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Mitla: A Glimpse into Oaxaca’s Past

by planetnomad on June 11, 2015


Mesoamerican culture was always mindful of the dual nature of life and death. In the state of Oaxaca the Zapotec indigenous group was no exception to this line of thinking. Prior to the Spanish arrival they built the impressive Monte Albán in the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Its primary purpose was more political and cultural than anything else. It wasn’t until the Post Classic period around the year 850 that Mitla was built to celebrate and explore this duality of life and death.

Situated approximately 45 kilometers southeast of the city of Oaxaca, Mitla, which in Nahuatl means “place of death”, was a thriving center of worship prior to the Spanish arrival in the early 1500s. This was the chosen site for the early Zapotec priests to provide the “gateway” to the underworld. It was their belief that through ceremonial practice and human sacrifice, the transcendence from the living to the dead could occur undisrupted.

Thanks to excavations by Alfonso Caso, the same archaeologist to work at Monte Albán, part of this site was unearthed in the 1920s and 1930s. Closer to the present, excavations have been performed as late as the 1980s and now serve as a site to visit and explore.

This archaeological site, which was recognized by UNESCO in 2011, is a collection of five areas or groups of buildings, two of which are the most visited and popular.


From the south to the north are:

South Group:  This group lies south of the Mitla River and was primarily used for ceremonies. It’s surrounded by plazas and has not been fully restored so access to the public is limited.

Adobe Group:  Lies north of the Mitla River and was also utilized as a ceremonial structure. It is characterized by courtyards and elevated surfaces.

Arroyo Group:  Like the Adobe group, it lies north of the Mitla River and consists of a couple of structures. Its primary function was to house higher nobles involved in the ceremonial practices of the day.

Columns Group:  This cluster of buildings is also known as the “Palace of the Columns”. This is one of the best restored and most frequented of all five groups. It was here, among its grand roofs supported by monolithic columns and spacious courtyards where the nobles worshipped and were even buried. Scattered throughout this complex are walls with intricately designed friezes made up of cut, polished stone in the form of the Greek symbol for perpetual life. They are called “grecas” in Spanish. It’s believed that these finely constructed mosaics are held together by nothing else but the weight of the adjacent stones, for mortar is thought to have been absent from their construction.


Church Group:  Similar to the Columns group, this area is the most popular and visited in Mitla. Broad courtyards, mosaic-covered walls and erect volcanic stone columns, also characterize it but its distinguishing feature is the presence of its red-domed Church of San Pablo. When the Spanish arrived and acknowledged this site as being the ‘portal to the underworld’ they chose to destroy most of the complex and built a church out of the ruins over this area. Today, it is this placement of indigenous ingenuity and creativity next to Colonial dominance that lends this site its signature appearance.




  •  Mosaic design of “grecas” is unique to Mitla.
  •  Archaeological site is second in importance in the state of Oaxaca to Monte Albán.
  •  Mixteca group occupied site alongside Zapotecs.
  •  Located in a valley in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca.


From Oaxaca City there are “colectivos” or taxis that take you from the intersection of HWY 190 and Calzada Eduardo Vasconcelos near the baseball park. Another option is to take a bus from the second-class bus station near the Central de Abastos.








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