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 . . .)