THE more one travels in Mexico the more does one become impressed with the fact that it is a country of old races of ancient civilizations and a wonderful past. Scattered all over the land are the ruins of cities, palaces, temples and fortresses, the architecture and extent of which are amazing to even the present age. Of their builders little or nothing is known. They may have lived thousands of years ago and may even have been contemporary with the people of Nineveh.
The traces of these ancient races are especially numerous in the Valley of Oaxaca, where the plains and hills abound in the remains of their wonderful works. Notable among these are the ruins on the summit of Monte Alban, about five miles from Oaxaca. Monte Alban and other mountains near Oaxaca rise abruptly from the plain like huge pyramids to a height of four thousand. feet or more. On most of them there are traces of prehistoric dwellings or temples. Some scientific men have a theory that the plain in the early days of the world was under water, and that the mountains were then islands inhabited by various semi-civilized tribes.
Early in January, in company with an American friend, I went out to Monte Alban, the foot of which we reached after a hot and dusty ride. Here we took a rough, winding trail which led to the summit, and so steep that our panting horses had to make frequent stops to get their breath. Halfway up the mountain side we noticed what seemed to be the remains of former fortress walls almost completely buried in the earth.
On the summit of the mountain, many acres in extent, were a number of mounds of earth about twenty-five feet high, with steep sides. In all directions were great masses of stones which had formed temples or forts, and below some of these were narrow subterranean passages and immense sculptured blocks. One of these mounds had been excavated, revealing a massively constructed court nine hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. It is of rectangular shape, is built of huge square stones and faces the west. During the excavations at this point some necklaces of agate, fragments of worked obsidian (volcanic, glass) and golden ornaments of fine workmanship were found.
A peon and his boy, who joined us while we were examining the ruins, volunteered to show us the sights. They took us to another mound which had, by the law which has recently come into force, been partly excavated by the government archeologists, who alone are permitted to explore any of the Mexican ruins. Their investigations had disclosed four large, rudely sculptured stone figures in bas relief of more than life size, seated in a row like the figures found in Egyptian temples. Some of them resemble the Aztec figures in the National Museum of Mexico, but one has pronounced Mongolian features and what looks like a Chinaman’s pigtail. “Who are these fellows?” my companion asked the peon. Pointing to them, one after another, he replied, “San Miguel, San Jose, San Pedro and King Montezuma,” the last being the figure with the pig-tail. That is how the peon had solved the problem which perplexes scientific men.
All theories as to the age of these ruins are mere guess-work. Some archaeologists declare them to be thousands of years old perhaps older than Nineveh. Nobody knows. They are traditionally stated to have existed when the Aztecs came to Mexico; but Aztec traditions are quite untrustworthy.
Guided by our peon, we crawled through an opening in one of the mounds. The entrance was built in a perfect square, the builders of Alban not knowing anything of the building of arches with keystones. In the cavernous interior of the mound, lined with solid square stones, we disturbed a number of bats which came whizzing about our heads until we emerged through another square door at the other side.
Nearly all the ruins on Monte Alban are covered with mounds of earth which has collected and covered them in the course of ages. From their position it is surmised that they formed part of an ancient stronghold or place of refuge for the ancient inhabitants in time of war. The fact that a number of stone idols have been found among the ruins seems also to prove that some of the structures were used as temples.
Still more wonderful in size, extent and architecture are the famous ruins of Mitla, a great city of prehistoric times and now the site of a small Indian village. The journey of twenty-five miles from Oaxaca to Mitla is not with-out its discomforts and, like many other Mexican sight-seeing trips, requires a great deal of time, patience and physical endurance. The first stage of the journey is generally accomplished in a little street-car drawn by two mules, which runs to the village of Tula, six miles distant; and it was in this queer little conveyance that I started off on my expedition to Mitla early one morning.
Leaving the cobble-paved streets of Oaxaca, the car went along a country road between fields of sugar-cane and the ubiquitous maguey. Then it crossed a treeless, sun-baked plain which extends to the mountains, relieved only by an occasional green, irrigated field. In the midst of this plain is situated the little village of Tula, a place of adobe huts, cactus hedges and Indians. Rising from among the rather squalid dwellings are the towers of a large, ancient church, brightly tinted and picturesque, embowered in a mass of tropical verdure.
In the churchyard, which is unusually well kept, stands the famous “big tree of Tula,” one of the tree-monarchs of the world. It is an ahuetl or species of cypress, and its age is unknown, but when Cortes came with his army and rested under it, the natives of the district had traditions that it had stood there when their forefathers came to the Valley of Oaxaca. It may have given shade to the builders of Mitla. Truly impressive in size and appearance is the ” big tree.” Six feet from the ground it is over one hundred and fifty-four feet round the trunk, and twenty-eight people with outstretched arms touching each other’s finger-tips can barely complete the circuit. The trunk is a group of compact sections something like that of the cottonwood trees, and towers up to a great height. Standing under the sombre, wide-spreading foliage, one gains an impression of awe and solemnity, a feeling such as might be experienced in the dim cloisters of some ancient cathedral. On one side of this giant of the forest is a tablet with an inscription by Humboldt, the German traveller and scientist, who visited Tula and Mitla in 1806. It has been there so long that the bark has grown over it, obliterating part of the inscription.
A light American buggy, drawn by two mules, and driven by a taciturn peon, took me from Tula to Mitla, a distance of some twenty miles. Our road led over the plain, dotted here and there with Indian pueblos and haciendas ; then on to the quaint old town of Tlacolula, with its cactus-hedged lanes, and pretty little plaza, its beautiful domed church, picturesque old inn and casa municipal. A short stop was made here, and it gave me an opportunity to see the interior of the parish church, which is famous for its altar, the front of which is covered with plates of solid silver, ornamented with elaborate repousse work; the altar candelabra, which are over five feet high, and the exquisite lamps are also of silver.
On leaving Tlacolula we entered a broad valley where hundreds of huge boulders, weighing thousands of tons, were scattered about ; all around was an arid, rocky country. A few miles of this, across the wide, rocky bed of a stream, then dried to a brooklet, but a large river in the rainy season, led to our journey’s end at the hospitable hacienda of Don Felix Quero.
The owner of a typical Mexican hacienda, Don Felix provides accommodation for travellers who visit Mitla; and connected with his house is the general store of the district, of which he is sole proprietor. Here the Indians come to trade for provisions and the luxuries of life and spend their meagre centavos. Don Felix and his swarthy son are kept busy every evening selling such things as a centavo’s worth of coffee or two centavos’ worth of cigarettes and mescal, or half a cent’s worth of lard, sugar, salt or matches. Some of the wealthier Indians the peon millionaires will actually buy five or ten cents’ worth of aguardiente (fire-water) or such an almost unheard-of luxury as a five-cent cigar.
The next morning, in sunshine which was positively grilling, I went out to see the ruins, which are but a short distance from the hacienda. Passing through the village, with its thatched huts almost hidden behind hedges of tall cactus, a few minutes’ walk along the dusty road brought me to the wonderful structures of prehistoric Mexico.
Extending for some distance were mounds of earth, masses of fallen masonry, huge blocks and piles of debris; in the midst of all this was a series of long, low buildings of massive stone bearing a striking resemblance to the temples of ancient Egypt. Some were almost demolished; others were in a fairly good state of preservation.
The Mitla ruins consist of four distinct groups facing the four points of the compass, and which were originally of the same general style, the north group being the best preserved. In both the north and south groups are f our-walled courts built round a central patio and also having their lines agreeing with the compass points. Along the entire front of each of these buildings is a broad, stone-paved terrace broken by wide flights of steps which lead to square Egyptian doorways. But in marked contrast to the structures of early Egypt the outer walls of the edifices at Mitla are composed of oblong panels decorated with typical Grecques and arabesques, about fifteen geometrical designs being employed. When viewed at a distance, these seem to be carved in the stonework; but a closer inspection reveals that the effect has been produced by thousands of small pieces of stone let into the face of the building and fitted together so accurately that no cement was required. In some cases the lower parts of the walls are faced with rows of stones so finely polished that they have the appearance of having been made in a mould.
Wonderfully impressive is the simple dignity of these prehistoric structures, the architecture and construction of which have won the admiration of every archaeologist who has visited Mitla. “The walls,” says an American technical writer, “present the appearance of preserving the most absolutely pure lines, and one is filled with astonishment when it is considered what a number of centuries have passed since these pretentious palaces or temples were built. The excellent workmanship shown in these structures is such that, with the remarkable precision displayed in the cutting of the stones and their elaborate ornamentation, they must in their prime have presented a wonderful aspect.”
One of the most impressive features of the ruins is the Hall of Monoliths, a great corridor extending through the entire length of the north court, a vast structure which covers eight thousand square feet. Standing in a row in the centre of this hall are six massive monolithic columns, each over eleven feet high and about eight feet round, each of them quite plain and without any pedestal or capital. From here a dark passage leads into a second hall surrounded by four smaller rooms, one of which, known as the Audience Chamber, is beautifully decorated in stone mosaic and is in almost perfect condition. In each of these rooms are square niches faced with heavy stone, somewhat of the piscina type, and believed to have been shrines in which were placed small figures of gods. In one of the rooms, called the Hall of Mosaics, which has inlaid ornamentation of exquisite design, the walls in some places show signs of having been covered with a hard plaster and richly colored, some traces of dark red paint still remaining.
The ancient builders not only used stone but bricks composed of adobe and pulverized rock, possessing wonderful durability. All the structures are decorated in the same intricate manner; all are without windows; and each is entered by three large square doorways side by side, the lintels being formed of huge monoliths eighteen feet long, five feet wide and four feet high. In architecture and general appearance the ruins of Mitla differ entirely from those in other parts of Mexico, and are also distinct in being unadorned by any human or animal figures. As in other Mexican ruins, however, there are no arches; for the architects of Mitla had not reached the stage of arch designing, and were therefore obliged to avoid curves.
The work of the Mitla builders seems amazing when it is borne in mind that it was done without machinery and with the crudest implements; for the only tools that have been found on the spot are chisels and axes of untempered copper. Under these circumstances the shaping and hoisting of the huge blocks into position and the fitting of the stone mosaics were really marvellous achievements. So wonderfully, too, were these huge stones put together that all the earthquakes that have taken place in Mexico in even historic times have not sufficed to move them from their position.
Not far from the Hall of Monoliths is a large, dilapidated structure, adjoining which is a comparatively modern church, obviously built from the ancient materials. This ruin was once the largest of all, and has been estimated as covering a space of nearly three hundred feet in length and six hundred in width. The enclosing walls were six feet thick. One portion of this temple, if such it were, was formerly used as a stable, its beautiful frescoed walls being whitewashed. A few faint vestiges of the decorations still remain, mostly undecipherable hieroglyphics in conventional life-forms, apparently painted with the same red pigment as is noticeable in the Audience Chamber. These are the only inscriptions at Mitla.
In 1902 an entrance which had been blocked up was discovered in the south court, which, being opened, was found to lead into a subterranean cruciform chamber some thirty or forty feet below the floor of the main building. This crypt has the same style of decoration as in the upper chambers, except that in this instance the Grecque pattern, instead of being formed by mosaic, is carved in the solid stone. This cross-shaped chamber and several others which exist at Mitla were used as tombs, and in each instance their entrances face the west, the idea of the ancient people having probably been that the souls of the dead journeyed to the regions of the setting sun. In some of the tombs entire skeletons or charred bones were found, also stone or clay idols, funereal urns which had contained incense and various other relics ; but the chamber last discovered had evidently been rifled of its contents at some early period.
Until recent years the ruins at Mitla were treated in much the same way as were many old English castles a few generations ago. Beautiful structures were demolished by vandal hands to provide building material for the modern village of Mitla, and some of the stonework was even carted into the City of Oaxaca. The Mexican government at last took charge of the ruins and put a stop to the work of destruction. Government archaeologists are now engaged in restoring some of the ancient buildings and superintending the excavations which are taking place in their vicinity.
The origin of the great structures at Mitla is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows or is ever likely to know who the builders were or at what period these mighty edifices were raised. Their massive walls are to-day in much the same condition as when first visited by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century; the Aztecs at that time could tell practically nothing concerning the ancient builders. The re-semblance of the ruins to those of Egypt has, however, led many savants to believe that the Western world was visited centuries before its discovery by Columbus. Prescott has declared the structures to be “the work of a people who passed away under the assaults of barbarism at a period prior to all traditions, leaving no name or trace of their existence save these monuments which have become the riddle of later generations.” According to some authorities, the builders were the earliest races of Mexico, the Nahuas or Toltecs, and the age of the ruins has been variously estimated at from two to five thousand years. The name Mitla is said to be a Mitlan-Nahuan word meaning “the place of the dead.”
Several recent investigators are of the opinion, however, that the structures were raised at a much later date by the Zapotecan race, from whom the present natives of the country, the Zapotec Indians, are descended. The Zapotecs, who were there when the Spaniards came, have always called Mitla in their dialect Zyaboa, meaning “the centre of rest.” They certainly have much the same type of features as those found in the stone figures and pottery which are unearthed among the ruins, but there the resemblance ends; for the modern Zapotecs of Oaxaca are typical Indian peons, while the ancient builders of Mitla had evidently made great advances in the arts of civilization.
Fully as mysterious as the identity of the builders is the purport of the structures themselves. Whether they were temples, palaces or fortresses is never likely to be known with any degree of certainty. The general opinion, how-ever, is that they were temples, and this gains support from the fact that tombs have been discovered beneath several of the buildings. The ruins are also supposed to mark the site of a great city of prehistoric times, the entire valley being strewn with the remains of walls and columns. Idols of clay and jars of terra-cotta are found everywhere, and earthenware drain-pipes have also been dug up. There is every evidence, too, that the now arid valley once supported an immense population.
I spent the entire day in the midst of these mighty ruins, and would gladly have journeyed twice the distance from Mexico City to see them; for the famous Palace of the Alhambra, with all its glories, is scarcely more imposing. As I stood in the great Hall of Monoliths on the evening of my visit, its mysterious walls touched by the rays of the setting sun, I recreated, in fancy, the great structures. I could imagine the stately march of princes and warriors through the long corridors or the wild chants of priests engaged in their sacred rites. What a vista of the days when the world was young, mystic primeval times when
“Wal, I’ve seen Mitla, and I’ll admit it’s quite a place; but if some of our young men from the Tec’ couldn’t have taught them Toltecs a few things, then I’ve lost my reckoning.”
I turned and found myself confronted by an elderly American woman, thin, wiry and determined, who stood, umbrella in hand, regarding the line of ancient monoliths with a defiant air, as if challenging all the past races of Mitla to dispute her word.
“Yes, sir, I rather guess that some of our young men from the Tee’ could have given ‘em a few wrinkles.”
“What is the Tee’ ?” I ventured to ask.
The old lady gave me a withering look which said as plain as words, “Well, you’re about as ignorant as a Toltec.”
“Of course I mean the Technological Institoot of Chicago,” she replied. “Why, some of our young men from that institootion are simply astonishing the world, and if they couldn’t turn out a better column than that, well, then they ain’t got no business a-getting their diplomas as architects.” Here she gave the offending column a re-sounding whack with her umbrella, as if to show her disapproval of its primitive lines.
“They knew how to build, them Toltecs did,” she continued, a little more leniently, “but, law me, the world has been a-moving since their time. They couldn’t have built a skyscraper to save their necks. Why, our young men learn all about building them big twenty-story buildings, and I reckon them Toltecs would just open their eyes if they could see some of ‘em.” With this parting shot at the past, the tourist lady disappeared through the ancient doorway. Alas, poor builders of Mitla, how little did you imagine that your efforts would one day be eclipsed by the young men from the Chicago Teo’.
On returning to the hacienda, I found that the old lady had just arrived with her son, a gloomy, morose youth who wore spectacles, and was probably a graduate of the famous institution. I have frequently met tourists of this type in my wanderings. None of them seem to enjoy travelling or the sights that they see, and why they ever travel I have never been able to discover.
After viewing the wonders of ancient Mitla, it seems impossible to believe that the Zapotec Indians now inhabiting the valley are in any way related to the builders of old whose works astonish the present age. Living in small huts of adobe, the men follow the usual peon occupations of farm laboring, and the herding of cattle, sheep and goats ; the women are kept busy with their everlasting tortilla-making and clothes-washing. The Zapotecs are of short, stocky, muscular build, but are not bad looking, and do not have the flat noses which distinguish so many of the Indians further north. In some districts they speak very little Spanish, the use of the Zapotec dialect being very general.
A number of pagan superstitions and practices still survive among them, a belief in witchcraft being very general ; they also have some peculiar medical customs. Once in the market-place at Oaxaca two aged and wrinkled Indian dames were pointed out to me as great curanderas or wise women. Most of the Indian communities have no other doctors.
These curanderas usually claim to have a great knowledge of medical science and make use of some very queer remedies. According to their superstitions, air can enter the human system through blows or unusually vigorous sneezing, and will then cause nervous tremblings, sore eyes and swellings. To effect a cure, lotions, plasters and bandages are employed. When the alimentary canal is obstructed, it is because undigested food has adhered to the stomach or has formed into little balls which rattle about in the intestines. Heroic treatment is needed for this condition, and a drop of quicksilver is usually prescribed, which, swallowed at a gulp, will generally effect a cure or kill the patient. Tiricia, the word used for homesickness, melancholia or insomnia, is caused by a subtle vapor produced by the action of the moon and dew, and is absorbed through the pores. A sensible prescriptionchange of scene, good company and tonics is usually given for this. Mal de ojo or evil eye causes the sufferer to fade away or die of inanition, and is a disease common among children. To draw away the attention of the “evil eye,” bright, attractive objects are hung near the patient. For a child who is slow in learning to talk, a diet of boiled swallows is often pre-scribed. Certain colors are supposed to work wonderful cures, and in cases of paralysis blue and red beads ground fine are sometimes administered. The curandera is also called upon to prepare love potions and to supply poisons, which will cause delirium, insanity and even death.
The Zapotecs have a number of strange dances, including the Devil Dance, which usually takes place on the feast-days of the saints to whom their villages are dedicated. On these occasions some of the dancers have their bodies painted to represent skeletons, and also wear strange feathered head-dresses. An American acquaintance who had come from a mining camp some thirty miles from Oaxaca told me that he attended one of these dances, which took place in an Indian pueblo. The Zapotec ballroom was an open space near the village, and here the dance went on by the light of a blazing fire, the dancers, men and women, being arrayed in all kinds of fantastic garb. “But what astonished me,” said the American, “were three Indians dressed in old-fashioned French zouave uniforms. One had evidently belonged to an officer, and was covered with gold lace. To my surprise, I learned that the fathers of these Indians had stripped the uniforms from the bodies of French soldiers after one of the battles near Oaxaca in 1865. The uniforms had been carefully preserved, and the cloth must have been wonderfully good to have been in such sound condition after so many years.
“The Indian who wore the officer’s uniform said to me : `When my father took it, there were big gold pieces like American gold coins on it. My father sold these at the pawnshop. There was also a gold cross, and that he gave to our padre.’ ” A strange ending for the uniform and decorations of a gallant officer of Napoleon the Third !