Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán
Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The nearby city of Oaxaca, which is built on a grid pattern, is a good example of Spanish colonial town planning. The solidity and volume of the city's buildings show that they were adapted to the earthquake-prone region in which these architectural gems were constructed.
Three distinct cultural properties are located in the valley of Oaxaca -the historic centre of the city founded in 1529 by the Spanish, the pre-Hispanic archaeological site of Monte Albán, 4 km south-west of the town, and the village of Cuilapan, 12 km away, where the Dominicans undertook, in the mid-16th century, to build a vast monastery.
Monte Albán is an outstanding example of a pre-Columbian ceremonial centre in the middle zone of present-day Mexico, which was subjected to influences from the north - first from Teotihuacan, later the Aztecs - and from the south, the Maya. With its pelota court, magnificent temples, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions, Monte Albán bears unique testimony to the successive civilizations occupying the region during the pre-Classic and Classic periods. For more than a millennium, it exerted considerable influence on the whole cultural area. Latter-day Oaxaca is a perfect example of a 16th-century colonial town. Its monumental heritage is one of the richest and most coherent in the area that was known as New Spain.
Among some 200 pre-Hispanic archaeological sites inventoried in the valley of Oaxaca, the Monte Albán complex best represents the singular evolution of a region inhabited by a succession of peoples: the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The zone to the west of Oaxaca includes three principal ensembles: Atzompa, El Gallo and Monte Albán. The latter, built on a 500 m elevation overlooking the valley, gave its name to a remarkable civilization which was probably the first urban civilization in the Americas. Olmec cultural influences from Monte Albán I phase can be found in the 140 engraved stone slabs of the monument Los Danzantes, and reused in several later edifices built on the side of the central esplanade.
The main part of this impressive ceremonial centre which forms a 300 m esplanade running north-south with a platform at either end was constructed during the Monte Albán II (c. 300 BC-AD 100) and the Monte Albán III phases. Phase II corresponds to the urbanization of the site and the domination of the environment by the construction of terraces on the sides of the hills, and the development of a system of dams and conduits. In 800 the town had more than 50,000 inhabitants.
The influences of the Teotihuacan culture can be felt in the superhuman, abstract aspect of a massive architectural style which used great volumes combined in a grandiose fashion with immense open spaces. However, unlike Teotihuacan, whose valley location facilitated its layout, Monte Albán was literally carved out from a solid mountain, in various stages spanning 1,500 years. Man-made terraces and esplanades thus replaced the natural unevenness of the site with a whole new sacred topography of pyramids, and artificial knolls and mounds. The ensemble began to decline around 800, when the Mixtecs, descending from the mountains, threatened the Zapotecs living in the valley. The ultimate phases of Monte Albán IV and V were marked by the transformation of the sacred Olmec city into a fortified town.
Towards 1400, the Mixtec chiefs ordained that they be buried in the ancient tombs of the ceremonial centre. Tomb No. 7 at Monte Albán, explored in 1932, is the most famous example of this practice of reuse. It was there that the 'Treasure of Monte Albán' - a fabulous collection of 500 objects - was found. The collection is now housed in the State Museum of Oaxaca. A short time before the arrival of the conquistadores, the Aztecs took control of the valley and founded the stronghold of Huaxyacac. This place name survived, in 1521, when the Spanish erected the fort of Antequera de Oaxaca on the same site.
The modern city has fortunately retained its historic centre. A total of 1,200 historic monuments, spared by the evolution of the city, has been inventoried and listed. The major religious monuments (cathedral, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, San Agustín, San Filipo Neri, Soledad, etc.), the superb patrician town houses (home of Cortés), and whole streets lined with other dwellings combine to create a harmonious cityscape, and reconstitute the image of a former colonial city whose monumental aspect has been kept intact. Fine architectural quality also characterizes the 19th-century buildings in this city that was the birthplace of Benito Juarez and which, in 1872, adopted the name of Oaxaca de Juarez.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC