monte Alban region at this time, “a tragedy” the guides are quick to tell you. They direct attention over the mountains, pointing to gentle, rolling mounds on mountain sides and tops.
“Every one of those hides a temple, a tomb, a key to our most ancient past,” said our guide.