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Area K: Oaxaca


     Mitla   ***


For an archaeological site of almost Mediterranean flavour, come to Mitla, which, after Monte Albán, is the most impressive and well-visited site in Oaxaca. Although relatively modest in size, Mitla possesses, amongst other finds, a fantastically coloured Palace of the Columns, reminding one of the Palace of Knossus in Crete, garnished with the most lavish stone fret-work out of the Yucatán.

From Oaxaca city, you can take a regular bus to the town of Mitla; the journey takes about an hour. A more popular option is to take a tour that goes directly to the site and includes other places of interest after the ruins.


Culture: Zapotec

Early Classic Late Classic Early Post-Classic
500AD 6 00 7 00 8 00 9 00 10 00AD
development apogee decline

The valley in which we find Mitla (the Place of the Dead) had been inhabited for several thousand years before Christ, and by the time of the first stone construction, there was a population of several hundred. But the city developed slowly over the next millenium as the whole region became eclipsed by the rise of Monte Albán. We see the real apogee of Mitle well into the Post-Classic, exactly timed with Monte Albán's eventual fall. All of the most impressive buildings were constructed during this period and it was to be the last burst of monumental building work in Oaxaca before the arrival of the Spanish.

The Zapotec builders were heavily influenced by the Mixtecs who had moved into the valley and this is apparently shown in the general style and decoration of the palaces. Mitla became the most important religious centre in the Zapotec region.

In 1494, after a few earlier unsuccessful attempts, the Aztecs finally entered and sacked Mitla, bringing about the subjugation of the valley. The Zapotec priests remained, paying tribute to their Aztec overlords, and would not actually be forced to leave until well into the Conquest era.

For more about other Cities of the Sierra Gorda, see Cultural History.

Tour  (Scroll down to follow complete tour, or click on feature below and use your BACK key to return to the map)

The ruins of Mitla lie at the north end of the town of the same name. If you decide to go by tour bus, you will be dropped off at the site's car park next to San Pablo church. The ruins actually consist of five separate groups now intermingled with the modern town. We will be examining the two best preserved groups.

  1. Quadrangle E

  2. Palace of Columns

  3. Quadrangle F

From the car park, we follow the main crowd through the entrance to the Columns Group, by far the most impressive of the five clusters that make up Mitla. It consists of buildings constructed around two main plazas.

The path takes us into the first of the two plazas, known as Quadrangle E, which is by far the most visually pleasing. The buildings on three of the sides are mostly ruined, the stones of which having been utilized in the construction of San Pablo church, but the north side is dominated by the imposing façade  of  the Palace of the Columns, the key feature of Mitla.

The palace rests on top of a platform, the wall of which is painted red. The wall of the building itself is decorated by three separate patterned friezes. A short flight of steps gives access to the Hall of Columns, a wide kind of antechamber, noted for its six monolithic columns that once held a roof.

Then, we are through into the interior of the Palace of the Columns itself - four small rooms arranged around a smaller central patio. Each wall of the Palace contains a unique stone frieze, almost unrivalled in its beauty and intricacy. The west room has a reconstructed roof and the best preserved (although I suspect restored) frieze.


The other buildings of Quadrangle E are, as mentioned, pretty much piles of old stones, with the exception of the east mound that contains the semblances of walls and one upright column. In the centre of the plaza lies a large, low, square altar and one fallen column.

We now leave this courtyard and follow the path around to the next mini-plaza to the exact south. This is Quadrangle F, with three semi-preserved buildings all showing friezes of similar design to those of the Place of the Columns. The buildings consist of three doorways with lintels.


At the base of the north and west buildings are two holes that give access to two underground tombs. The tombs are cruciform-shaped and possess more geometric friezes. They were looted centuries before the first modern explorers ever got near them. In Tomb 1 there is a wide column about which several myths abound, including greater fertility if you hug it.

Just to the north of the Columns Group, across the car park, we find the Church Group, named strangely enough by the fact that San Pablo church not only sits on top of it but was actually constructed from it - a quite distasteful symbol of the church's squashing of the pagan shrine.

The original layout of the Church Group was similar to but smaller than the Columns Group, and seeing that the southern-most courtyard is taken up by the church, only two others remain. The first, Quadrangle B follows the familiar design of patio surrounded by three adjacent rooms. Again, we see the characteristic door, lintel, frieze construction in the buildings. Just to the north is the smaller Quadrangle A.


This completes the usual tour of Mitla. There are three other groups to visit, (the Arroyo, Adobe and South Groups) but these are almost entirely in rubble and unrestored. Also, these other sections were originally smaller and more minor than the Columns Group anyway.

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