Mitla was a preeminent Postclassic Zapotec religious center (ce 1000–1521). Mitla is located in Oaxaca's Tlacolula Valley, approximately 24 miles east of Oaxaca City, Mexico. The name Mitla is a corruption of Mictlán, the Nahuatl term for the afterworld. The Zapotec name is Lyobba, or "Place of Rest." Before the Conquest, Mitla had reputedly been the residence and court of the Huijatao, or "great seer," an oracular priest whom later Spanish chroniclers compared to a Christian pope in authority.
Five mound groups, the North Group (Church Group), the Group of the Columns, the Arroyo Group, the Adobe Group, and the South Group, have been the focus of considerable archaeological study. The ruins are famous for their distinctive architectural forms. They are composed of impressive one-story palaces built around two or more quadrangular patios. Access to these inner courtyards was highly restricted, in keeping with the privileged status of the buildings' occupants. Elaborate ornamental wall friezes were produced either by carving the limestone surface directly or by constructing fretted mosaics with smaller stones. Traces of the red background color remain. The southern court of the Group of the Columns contains two cruciform tombs, which may correspond to historical accounts of underground passageways where the funerary remains of ranking Zapotec lords were enshrined.
Mitla's prominence derived from its unique sociopolitical status. During the Postclassic period Zapotec authority had become distributed among a number of petty kings who reckoned their control over tributary lands on the basis of descent from common deified ancestors. As the head of the funerary cult, a high priest of Mitla not only was endowed with sacred authority as the principal mediator with the divine but also wielded considerable secular power, apparently serving as chief councillor who arbitrated between the various Oaxacan political factions as well.
Though the earliest structural remains correspond to Zapotec rule, Mitla experienced significant growth between ce 750 and 1521, a period marking the end of Zapotec reign and the ascendance of the Mixtec, who based their power in Mitla, and whose style can also be seen in the archaeological evidence. In the seventeenth century, the Spanish constructed the San Pablo Catholic Church, which stands on the footprint of a former courtyard, is adjacent to the Church Group, and was built using Mitla temple stone. The present-day town of San Pablo Vila de Mitla grew up around the ruins.
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John M. D. Pohl