Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mitla, 6.

Are there other entrances?

If there is an 18th-Century church sitting on top of the entrance to the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings, effective closing it to us, is there another entrance?

What of that first story I heard, that there was an underground passageway from Monte Alban to Mitla?  No one knows where it is, of course, but ought that discourage us?  Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive tradition of underground passageways connecting sacred Indian sites.  In the Yucatán I was told the same thing about their sacred sites and also that, unfortunately, no such passageway had ever been found.  Of course that was a few years ago, and since then extensive natural underground passageways have been found in the limestone bedrock of the Yucatán.  It is true that they do not actually connect any sacred sites, but they are down there and are far from fully explored.

In the libraries at the Welte and the Grafica, trudging through the long march of later primary and secondary sources  --  which were interesting without being that helpful  --  I discovered Mexico South, a book about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by the artist Miguel Covarrubias, which delighted me because I remembered him from my childhood as the illustrator whose distinctive work  --  unlike anything I had ever seen before  --  appeared in some of the high-tone magazines my father had around the house.  His book was a momento of that more gracious time when anthropology was not the exclusive reserve of the professoriat, but something that any well-educated and motivated person could respectably try his hand at.  One of many stories that Corvarrubias told was that of the Mixtec hero Condoy, cornered not far from here by his enemies, who fled into a cave and escaped through its vast tunnels to a distant place.  The Indians thought these tunnels went somewhere, though we have no clear evidence that they ever actually followed them very far.  And besides, for the Indians such things were not about geology but about something much more important: about their relationship to the domain of the gods from which their ancient ancestors had emerged and to which they return them in death.

There is not far away a site whose Indian name, Zetobaa means “the other sepulcre”, an entrance to the Underworld where were buried important persons not imminent enough to be interred at Mitla with the kings, priests and heroes who died in battle.  While this entrance is alledgedly connected to the Underworld, it was not suggested that it also went to Mitla.  There was another ancient site, visiteded by a friar in 1630, who described a large entrance into a mountain with painted walls, wide enough for two horsemen to enter abreast, which the Indians told him communicated by underground passageway to Mitla.  I find no reference to any archæological work having been done there, and it is in an area where I was told that marijuana is grown and visitors are unwelcome.

In the limestone mountains of the Zapotec Sierra there are caves everywhere.  Most are undoubtedly shallow and go nowhere; but most are also unexplored.  That we know of, at least.  But the main north-south highway goes right up the Valley and I have no doubt that narcotraficantes, who cultivate cannabis in the rugged hills, have investigated some of these caves, and may well feel proprietary about them.

But if the Tomb of the Zapotec Kings is there, underneath the thick stone foundations of the Church of San Pablo, just tantalizingly beyond our reach, what would we find if we ever reached it?

(the story will conclude . . .)

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