Mitla is the second most important archeological site in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and the most important of the Zapotec culture. The site is located 44 km from the city of Oaxaca. in the upper end of the Tlacolula Valley, one of the three that form the Central Valleys Region of the state. The archeological site is within the modern municipality of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. While Monte Albán was most important as the political center, Mitla was the main religious center. The name Mitla is derived from the Nahuatl name Mictlán, which was the place of the dead or underworld. Its Zapotec name is Lyobaa, which means “place of rest.” The name Mictlán was Hispanicized to Mitla by the Spanish. However, what makes Mitla unique among Mesoamerican sites is the elaborate and intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that cover tombs, panels, friezes and even entire walls. These mosaics are made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. No other site in Mexico has this.
Mitla is one of many well-preserved archeological sites of the Oaxaca Valley, where the dry climate has conserved sites as old as 10,000 years. This valley was settled by the Zapotecs who over the centuries developed a hierarchical society governed by kings and nobles. While the valley was relatively isolated, the Zapotecs did have contacts with other Mesoamerican peoples. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Zapotec state had a population of over 500,000, sophisticated construction techniques, a writing system, two calendar systems and agriculture that included the growing of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers, using irrigation and terraces in the mountains to grow food for a mostly urban population.
Mitla itself was inhabited at least since the Classic Period (100-650 CE) and perhaps from as early as 900 BCE. It began as a fortified village on the outer edge of the valley and later became the main religious center for the area. The Mixtecs took control of the area around 1000 CE, although the area remained populated by the Zapotec. The city reached its height and largest size between 750 and 1521, with both Zapotec and Mixtec influences in its architecture during that time. Mitla is one of the pre-Columbian sites that represent the Mesoamerican belief that death was the most consequential part of life after birth. It was built as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Mitla was still occupied and functioning as the main religious center when the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. The high priest, called the Uija-tào, resided at Mitla, and the Spanish likened him to the pope. Nobles buried at Mitla were destined to become “cloud people” who would intercede on behalf of the population below. At that time the urban center covered an area of 1 to 2 square kilometres (0.39 to 0.77 sq mi) with suburban areas surrounding it. In the rural areas, intensive agriculture was practiced over an area of more than 20 square kilometres (7.7 sq mi) to feed the city.
During the early colonial period, some of the best descriptions of the site come from the soldiers and missionaries who arrived first in the valley. One of the first to write formally about Mitla was Friar Toribio de Benavente Motolina in the mid 16th century. He states that the name meant “hell.” As the site held great political and religious significance for the area, most of the buildings suffered destruction, dismantling and sacking, with a few buildings spared. Some of the rooms of the site were inhabited by the Spanish clergy. This destruction was ordered by Oaxacan Archbishop Albuquerque in 1553. The remains were used as building materials for churches, including the Church of San Pablo, which sits on top of part of the ruins. The north side of the Cathedral of Oaxaca also has design features from Mitla to symbolize the new religious order.
In the state of Oaxaca, Mitla is second in importance as an archeological site only to Monte Alban. At the beginning of the 20th century, the government of Porfirio Díaz chose Mitla to be one of the emblematic symbols of pre-Hispanic Mexico for Centennial celebrations of Mexico’s Independence. Alfonso Caso, the archaeologist who excavated Monte Albán, also did work at Mitla in the 1920s and 1930s. Mitla has been the site of further excavations since the 1980s with important work done on the North Group as well as the colonial church around the start of the 20th century. For the bicentennial celebrations in 2010, INAH has been intensifying efforts to conserve the ancient ruins.
Instead of being a group of pyramids on a hill, as at Monte Albán, Mitla is a group of constructions built on the valley floor, and it lacks the wide and far vistas of Monte Alban. The architecture is geared more for the comfort of the residents than for magnificence. The construction of Mitla as a ceremonial center began in 850, and the city was still being expanded when the Spaniards arrived and destroyed it. The oldest group of buildings has been dated to between 450 and 700 CE and shows architectural features similar to those found at the earlier Monte Alban. Mitla is one of the few sites that originated in the Classic period. The site represents the most developed architecture of the Zapotecs and is the product of the syncretism of Mixtec and Zapotec design features which reached its height in 1200. Such syncretism can also be seen in the Catholic churches built over the foundations of destroyed temples in this area, such as the San Pedro Church located in the North Group and the Calvario Chapel, located in the Adobe Group.
The construction of the stone walls appears to have been the same for all groups: a core of mud and stone covered with plaster or well-cut trachyte rock. Some of the large stones, such as those used as columns and lintels, weigh as much as 18 tons.
Today the archeological consists of five groups of buildings with a fence of cactus plants surrounding much of it. The five groups of constructions are called the South Group, the Adobe Group, the Arroyo Group, the Columns or Palace Group and the Church or North Group. All of the groups’ buildings are aligned with the cardinal directions. The South Group and the Adobe Group have been classified as ceremonial centers with central plazas surrounded by mound structures. The South, Columns and Church Groups have been classified as palaces with rooms surrounding square courtyards. The two best preserved groups are the Columns Group and the Church Group, both at the north end of the site.
The Columns Group and the Church Group were both fully excavated and restored by the early 1980s and are open to the public. Both consists of rectangular courtyards surrounded by one story rectangular buildings with long narrow rooms.
The Church or North Group lies at the entrance to the site. In the 16th century, the Spanish built the Church of San Pablo here, which remains on top of a large pre-Hispanic platform which serves as the church atrium. It was believed that in this group lived the lord and lady of the underworld, so the church was built here to keep the “devil” from escaping. The group also contains the main temple, called the yohopàe, which translates to “house of the vital force.” This temple faces a large courtyard. The portal to the temple is flanked by two large columns, which leads into an antechamber. This antechamber once had a roof, supported by six columns, but only the columns and walls remain. Beyond the antechamber is the main one, where priests burned incense, made sacrifices and performed other rites. Behind the main chamber is the living quarters of the priests. Walls everywhere in this building are covered by intricate mosaic fretwork and murals depicting mythological scenes and characters. There are tombs under some of the buildings. These tombs have stairs that descend from the patio area and have a cross layout. Inside they are decorated with mosaics. One of the tombs has an entrance that is divided by a thick column. This column is popularly known as the "Columna de la Vida" (Column of Life). According to legend, one is supposed to wrap one's arms around the column, and the space remaining between the hands indicate the amount of life the individual has left.
To the south of the Church Group is the Columns Group, whose main building is called the Palace. This group has two entrances to the outside that face south. The entrance room contains immense columns which support the roof. The north wall has a small opening facing the patio, supposedly for crossing into the afterlife. The main building is called the Palace or the Grand Hall of Columns. It measures 120 by 21 feet (36.6 by 6.4 m) and has six columns of volcanic stone that once supported the roof. After passing through a small corridor, access is gained to the courtyard, which is intricately decorated in mosaic fretwork and geometric designs. The north and east buildings of the group have elaborate tombs where high priests and Zapotec rulers were buried. In front of the stairs of the north building is a cross-shaped tomb with an antechamber. The ceiling has large beams made of stone and the walls are decorated with tablets and stone fretwork. The east building is characterized by a monolithic stone column which supports the roof.
The main distinguishing feature of Mitla is the intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that profusely adorn the walls of both the Church and Columns groups. The geometric patterns called grecas in Spanish seen on some of the stone walls and door frames are made from thousands of cut, polished stones that are fitted together without mortar. The pieces were set against a stucco background painted red. The stones are held in place by the weight of the stones that surround them. Walls, friezes and tombs are decorated with mosaic fretwork. In some cases, such as in lintels, these stone “tiles” are embedded directly into the stone beam. The elaborate mosaics are considered to be a type of “Baroque” design as the designs are elaborate and intricate and in some cases cover entire walls. None of the fretwork designs are repeated exactly anywhere in the complex. The fretwork here is unique in all of Mesoamerica.
The two main concerns for the Mitla site are the eroding effects of wind, rain etc. and graffiti. The latter, which is mostly painted or etched, has been a serious problem at least since the early 20th century. To protect the ruins, especially the grecas, shelters have been constructed over a number of the rooms of the Palace or Columns Group. These shelters are palm thatched roofs supported by wooden beams and columns, and are intended to mimic roofs that were common in the Mesoamerican period. Reconstruction projects planned or underway include, rebuilding the 17th century wall of a room used as a priests’ residence in the Church Group, laying stucco floors in the Columns Group, the sealing of platforms and fortifications walls, landscaping and the restoration of a colonial era rainwater collection tank. The last was the only one of its kind built in the valley during the colonial period.
Mitla is one of the sites to be included in a planned program called the Archeology Corridor of Oaxaca Valley (Corredor Arqueológico del Valle de Oaxaca) with goals of maintaining and restoring ruins as well as making the site more accessible for visitors. In addition, there are efforts to get the site of Mitla designated as a World Heritage site by archeologists such as Nelly Robles. It is listed on Mexico’s list of national heritage sites called the Lista Indicativa del Patromonio Nacional. The entry on the list includes the Mitla ruins along with the Tree of Tule and nearby caves which have paintings and show human habitation for 80,000 years.
Mitla is the second most visited archeological site in the state of Oaxaca. The Mitla site is very important to the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, as tourist related activities support most of the economy, but many residents here feel that neither the site or the town is promoted sufficiently by the government. Authorities who administer the site state that tourism is rising. Most visitors are Mexicans who visit on weekends from Veracruz and Puebla states, and most foreigners who visit are European. On average 500 people per day visit the site.