Friday, July 29, 2011

Mitla, 4.

I poked around Mitla for several days, examining walls and taking photographs and making drawings, prodding foundations with my walking stick, looking for trapdoors and tugging on suspicious wall sconces and finally decided that there was nothing I was doing at the site to find the tomb that generations of Zapotec school boys couldn’t do better and undoubtedly already had.  So I decided to do something I was more competent at, and went looking for more books.

Burgoa’s 1674 Geografica I had already found in the library at the Grafica.  I next went to the library at Instituto Welte, in those days in a warren of small rooms around a central patio in the interior of a colonial building near the church of Santo Domingo.  While the Welte is now in new quarters and even has a website, its library was at that time still dark and cramped and maps and field notes and unpublished papers were being unpacked from wooden crates and I thought the whole thing delightfully romantic.
    The Institute is the creation of a retired American admiral who came to Mexico, took a degree in anthropology and concentrated on the cultural history of the Valley of Oaxaca.  At the time of his death, his personal library totaled some 6,000 volumes, which went to make up the core of the Institute.
    In those days I had not discovered the joys of online research and so everything was done with pencil and yellow pad and looking for books and rummaging through boxes and folders of loose papers and getting not quite as dirty as you might if you were out in the field digging, and of course you were sitting down in the shade and there probably weren’t any scorpions under the library table, though being Mexico you probably ought not count on that.
    I knew that there had been a report on Mitla prepared toward the end of the 16th Century in response to a general inquiry as to conditions in the Spanish realms and with the help of the efficient German librarian I found La Relación de Tlacolula y Mitla, which apparently told everything the local authorities thought worth knowing about Mitla in 1580.
    The first thing I noticed was that Mitla got second billing, and as I read the document I noticed that the Relación does not mention the burial of kings, the presence of a high priest or anything else recognizable as Mitla in preHispanic times.  It seems entirely concerned with conditions in 1580, when the cult appears no longer to be practiced. 
    Which brought me back to a problem with Burgoa’s lively account.   I am a duffer at Spanish and while I have no problem with a newspaper I realize that there might be nuances in a 17th Century text that were above my paygrade and, furthermore, that Burgoa may have had theological reservations about periods, as he so seldom used any, and his description of the events at Mitla were a few hundred words embedded in a 4,000-word sentence.  That said, it was clear to me that the good friar was not claiming to describe anything he saw or took part in, but was telling a story of something that had happened at some unspecified point in the past.
    This suggests that the lively conditions described by Burgoa had ceased by his time, supporting the possibility that the incident Burgoa described occurred prior to that date, perhaps as early as Toribio’s visit in 1533. 
    Another reason to consider this possibility is that the friars he described did not cover themselves with glory and Burgoa, a Dominican, may have been enjoying a story at the expense of Toribio’s Franciscans.
    This suggests to me the strong possibility that the Zapotec’s entrance to the Underworld was closed by Toribio’s party in 1533, and Mitla, known already to be in decline, lost its remaining purpose and was sinking into obscurity a half-century later when the Relación was prepared.

Which may give us an idea when the entrance to the Underworld might have been closed, but of course we still don’t know where it was.

(The story will continue . . .)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mitla, 3.

Driving south along the Pan American Highway toward Mitla, I noticed the hills riddled with caves.  The volcanic stone (which overlays limestone) is apparently cavity-prone (as limestone also famously is).  The long cavern said to connect to Monte Alban could have been an ancient lava tube; many are known in Mexico and some are quite long.

There is a church in the center of the modern town, across the river from the ruins, but I was told that it had not been popular with the Indians, who had preferred to make observances on the patio of the northern-most site, which is the reason that the present church of San Pablo was built there.  The present church, built in the ruins, was not there in Burgoa’s time, but was constructed almost ninety years later, in 1760.  I was told in Mitla that there was a tradition that when the church was built a large hole had to be filled.  These are just stories I was told when I was there and I have no scholarly authority behind them.

Given the importance of the great hole as an entrance to the Underworld, the reason for Mitla’s prominence, it is only natural that I should want to see this place.

At Eleusis in Greece there was also an ancient portal to the Underworld, the Ploutonion, through which Hades had carried Persephone to his dark domains.  When I was at Eleusis I of course craved admission to the dark realms and went there and was disappointed to find a shallow cave littered with empty plastic bottles.  I assumed I would find some similar disappointment at Mitla, but I did not.

Indeed, I did not find anything subterranean at Mitla.  This “gloomy concavity” which Burgoa had speculated might have been either a natural phenomenon or a relic of the Biblical flood  --  this portal to the Underworld whose access was controlled by a high priest who brokered power among the neighboring kings  --  was nowhere to be found.

There was neither a hole nor a sealed-up hole.  There was nothing.

I read in a guidebook that the royal tombs were in a chamber beneath the Palace of the Columns, but this chamber in no way resembles Burgoa’s description.  There was no broad staircase or columned hall or street nor anyplace a chill wind might arise to blow out their torches. The chamber pointed out to us today is short and cramped and the air is hot and still, and it is so shallow that light from the entrance reaches the back of the chamber.  The Spaniards knew what a tomb looked like and this is not what they were describing.  Even the archæologist who first surveyed the chamber remarked that it did not much resemble Burgoa’s description.

So where is that place, that royal tomb, that frightening portal to the Underworld that Burgoa described in 1674?

(the story will continue . . .)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mitla, 2

Mitla is a small town about thirty miles east and south from Oaxaca.  Its name is interpreted to mean “the place of the dead,” indicating that there are tombs there.  It was settled perhaps 10,000 years ago and is the oldest settled place in the valley.  Before the coming of the Spanish it was an important town and was the burial place of the Zapotec kings, the last of which occurred in 1529, at the very beginning of the colonial era.

The archæological site is located a short distance from the center of the modern town, across a shallow river on higher ground to the north, and consists of five groups of three or four long, low structures on raised platforms, some decorated with elaborate stonework.  The northern-most, situate on the highest ground, is today called the Group of the Catholic Establishment and contains the church of San Pablo, built in 1780.

The Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente visited Mitla in 1533, when it was still apparently in use, and left a description of its monumental architecture.  A Relación dealing with the inhabitants and their practices was submitted in 1580, in response to Phillip II’s general inquiry as to conditions in his vast realms.  Then, a century later, we have Burgoa’s account, describing its architecture and the religious practices of its inhabitants. These three sources account for most of what is known of Mitla’s early history.

In 1936, the American anthropologist Elsie Parsons translated its name more poetically as the Town of Souls and another translation of the Zapotec original would read it as the House of Souls, but for a place so named, curiously few tombs have been found there.

(The story will continue . . .)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


I had gone with Miguel to the great Zapotec site at Monte Alban, just a few miles outside of Oaxaca.  It was early in the morning and the few other people there were swallowed up in the immensity of the place and it was as if we had it to ourselves which, pleasing as it might be to a certain sort of romantic, is not at all authentic to what it once had been, and I listened to Miguel’s descriptions and tried to fill the empty, grassy space with a teeming multitude of Indians dressed in fancy-patterned textiles and bright feathers and the platforms topped with tented pavilions and flags and here and there the glint of gold, and charcoal braziers and copal incense smoking the air and the babble of voices and the sounds drums and flutes and whistles and the noises of animals and the shriek of birds, instead of the bare, silent stone work that was all there was left, and so much of that with tell-tale black pebbles set in the mortar to indicate that it was an archæologist’s reconstruction, their best-guess as to what had once been there but now lost. 

Miguel was talking about the Indian cult of the underworld and mentioned that there was a tradition of an underground passageway connecting Monte Alban with the ancient burial place of the Zapotec kings about thirty-five miles away, at Mitla.  No such a tunnel has ever been found, he said, but the historian Burgoa, an early friar, described an entry into the tomb at Mitla where they found a pillared chamber and broad highway, but were frightened away when a wind came up and blew out their torches.  He said that I could find the account in Burgoa’s Geográfica, of which there was a copy in the library at the Art Institute.  And so I was out early the next morning to the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, and in its long, narrow library I found a beautiful facsimile edition of fray Francisco de Burgoa’s Geográfica Descripción, printed in Mexico City in the year 1674, and there I found the story.

A party of friars came to the city and, though the Gospel had been preached there, they found the natives still wed to their former, lamentable practices and worshiping the devil, particularly at a great opening in the earth which they vainly supposed connected to the domain of the dead in the underworld.  Intending to dispel this ignorance, the friars, full of zeal, took torches and entered this “gloomy concavity” where they descended wide steps and found themselves in a hall whose ceiling was supported by great pillars and there was what appeared to be a broad street.  They continued their descent.  The air was full of noxious odors. Then suddenly a chill wind came up and extinguished their torches, plunging them into darkness, whereupon the friars retreated in great haste and ordered this “infernal postillion”  --  this backdoor to hell  --  sealed up, which Burgoa tells us was done “con cal y canto,” with cement and song.

Well, now.  That was exciting.

(The story will continue . . .)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

a scribbling traveler

I am a scribbling traveler, one more of many things that date me.  I keep a physical journal and I write real letters.  An e-mail from Tuxtla Guiterrez looks pretty much like one from Tulsa, but an actual letter, with exotic stamps and mysterious stains and blotted ink and words crossed out and looking like an iguana might have chewed on it: that is a gift for a friend back home. 
    Nothing from the bright-lit workshops of Steve Jobs compares to an old travel journal with its entries made on the spot, its ink blurred by rain and perspiration, its handwriting reflecting my mental state, rumors heard and fleeting conversations and what I saw, what things cost and what was the exchange, quotidian bother interleaved with labels and wrappers, banknotes and boat tickets, with hand-drawn maps and sketches and bar checks and squashed insects.  The confidant of my travels, who was there with me at the time and can take me back to Elsewhere & Elsewhen whenever I want to go.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

some dreamy, tropical place

I would be happier in some dreamy, tropical place.  Some sleepy, obsolete town with good coffee and unreliable electricity, with old buildings and deep shadows and the sound of a parrot outside my window and my only effort  --  such as it is  --  to find exactly the right word to write in my journal or in a letter that, stained and crumpled and exotically-franqued, may or may not reach its recipient sometime next month.  Like Levi-Strauss’ tropics, I am probably not so much a romantic as merely out-of-date.

Some would go for the beaches and some for the shops in town. I would go for a room off a garden in a large old house on a side street where a cat sleeps in the cool shadows and a lizard scurries across a tile floor.  Where it is always quiet and there is no one around and doors I haven’t noticed before open in the back of the mind.