Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico

Stone Fretwork Reliefs in the Palace of the Columns

A smaller, and somewhat later site in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mitla lies about 40 miles south-east of Monte Alban along the Pan-American highway, and at the eastern end of the central Valley of Oaxaca. It was the capital of the Mixtecs, also known as the 'cloud people', invaders coming from the northern mountains of south-central Mexico, who dominated the site for a short period between 1200-1494 AD, when the Aztecs conquered the town.

Mitla was a Zapotec settlement from about 100 AD onward, and became an important regional center with the decline of Monte Alban around 750 AD. Most of the structures at the site date from about 1200-1490 AD, there are several groups of palaces and courtyards that are famous for their brilliant color and elaborate stone fretwork and mosaic friezes and decoration.

The City is set into the hillside on the north side of the Mitla river, and consists of a series of large, square courtyards surrounded by long, low palace structures, set on terraces and accessed by broad staircases at the front. The terraces at the base are coated with a deep red plaster, while the buildings above are of golden, yellow stone, which sets off brilliantly against the blue and white of the clouds. The Palace of the Columns is the finest structure at the site, it has been estimated to contain about 100.000 separate pieces of stone in it's construction.

Palace of the Columns from the Plaza

The Palace of the Columns lies on the north side of the Patio of the Columns, the largest of several courtyards, running north to south down the south-facing hillside on the north side of the Mitla river. The Palace consists of the Hall of the Columns, a long, narrow space with a row of columns in the middle, running parallel to the north side of the patio. Behind this, to the north, is another square palace complex, accessed by the Patio of the Mosaics in the middle.
This view is looking from behind the stonework of the palace structure on the east side of the Patio of the Columns, north-west and towards the central staircase leading up to the doorways on the south facade of the Hall of the Columns. Behind the Palace of the Columns, the red tile roofs of the Church Group are visible in the middle distance.

Looking West in the Patio of Mosaics

Behind the Hall of the Columns, on the north side of the patio, and near the entrance to the site, there is a square palace complex, with long, narrow galleries on all four sides of the Patio of the Mosaics. The patio is a square space, with one large square doorway on each side of the space. The walls of the patio are elaborately detailed and ornamented with heavy, horizontal stone mosaic friezes with interlocking fretwork and geometric motifs, framed in smooth masonry registers in several tiers at the tops of the walls. There are at least 14 distinct geometric motifs that have been identified in the friezes at Mitla, they represent the earth and the sky, and the feathered serpent and other divinities.

View to the South from the Iglesia Complex

The Iglesia Complex, or church group, lies north of the entrance, in the highest part of the archaeological site. It consists of a group of buildings around two square courtyards, one north of the other. As was typical of their conquering fashion, the Spaniards built the Church of San Pablo, over the top of the southern-most patio, and at the highest point on the site, when they arrived here in the 18th century.
This view is looking to the south and downhill, along the east facade of the Church group, where a stone path lined with potted plants leads up to a small museum and visitor's center in the north-eastern corner of the site, or behind the picture.

One of the Tombs in the southern courtyard

South of the Patio of the Columns, and a little further down the hill and to the west, there is another large, square courtyard known as the Patio of the Tombs, because there are subterranean tombs located under the front facades and stairways of the buildings on the north and east sides of the plaza. The tomb on the north side of the patio contains the Column of Life, said to foretell the number of years left in the life of those who put their arms around the fat stone pillar.
This view shows the north facade of the Patio of the Tombs, a horizontal palace structure with 3 square doorways facing to the south, and ornamental friezes and stone fretwork on the upper part of the walls. Below the central opening, and built into the rubble-fill of the second terrace, is the opening for the tomb with the Column of Life. The base of the walls, and the edges of the patio are finished with fine stone masonry, all of the buildings, as well as the pavement of the plaza were covered with plaster.

Looking South from the upper patio of the Church Group

The Iglesia, or Church Group, at the northern edge of the site, has two square patios. The south patio and it's surrounding palace structures were over-built with the Christian Church of San Pablo, which has a nave running east to west, and 3 portals and a tower on the west facade. The roof of the church was made of two large octagonal domes, and several lower, subsidiary domes, all covered in bright red tile and with tall, square lanterns at the top of each dome.
The northern patio of the Iglesia complex was left open as a cloister for the church, and it remains with surrounding palace structures on 3 sides, as well as another, smaller group of buildings on the north side ogf the complex. This view is looking south towards the church, through the northern patio, from the doorway on it's north side.

Patio of the Arroyo Group to the South-West

The Arroyo Group is another large complex of buildings, organized around several courtyards, that lies to the south-west and downhill from the main part of the site. There are 3 patios, running north to south on the west bank of a small tributary to the Mitla river. The buildings are somewhat later, and of lower quality and importance to the site. This view is looking to the north and west sides of the remaining patio.
One of the upper patios remains, a large square space lined with horizontal palace structures, and typically 3 large square doorways facing the space on all sides. The tops of the walls are decorated with the characteristic broad horizontal friezes and registers, filled with fretwork and geometric designs, but the masonry is not as deep and fine, and the rubble fill can be seen in the lower part of the walls.

Andreas Kultermann -
324 N. Main St. #612, Davenport, IA 52801
Telephone:(563) 823-1881
Copyright © 2003 Andreas Kultermann