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 . . .)