The Early Temples and Monuments of the Alban People in Ancient Azerbaijan

The Early Temples and Monuments of the Alban People in Ancient Azerbaijan

According to the information gleaned from numerous historical sources, the territories of ancient Azerbaijan, known as Caucasian Albania (not to be confused with the modern-day Albania in Europe) covered a wide area and was populated by many prehistoric tribes.

This ancient territory which lasted between the 2 nd century B.C to the 8 th century, spread in the south, from Araz River to The Major Caucasus, and in the east, from the west coast of the Caspian Sea to the lands located in the west of Goycha Lake.

The borders of ancient Caucasian Albania (red dashed line), now largely the Republic of Azerbaijan. Wikimedia, CC

In the 5 th century, Greek historian Herodotus provided information about the Alban tribes living under the name Kaspi, north of the Araz River. Roman author Pliny the Elder also confirmed the early existence of Alban rule, in the time of Alexander the Great.

Caucasian Albania was formed approximately in the 3 rd to 4 th century B.C., and Christianity established itself early. Centuries later there was an Islamic conquest, and the territory was occupied by the religious and political rule of Arab caliphate in the 7 th century. The capital city was originally Qabala in the north, but eventually shifted to the more centralized Barda.

According to Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo, the populations of ancient Caucasian Albania consisted of many tribes speaking 26 languages.

From the introduction of Christianity in Caucasian Albania, the ideology persisted until the shift to Islam in the mid-7 th century. A large part of the population accepted Islam, yet this did not cause an abolition of Alban-Christian ideology or national and cultural values. On the contrary, Islam put responsibility and liability on the shoulders of every Muslim to protect ancient Alban historical and cultural monuments, and the traditions of the ancient tribes of Azerbaijan.

One of the ancestor tribes of the Azerbaijani people, the Albans originated in the area and established a rich and unique culture. The Chairmen of Public Association for Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments in the Occupied Territories of Azerbaijan, Faiq Ismayilov has stated that the importance of native Alban sources is very crucial in the study of ancient and Middle-Ages history and culture of Azerbaijan.

Starting from the first century, Christianity spread to the South Caucuses where the empire had economic and cultural relations. After a declaration of Christianity as the official state religion by Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr, new temples and churches started being built in the country.

The majority of these Alban monuments have survived till modern times in a state of good preservation. The oldest Christian church in the Caucuses is located in Kish, of the Sheki region of Azerbaijan. Although there is no epigraphic writing on the temple, the architecture and planning features, construction style and the technology used to create it strongly suggest it was created by Alban architects.

The Church of Kish, Church of Caucasian Albania, Azerbaijan. Wikimedia, CC

Analysis of objects found beneath the alter date the cultic site to about 3,000 B.C. The church was founded on the 1st century . Passed five stages of construction from the twelfth century.

Dome interior of the Church of Kish, with ancient chandelier. Wikipedia, CC

After the final Caucasian Albanian King, Vachagan III held an ecumenical council in the town of Aluen in 488, with the participation of prominent religious and state figures, construction in the Christian architectural style became popular. During Vachagan’s reign (487-510) more than 300 churches and temples were built in Albania. There were more than 30 monasteries in the country until the middle of the 8 th century. The Christian temple in the Qum village of Qakh District of Azerbaijan is seen as a work of art, attracting the attention of specialists with its form and construction. The temple which is situated in Lakhik village was built with an archaic style. Both of these ancient temples date to the 5 th and 6 th centuries.

The popular Avey Temple is located on the top of a high mountain in Kazakh District of Azerbaijan. According to research scientists C.Rustamov and F. Muradov, ShishGaya Temple and other artificial cave temple complexes are from the first century, created upon the spread of Christianity.

A column capital of a 7th-century Christian church with an inscription in Caucasian Albanian.

Many samples of Alban architecture dating to between 4 th and 16 th centuries remain standing to this day, including: the Agoglan temple in Kosalar village of Lachin district of Azerbaijan, Amaras monastery in Sos village of Xocavand District, Gavurdara temple in Qubadli District of Azerbaijan, Arakel temple in Magadiz village of Agdam district of Azerbaijan, Khansikh and Khacmac temples in Khojali Districts of Azerbaijan, Red temple in Tukh village of Khocavand District of Azerbaijan. These, and the Agtala temple, Arcivang temple, Uzunlar temple, Yenivang temple, and the Sanain temple in Western Azerbaijan are the most beautiful samples of Alban architecture that have reached to our times.

Several temples have been built in honor of Apostle Yelisey, who is credited with spreading Christianity in Albania, and the creation of the Church of Kish, the oldest Christian church in the Caucuses. The most interesting of the temples is the Yelisey Complex in Agdara District (Karabakh).

Popular Gancesar Monastery erected in Vangli village on the banks of the Khachin River, as well as Qoshavang temple, and Dadavang Temple, are the most prominent monuments of Christian architecture.

The ‘God temple’ Monastery Complex is located on the banks of the Tartar River in the Kalbajar District. It was the religious center of the Khachin Alban state, created in the mountainous part of Karabakh in the 9 th century – one century after Caucasian Albania collapsed. It has since become a religious and education center for the locals.

Seven Church monastery complex is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Azerbaijan and in Caucasus, and is an Caucasian Albanian Apostolic monastery. Wikimedia, CC

According to scientists who have researched the architectural monuments of Caucasian Albania for many years, these monuments differ totally from Armenian and other Caucus regions religious temples with their characteristic features and architectural planning styles.

Featured image: The ruins of the gates of Albanian capital Qabala in Azerbaijan. Wikimedia, CC


Church of Caucasian Albania – Wikipedia.

Church of Kish – Wikipedia.

Caucasian Albania – Wikipedia.

By Fuad Huseynzadeh , the Chairman of Diaspor Journalists’ Community.

Monte Alban – Are The Danzantes Evidence of an Epidemic?

“Los Danzantes” is the name given to a collection of more than 300 bas-reliefs at Monte Albán which feature rubbery, limp and disfigured human figures. The name “Los Danzantes” translates to “The Dancers” in reference to the playful nature of the images. Their message, or purpose, is probably going to remain a mystery, for the vast majority of the Danzantes hold no clues to indicate who or what they represent nor when or by whom they were created. The few that do have glyphs cannot yet be deciphered, whilst others contain mysterious imagery around the genitalia or foreign features such as beards that only further confuse the message they were designed to tell. The majority of the images on display in the city are freestanding slabs which stand like gravestones between Building L and System M.

Fig. 0278 – Danzante Relief Fig. 0277 – The Dancer Danzante Fig. 0276 – Stelae 12 & 13 Fig. 0271 – Danzante of Bearded Men
Bearded Man from Monte Alban Danzante of a Bearded Man Fig. 0274 – Anthropomorphic Danzante Fig 0276 – Danzante of a Pregnant Woman

The most popular theory is that they represent slain captives. Whilst there is imagery of death, there is little else to support this theory – and this lack of clues suggest the theory is wrong. Records of victorious conquests were typically designed to glorify the victors and normally leave little doubt as to who they were and who they defeated. The Danzantes, however, only record a deformed or limp body, with no identification of who they are or how they died – in fact, we can’t even be sure they are dead. Also, the presence of women and the strange imagery around the genitalia suggest they record something a little more unusual. As the Danzantes were designed as free standing slabs, there is even a chance that these monuments were brought here and possibly weren’t even created by the Zapotec.

Fig. 0273 – Danzante of a Bearded Man The rubbery bulbous style is synonymous with the Olmec Civilisation who flourished in the coastal region 300km northeast of the Oaxaca Valley until they suddenly vanished in around 500BCE. Their artwork is often perceived to be a stylised interpretation of fictitious and imaginary characters in an effort to explain the profound images they created of overseas cultures from Europe, the Far East and Africa – including the use of beards and the bizarre “Olmec heads”. We can see from figs 0271, 0272, and 0273, that the Danzantes include bearded images which, along with the rubbery stylised form, is strong evidence of an Olmec influence.

The Olmecs were the primigenial civilisation of Mesoamerica and started building monumental structures and religious sanctuaries from 1500BCE, whilst the rest of Mesoamerican population was still developing as hunter/gatherer tribes. The lack of outside influence and competition meant they had time to develop their abstract ideas and artwork. They were keen to inspire and influence the tribal groups they found through trade and migration and the Oaxaca Valley was very close by. One particular settlement, at San Jose Mogote, seems to have had extensive trade with the Olmec through specialist magnetite mirrors that they made. This successful trade, and the Olmec influence, catapulted them from a small riverside farming community to building monumental structures, inventing the first known form of writing in Mesoamerica and forming the Zapotec Civilisation.

Fig. SJMM3 – Monument 3, San Jose Mogote This first form of writing is found on a “Danzante” known as Monument 3, which was found between buildings 14 and 17 at San Jose Mogote, less than 20km from Monte Alban. It was found in situ as a paving slab in a corridor, which has led to a theory that it depicts a slain enemy and was designed for people to walk over in disrespect. The writing, which consists of two glyphs between the legs, is thought to read “Earthquake” (or “Motion”) and “One” (it is the symbol for the first day of a 20-day cycle – which makes it the earliest known use of calendrics). Buildings 14 and 17 have been dated between 750BCE , when monumental building began, and 500BCE, when San Jose Mogote slipped rapidly into decline. This would make Monument 3 considerably older than the Danzantes at Monte Albán.

Looking at the Danzantes, it is most likely that they symbolise death, because the eyes are closed and they closely resemble lifelessly limp, tangled and contorted corpses. For reasons stated earlier, this doesn’t mean these are defeated enemies, but the only other people who were honoured with stone effigies are heroes and they wouldn’t be pictured nude, deformed and slumped in agonising death. With more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they represented an epidemic.
Fig 0276 – Danzante of a Pregnant Woman Looking at one of the most famous of the Danzantes in fig. 0276, there are a number of clues that suggest disease might be the subject, rather than trophies of war.Firstly, it’s a woman secondly, she has some sort of deformity around the genital area thirdly, there is a curious image in the womb of a man who wears a hat and earring, which is most likely meant to symbolise that someone important died in her womb.

Epidemics, such as plagues, often come from nowhere and disappear without trace, leaving behind a decimated population, empty towns and abandoned villages. Looking back at the evidence so far discussed, we have the Olmec civilisation disappearing in around 500BC, the town of San Jose Mogote going into decline in around 500BC, and we have the foundation of Monte Albán in around 500BC. This points to a catastrophic epidemic which spread along the trade routes, decimating the Olmec civilisation and prompting the population of the Oaxaca Valley to evacuate the valley floor and seek shelter on an isolated hilltop. Monument 3 at San Jose Mogote may have been a warning that beyond that stone lay a sanctuary for the sick and diseased and Monte Albán may have been built as a sanctuary from the disease high above the valley floor. In which case, the Danzantes may have been erected to commemorate the various tribes or important personages who were destroyed by the disease and to forewarn future generations. If the imagery is of disease, then it would also explain the symbolism around the hip of fig. 0273, as well as other defects found on Danzantes not pictured here.

There is growing evidence that epidemic diseases may be brought to earth via meteors 1 . These unknown diseases then rage through the population until either the conditions of the earth cause it to mutate into an ineffective germ, or the only humans remaining are those immune to it – hence it dies out and never returns. It is theorised that a comet traveling through the Earth’s orbit could deposit diseases within its tail, which could then be pulled to Earth as we travel through its wake. The glyphs on Monument 3 at San Jose Mogote, which are said to read “Earthquake” or “Motion” and (day) “One”, could be a reference to the event that triggered the disaster – the tremors caused by a meteoric impact or a record of a celestial motion (a passing comet). Looking at fig. SJMM3, there are two circles on the left edge which have trails
Fig. MSC1 – Excerpt from a Mawangdui Silk leading down the side of the slab that look very much like comets. If this is a record of the celestial event responsible for the epidemic, then it is not the only one from ancient times. The Mawangdui Silks (fig. MSC1) record 29 sightings of comets which immediately preceded the onset of epidemics. The silks were made in China, date from around 300BCE and are a scientific record of the relationship between comets and subsequent epidemic diseases as witnessed over more than a millennia. They catalogue sightings dating back as far as 1500BCE and describe the illnesses that hit shortly after.

The other common way for epidemic diseases to be transferred is via foreigners from another continent, which is exactly what happened when the Spanish arrived two thousand years later and brought small-pox with them. This disease obliterated the indigenous population and led to their easy victory. The Danzantes themselves hint at the presence of foreign bodies with images of bearded men, so the idea of Europeans landing on the Gulf coast and infecting the Olmec can not be discounted.

As stated at the beginning, the Danzantes are a mystery that will probably remain unsolved, but this is an alternative theory that may better explain the evidence so far uncovered.

Other Aztec Temples

There are numerous Aztec temples, both in these cities and others.  The Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest pyramid by volume in the world, and the largest monument ever constructed.  Inside 8km/5mi of tunnels have been dug to investigate its secrets.  The Cholula temple has its own page.

Another temple featured on this site is the great pyramid (temple) of Teopanzolco.

The ruins at Teotenango also contain temples.  Temples were built in each region of a city, and there were also mountain temples - often carved right out of the side of the mountain.  It is believed that as late as the 19th century a child was sacrificed at one of these Aztec temples.

Of course, many of the so-called Aztec temples were temples that existed before the Aztec empire did.  Many peoples and cities were conquered and forced to pay tribute, becoming a part of the empire.  One city like this was Xochicalco - a pyramid at the top of this page is from Xochicalco.

Many Aztec temples and other ruins are mapped at Google here. If you look at the "related maps" at the bottom of the page, you'll find even more maps in various categories.

The Aztec temples are still major religious destinations today.  Some now have Roman Catholic Churches built over top, others are still just pyramids where people come to pray to the gods, or come, they believe, to gain some special power.

The articles on this site are ©2006-2021.

If you quote this material please be courteous and provide a link.

Founding Monte Alban

The Zapotecs built their new capital city in a strange place, probably partly as a defensive move resulting from unrest in the valley. The location in the valley of Oaxaca is on the top of a tall mountain far above and in the middle of three populous valley arms. Monte Alban was far from the nearest water, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away and 400 meters (1,300 feet) above, as well as any agricultural fields that would have supported it. Chances are that Monte Alban's residential population was not permanently located here.

A city located so far away from the major population it serves is called a "disembedded capital," and Monte Albán is one of the very few disembedded capitals known in the ancient world. The reason the founders of San Jose moved their city to the top of the hill may have included defense, but perhaps also a bit of public relations—its structures can be seen in many places from the valley arms.


The earliest surviving Hindu temples in Java are at the Dieng Plateau and are the island's earliest known standing stone buildings. The structures were built to honour the god-ancestors, Di Hyang, rather than for the convenience of people. [1] Thought to have originally numbered as many as 400, only 8 remain today. The Dieng structures were small and relatively plain, but architecture developed substantially and just 100 years later the second Kingdom of Mataram built the Prambanan complex near Yogyakarta considered the largest and finest example of Hindu architecture in Java. The World Heritage-listed Buddhist monument Borobudur was built by the Sailendra Dynasty between 750 and 850 AD, but it was abandoned shortly after its completion as a result of the decline of Buddhism and a shift of power to eastern Java. The monument contains a vast number of intricate carvings that tell a story as one moves through to the upper levels, metaphorically reaching enlightenment. With the decline of the Mataram Kingdom, eastern Java became the focus of religious architecture with an exuberant style reflecting Shaivist, Buddhist and Javanese influences a fusion that was characteristic of religion throughout Java.

The Javanese temple plan and layout was changed from the centralistic, concentric and formal layout of central Javanese period (8th—10th century) to linear, often asymmetric layout following the topography of the site of eastern Java period (11th—15th century). [2] The main temple of central Java temples such as Sewu temple complex, is located in the center of the complex surrounded by perwara temples, while the main temple from eastern Java period, such as Penataran temple complex, is located in the back, furthermost from the entrance, and often built on the highest ground of the temple complex. The rules of eastern Javanese temple layout are still followed closely by Balinese temples.

Of the sites first noted by European observers in the 19th century, many have since disappeared, while other sites are still being discovered. The sites provide significant evidence, albeit only fragmentary, of early Javanese society. Being in a tropical environment and on an island, hundreds of kilometres, from a mainland, Java does not have the harsh climate and seasonal change of a continental landmass. These factors are thought to have influenced the serenity which the carved stones display. Stone was only used to build temples with no evidence of palaces or other secular buildings, which are thought to have been made of timber. The monuments are thus the most significant historical source. There are no remains from dwellings, villages, or towns of this era, and the temples lack detailed context. Many artifacts have been found near the temples, the majority of which are earthenware pottery a medium which Javanese craftsmen did not devote great artistry. More energy was spent on producing metal objects such as bronze utensils, and gold and silver jewelry, the majority of which was produced for religious purposes. The majority of everyday objects would have been made from organic materials such as wood, bamboo, rattan and vegetable fibres which do not survive long in a tropical environment.

Azerbaijan: Tovuz, the land of antiquity and natural beauty

The region draws its name from two of the ancient Turkish tribes that settled there: the Tovuz and the Ovuz. Its buildings and monuments preserve some of the region’s rich culture and history, dating to medieval times.

For history buffs, there are 64 official historical sites and monuments sanctioned by the Culture of Ministry, including the 13th-century Haji Bagir mosque in Duzgirigli village and the Kirzan temple dating to the 12th century. Other architectural attractions worth exploring include eight-corner sepulchers in Gazgulu village, a railway bridge built in 1880, and 19th-century tombs in Yukhari.

Tovuz also is home to one of the main and ancient Alban settlements. The Alban temple, dating to the fifth century, and several other preserved structures once served as shelters for dervishes who led ascetic lifestyles.

The region is also one of the Caspian’s richest agrarian centers, perfect for nature lovers who want to explore rugged mountain lands or Alpine forests teeming with oak, beech, walnut, hornbeam and iron trees as well as wild fruit shrubs. A rare Eldar Shami pine is protected in the Garayazi State Reserve in Jeyranchol. Animals also abound, and it is easy to spot gazelles, roe deers, wolves, foxes, hares, francolins and partridges along the fields and forests of Tovuz.

Keeping the tradition of its Turkish settlers, Tovuz also offers numerous hunting opportunities. With government permits, visitors can hunt hares and various swimming birds skipping across the Kura, Akhindja, Tovuz and Zayam rivers.

For the curious, there is a sour water spring in Catakh village. Because of its sour taste, the water is known by the locals as Turshsu. It contains various chemical minerals that are used for medicinal treatments. In Asrik, there are 36 water springs. Among the most famous are the Findigli, Maral and Shalala. Most of the spring-fed water bodies boast nearby restaurants.

The vast sub-Alpine meadows are the center of Tovuz’s agriculture industry, providing winter and summer pastures for livestock farmers as well as vineyards that gave rise to the region’s booming wine industry. Archaeological finds, including ancient vessels for wine storage, pinpoint the industry’s origins to the seventh century. The industry flourished as German settlers brought new skills and recipes. The area also became famous for producing cognac, which supplied the entire Russian market. Tovuz Baltiya Ltd. is the main producer and exporter of wine products.

The Tovuz region also affords a variety of cuisines, rich in dough meals as well as dishes made with abundant greens and potatoes. Other delicacies include pilaf, barbecue, fried vegetables and the hometown favorite dish known as khingal. Drinks such as buttermilk, dovga, atlama and fresh fruit juices complement the area’s wide selection of wines and cognac.

It is impossible to imagine Tovuz without saz music. Saz is the national musical instrument of Azerbaijan. It is popular in Tovuz. Weddings, parties, local or state-level ceremonies as well as many restaurants are enriched by the musical talents of ashigs, the performers of saz music.

Missives from the silent period in history

Every year, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) comes up with a theme for the International Day for Monuments and Sites, which is celebrated on April 18. The theme for 2021 is ‘Complex Pasts, Diverse Futures’, with a view to “reflect on, reinterpret, and re-examine existing narratives” about our built heritage.

It is a particularly relevant theme in these days of contested histories of both ownership and authorship of historical monuments and sites. ICOMOS has thought of this theme to encourage a critical examination of the pasts of various components of our cultural heritage, and to ensure an inclusive approach with unbiased and nuanced understanding.

Mulling over this year’s theme, what immediately struck me was how prehistoric origins of monuments or the sites they stand on are often overlooked in popular narratives of cultural heritage, usually due to lack of awareness, or deterioration of traces from the ancient past due to the action of the elements and humans over time.

Virtually all monuments and sites have complex pasts. A quote from the British prehistorian Colin Renfrew seems relevant: “The landscape in which we live is a constructed environment, rich with the memories of earlier people and events.” While at first glance this seems to merely state the obvious, one would be amazed at how deep the history of many monuments and sites runs.

For instance, it has been observed by archaeologists that many relatively recent monuments like stupas and temples stand on earlier megalithic sites. Megaliths are funerary and commemorative monuments, often built of stone, and erected in the Iron Age, or even earlier and occur in large numbers especially in southern India.

Hundreds of boulder circles — a type of megalith wherein a ring of boulders marks a burial, were observed near the great stupa at Amaravati in
Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, numerous megalithic monuments were observed near Buddhist stupa sites at Goli, Chandavaram (Andhra Pradesh) and Kushinagara (Uttar Pradesh), which were unfortunately not studied even cursorily by the early excavators of the stupas.

Memorial sites

At Aihole in Karnataka, within a fortified compound atop Meguti Hill, is a Jain temple erected during the rule of the Early Chalukyan King Pulakeshi II, in 634 CE. However, the entire hillside behind the temple is strewn with numerous megalithic monuments. The megaliths are believed to pre-date the temple, since there was a rich tradition of megalith-building in the Malaprabha Valley long before the period of Early Chalukyan rule. The very fact that the temple-builders did not disturb the megalithic monuments, or use them as a convenient source of quarried stone, shows the regard they had for those whose memories the megaliths represent.

To the west of Meguti Hill, on the northern part of another low hill are two clusters of Hindu temples — the Ramalingeshwara group and the Galaganatha group. Strewn behind and between the clusters, and even amidst the temples, are a scattering of megaliths. One of these is a heap of rubble which is a megalithic cairn, within which are embedded three hero stones from the medieval period. Hero stones commemorate valorous death, so this is a clear case of medieval builders re-using prehistoric sites for similar purposes.

Why did the temple-builders choose to locate their monuments in megalithic memorial sites? Recent research has suggested that many of the temples in the Malaprabha Valley were built to commemorate the dead. Thus, the temples are merely carrying on the commemorative tradition represented by the megaliths. The nature of the stupa as a commemorative monument or reliquary is well-known, so the presence of stupas in megalithic graveyards should come as no surprise.

It is also quite common to find panels of prehistoric rock art near early temples. Near the Mahakuta group of temples at Badami is a structure known as the Hire Makuteshwara Temple. The temple itself is a clever piece of architecture – the artisans who built it have ingeniously placed the flat-roofed structure beneath the overhang of a cliff, which literally becomes the shikhara of the temple. But even more interesting is that the side of the cliff is plastered with prehistoric rock art – paintings in red ochre.

Preferred locations?

The examples are too numerous to be mere coincidences. So why did our forebears choose to locate their creations near those of their distant ancestors? There are no clear answers, but it is possible that later occupants of a landscape might have found the sacred sites of earlier ones to be of sufficient importance to put up their own structures, even if the two were culturally discontinuous.

Our heritage is a weave of many cultural strands, some prominent, others subtle but equally important to the construction of the fabric. Not only were megalithic sites the context for later structures, but the monuments themselves were precursors which evolved to give us the rich repository of later monumental architecture.

Megaliths being prehistoric monuments, their builders have not left behind textual records of their beliefs and intentions. However, the monuments themselves hold important clues about the knowledge-systems their builders possessed. For instance, the menhirs of Nilaskal, in southern Karnataka, frame the setting sun on both solstices of the year, an intentional alignment probably of symbolic importance to an ancient cult of the dead.

It is important that our narratives of the pasts of our monuments and sites are complex enough to incorporate accounts of these crude, but important structures, too, so that the diverse futures of these do not exclude this ‘silent’ phase of our history.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

History of Azerbaijan

The favorable geographic and climatic conditions of Azerbaijan furthered the appearance of humanity on its territory from great antiquity. The history of Azerbaijan begins in the Paleolithic era. In the northwest of Azerbaijan, on Aveydag Mountain and in the caves of Azikh in Garabag, stone tools have been found. Aside from this, the lower jaw of one of the most ancient forms of Neanderthal man was found in Azikh cave. Relics from the Bronze Age have been found in Khojali, Gadabey, Dashkesan, Ganja, Mingechevir and Nakhchivan. Not far from Baku, in Gobustan, at the place of settlement of ancient people, rock carvings about 10,000 years in age have survived. Here is a rock with an inscription in Latin relating to an expedition of the centurions of the Roman Legion in Gobustan in the 1st century AD: "In the time of Domician Cesar August Germanic, Luciy Yulij Maxim, and Centurion XII of the Legion of Blitzkrieg".

In the late 3 rd - early 2 nd millennium A.D., the preconditions for the origins of civilization were formed. The genesis of state formation on the territory of Azerbaijan were the tribal unions of Manna and Media, and following them, the Caduceus, Caspians, Albans and others also inhabited the territory of Azerbaijan in the 1st millennium A.D. In the 9 th century B.C. the Manna state formed, and in the 7 th century the other large ancient state, Media, appeared spreading its power over a huge territory very rapidly. This state reached its greatest power under the rule of czar Kiaksar (625-584 A.D.), becoming the biggest empire in the Orient at the time. In the middle of the 4th century A.D. leadership in Media passed into the hands of the Achaemenid dynasty. The state of Achaemenids fell under the assault of Alexander the Great's military, and at the end of the 4 th century a new state, Atropatena (The Country of the Fire Keepers), was formed. Fire-worship, or Zoroastrianism, was the main religion of Atropatena. Household and cultural life in the country reached a high level the pekhlevy written language was used: money circulation increased handcrafts were developed and in particular the manufacture of woolen cloths was widely famous. In the 1st century A.D. the Albanian Caucasian state formed. At the beginning of the 4th century in Albania, Christianity was accepted as the state religion temples were erected through the entire country, many of which have been preserved to the present day. At the beginning of the 5 th century an Albanian alphabet was created, consisting of 52 characters.

Throughout its history, Azerbaijan was more than once exposed to the invasions of foreign aggressors: raids of nomadic tribes, Huns and Khazars and others roared through the Derbend passage. In the middle of the 7 th century, an Arabian invasion of Azerbaijan began. During the opposition Javanshir, an Albanian commander and leader of the feudal possession of Girdiman, became famous. At the beginning of the 8th century, the Arabian caliphate captured Azerbaijan. Islam became the main religion of Azerbaijan. In the 9 th century, a large popular rebellion occurred which grew into a peasant war, under the leadership of Babek. The war enveloped a huge territory, equal to the territories of the modern European states. For 20 years, Babek was the leader of a peasant state thanks to his leadership and organizational talents. In the second half of the 9 th and first half of the 10 th centuries, number of feudal states formed and gained power. Among them was the Shirvanshahs' state, with its center in Shamakhi town taking a special place. It existed up to the 16 th century and played a huge role in the history of medieval Azerbaijan.

Over many centuries the Azeri people, scientists, poets and authors, architects and art workers, created a high culture, making their contribution to the treasure house of world civilization. An outstanding monument of Azerbaijan folk literature is the heroic epic "Kitabi Dede Gorgud". In the 11 th and 12 th centuries outstanding scientists Makki ibn Ahmed and Bahmanyar, poets and philosophers Khatib Tebrizi, Khagani, poetess Mehseti Ganjevi and others lived and created. In Azerbaijan are preserved masterpieces of architecture from this era: the mausoleums of Yusuf ibn Kuseyir and Momine-khatun in Nakhchivan and others. The peak of the public and the cultural ideas of Azerbaijan of this period was the creativity of Nizami Ganjevi (1141-1209), which is among the best of world culture. The economic and cultural rise of Azerbaijan was interrupted in the 1320's and 1330's by the Mongolian invasion, and from the end of the 14th century the intrusions of Tamerlane's armies crossed Azerbaijan.

These invasions slowed, but didn't stop the development of Azerbaijan's culture. In the 13th-14th centuries, outstanding poets Zulfugar Shirvani, Ahvedi Maragi, and Izeddin Hasanoglu, scientist Nasreddin Tusi (founder of the Maraga observatory), philosopher Mahmud Shabustari, historians Fazlullah Rashidaddin, Muhammad Nakhchivani and others vastly expanded the knowledge base of the area's culture.

The main centers of Azeri culture in the14 th and 15 th centuries were Tebriz and Shamakhi. In this period, the palace of the Shirvanshahs was erected in Baku - a masterpiece of medieval Azeri architecture they also constructed the Blue mosque in Tebriz and other treasures.

At the beginning of the 16 th century, the state of the Sefevids, with its capital in Tebriz, played a significant role in the history of Azerbaijan. The founder of this state was the Shah Ismail I (1502-24). For the first time, all of Azerbaijan was unified into one sovereign state.

From the middle of the 18 th century, on the territory of Azerbaijan, the process of formation of independent states, or khanates, began. Different khanates were well known for various kinds of crafts. Sheki was the center of silk spinning, in the Shirvan khanate the manufacture of fine utensils and weapons was developed, in Gub - carpet making, and so on. The historical conditions of the 17 th -18 th centuries saw the foundations of expression of the culture of Azerbaijan. One outstanding monument of national creativity is the heroic epic "Koroglu", named after the national hero, the leader of the peasants acting against foreign and local aggressors. The outstanding monuments of Azeri poetry of the 17 th -18 th centuries include the creativity of the great poet, Fuzuli.

In the first half of the 19 th century, as a result of the Russian-Iranian wars, the State of Azerbaijan appeared, divided in half As a result of the Gulistan and Turkmenchay peace treaties of 1813 and 1828 between Russia and Iran, the Carabag, Ganja, Shirvan, Sheki, Baku, Derbend, Cuba, Talish, Nakhchivan, Erivan khanates and other territories came under the rule of Tsarist Russia. In the subsequent period the Russian Empire and petroleum industry played a big role in the development of Azerbaijan and its capital, Baku. Petroleum in Baku has been extracted from time immemorial.

In the second half of the 19 th century, the unprecedented growth of oil extraction began. The first large industrial enterprises appeared. Primitive petroleum wells were replaced with gushing boreholes. Since 1873, steam engines began to be used in drilling. High profits drew local and foreign capitals into the petroleum industry of Baku. In 1901, about 50% of all global oil extraction happened around Baku. In the middle of the 19 th century the German firm Siemens constructed two copper-smelting factories in Gadabey, which completed one fourth of copper smelting in Imperial Russia. On May 28, 1918 the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed. It was the first republic in all the Muslim East. The Republic existed for almost 2 years and was overthrown by the Soviet Union. On April 28, 1920 the eleventh Red Army entered the capital of Azerbaijan. According to the Constitution of 1936, Azerbaijan became an allied republic in the structure of the USSR.

After the disintegration of the USSR, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan accepted the declaration "On the restoration of the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan", and the sovereign Azerbaijan Republic was proclaimed. Since obtaining independence in 1991 Azerbaijan has faced a number of serious problems, connected with the economic chaos brought about by the difficulties of the transition to a market economy. The contract signed in September 1994 with a consortium of international petroleum companies, called "The Contract of Century", has brought great wealth to the country.

In spite of any adversity, the Azeri people always have a belief in the future and a large optimism. And today, when our young Republic is following the road of independent development, we trust that Azerbaijan will occupy the place in the world that it deserves, according to its past, present and future.

Over several millennia, the talents of many people in numerous invaluable works have embodied the bright and many-sided history of Azerbaijan. Certificates of the centuries-old history of Azerbaijan are its monuments of history and culture. In the country, the ruins of antique and medieval cities, defenses - fortresses and towers, magnificent monuments of architecture - temples, mosques, khanegies, mausoleums, palaces, caravanserais and others have been preserved.

When an Enemy’s Cultural Heritage Becomes One’s Own

Could the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh offer new hope for the preservation of threatened monuments everywhere?

Mr. Eakin is a Brown Foundation fellow.

Since its origins in the ninth century, Dadivank Monastery has withstood Seljuk and Mongol invasions, Persian domination, Soviet rule and, this fall, a second brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Now the majestic stone complex — which includes two frescoed churches, a bell tower and numerous medieval inscriptions — faces something that could be even worse: a dangerous peace.

Perched on a rugged slope west of Nagorno-Karabakh, Dadivank is one of the hundreds of Armenian churches, monuments and carved memorial stones in a disputed region that will come under the control of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan according to a cease-fire agreement reached this month. Some of those structures — like the Amaras monastery and the basilica of Tsitsernavank — date to the earliest centuries of Christianity. For many Armenians, turning over so much of their heritage to a sworn enemy poses a grave new threat, even as the bloodshed has for the moment come to an end.

Their concern is understandable. Under the cease-fire, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis uprooted by a previous war in the early 1990s will be able to return. In a victory speech on Nov. 25, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan suggested that Armenians have no historical claims to the region, asserting that the churches belonged to ancient Azerbaijani forebears and had been “Armenianized” in the 19th century.

Between 1997 and 2006, the Azerbaijani government undertook a devastating campaign against Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the main part of the country by Armenian territory: Some 89 churches and the thousands of khachkars, or carved memorial stones, of the Djulfa cemetery, the largest medieval Armenian cemetery in the world, were destroyed. And since the recent cease-fire, images circulating on social media suggest that some Armenian monuments and churches in territory newly claimed by Azerbaijan have already been vandalized or defiled.

On the other hand, Armenian forces laid to waste the Azerbaijani town of Agdam in the wake of the previous Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. The Azerbaijani government has also claimed that mosques and Muslim sites that had been under Armenian control were neglected or desecrated.

Now, as Azerbaijan takes possession of newly won territories, a longstanding problem acquires special urgency: How can a government be persuaded to care for the heritage of a people that doesn’t fit into its view of the nation?

In any instance of intercommunal strife, preserving monuments must take a distant second place to saving lives and protecting human welfare. But the fate of cultural sites matters, too, for the prospects of long-term peace.

Until now, international efforts to protect monuments have overwhelmingly focused on acts of war and terrorist violence. Following the widespread destruction of museums, libraries and artworks during World War II, diplomats drafted the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was eventually ratified by more than 130 countries. But the treaty had a significant loophole for “military necessity.”

Since the Cold War, deliberate attacks on an adversary’s major monuments — the Croatians’ shelling of the Old Bridge of Mostar, Bosnia, in 1993 the Taliban’s dynamiting of the giant sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001 the Islamic State’s razing of Yazidi shrines in Iraq in 2014-15 — have pushed world leaders and international organizations to give more teeth to the existing legal framework.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court was established to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes — including, in the case of war crimes, for the intentional destruction of cultural heritage. In 2008, following widespread outrage over the looting and damage to sites in Iraq during the American invasion and occupation, the United States Senate ratified the 1954 Hague Convention.

More recently, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, launched a high-profile campaign to counter what Irina Bokova, a former UNESCO director general, called “cultural cleansing” by “violent extremists.” In 2016 the I.C.C. convicted a Malian jihadist of war crimes for leading attacks on the 14th-century Djinguereber Mosque and other sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

That year, several governments called for the creation of “an international network of safe havens” to protect cultural property at risk of imminent attack. In 2017, the U.N. Security Council also condemned the destruction of cultural sites by terrorist groups. President Trump’s threat, in January, to target “important” cultural sites in Iran caused an uproar, as well as pushback from the Pentagon.

Yet some of the most systematic destruction in modern times has involved sovereign governments rather than military combatants or extremist groups. China launched a sweeping campaign against Tibetan monasteries, not during the annexation of Tibet in 1950-51, but years later, when the region was firmly under Beijing’s rule. The Turkish government continued to seize or destroy Armenian sites in Eastern Anatolia many decades after the Armenian genocide, including even in recent years.

Since 2012, the Myanmar military has demolished hundreds of mosques and Islamic schools in Rakhine State — part of its brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. Satellite evidence suggests that the Chinese authorities have destroyed 8,500 mosques in Xinjiang in the last three years alone.

Just a few months ago, India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, laid the cornerstone for a new Hindu temple on the site of the 16th-century Babri Mosque, which was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has ordered that two of Istanbul’s most important Byzantine churches — Chora and Hagia Sophia — be converted from museums to mosques, raising fears that their extraordinary Christian mosaics might not be cared for.

But in all of these cases, the United Nations, the United States and its European allies have remained largely mute. UNESCO, which depends on many of the offending governments for funding and support, has shown little interest in intervening. And alliances and prevailing international norms tend to make foreign governments reluctant to interfere with the domestic affairs of other nations during peacetime.

By contrast, the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, where a hot war has just ended, could provide a rare opportunity.

As in other post-conflict situations, cultural sites are particularly vulnerable to score-settling attacks. In 1992, Georgian forces destroyed numerous Abkhaz cultural sites in the former Soviet republic of Abkhazia, including the archive containing much of the region’s history in the five years after Kosovo’s 1998-99 war with Serbia, some 140 Serbian Orthodox churches and monuments in Kosovo were burned or destroyed.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of war, precisely because a peace effort is underway, foreign governments and international peacekeepers are unusually well-placed to intervene. Unlike during armed conflict, there is also a chance for international mediators and local communities to work together to prevent attacks before the damage is done.

The historical treasures of Nagorno-Karabakh need not become casualties of the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan — nor drivers of a next one.

Since antiquity, numerous sites and monuments have successfully passed from the control of one group to another, often across confessional lines. The Pantheon in Rome, one of the greatest pagan temples of antiquity, owes its remarkable survival in part to its adoption by the Catholic Church in the seventh century. After the fall of Constantinople, Mehmed II the Conqueror preserved Hagia Sophia as a mosque. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther opposed the destruction of Catholic art in Germany, even as he sought to stamp out Catholicism.

In these cases, major buildings or artworks were recognized by their new stewards as having transcendent value, aesthetic or otherwise. Prestige helped determine preservation: As later Catholic chroniclers argued, the Holy See, by converting one of the greatest Roman buildings into a church, had inherited the glory of the ancient world.

But legions of lesser-known buildings, artworks and sites have also been cared for and maintained across centuries and traditions. Typically, that has been because they spoke to the people living around them, regardless of the identity of their creators.

During the Syrian civil war, while Western leaders were wringing their hands about Islamic State attacks on Palmyra, the ancient trading city and UNESCO World Heritage site, residents of Idlib, a rebel-controlled city, courageously protected the ancient, pre-Islamic mosaics and structures in their communities. They viewed these artifacts and sites as crucial to their own contemporary Syrian identity.

In divided Cyprus, a joint cultural-heritage commission of Greek and Turkish Cypriots was created in 2012 to care for endangered monuments on both sides of the island. Funded by the European Union and the U.N. Development Program, the commission has been embraced by both communities for restoring churches as well as mosques and hamams, and ancient aqueducts and fortifications. Following recent arson attacks on mosques in Greek Cypriot territory, the Greek Orthodox community was quick to condemn the assailants.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, too, cultural reconciliation is still possible. Despite the dismal record of the past three decades, both sides have demonstrated awareness of — and admiration for — heritage that is not their own. In 2019, Armenians restored a prominent 19th-century mosque in Shusha (though they pointedly failed to note its previous use by Azerbaijani Muslims). And in his recent address, Mr. Aliyev acknowledged the importance of the region’s churches — even as he denied their Armenian origin.

Security must come first. Russia has already deployed peacekeepers at Dadivank Monastery and has pressed Azerbaijan to protect other Armenian monuments now under its control. The European Union should make similar demands as part of its offer of humanitarian aid, as well as insist that Armenians’ access to important churches is assured. The Azerbaijani government, which already has obtained much of what it wanted in the cease-fire, would have a strong incentive to comply.

But a durable future for Armenian sites — especially the numerous less known medieval churches and ornate khachkars — will require direct engagement by Armenians and Azerbaijanis themselves.

In fact, the two communities have coexisted at many points in the past. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was once home to an Armenian population, and there were a number of mosques in Armenia. In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the strategic town of Shusha, now under Azerbaijani control, has important 19th-century monuments from both nations — including the distinctive mosque with twin minarets that was controversially restored by the Armenians and a large cathedral, which was damaged by Azerbaijani forces during the recent fighting.

Despite centuries of regime change, many of the most important monuments in the region, including Dadivank and other early Armenian sites, have endured — a reminder that the supposedly ancient and intractable differences driving the current conflict are of recent manufacture. Like the beleaguered civilians around them, these buildings need the world’s immediate attention. But their very survival — like that of the Pantheon or Hagia Sophia — so far points to a hopeful truth: It is the natural inclination of human beings to preserve destruction takes special effort and motivation.

Hugh Eakin, a Brown Foundation Fellow, has reported on endangered cultural heritage for The New York Review of Books and other publications.

Monte Alban – Ancient Observatory

The builders of Monte Alban went to great lengths to build the city on top of an impractical craggy hilltop and in order to provide the open space required for markets, festivals, religious ceremonies and the enormous population, the builders had to flatten the entire hilltop (as you can see from fig: W0069) and dig enclosures and plazas down into the rock rather than building walls around them. This gargantuan effort seems unnecessary, as there was plenty of flat space on the valley floor where building and farming would have been easy, so clearly there was an important motive for building Monte Alban on this hill. The most popular theory is that a threat from rival tribes in the valley prompted the nearby city of San Jose Mogote to relocate to this safe haven. Undoubtedly the location did offer great natural defenses and Monte Alban also held a great strategic position, standing at the centre of the Oaxaca Valley network close to where it splits into three prongs, which meant it could exert its power both militarily and socially on the tribes of the valley. These attributes are certainly what brought about Monte Alban centuries of success as the Zapotec capital, but they weren’t necessarily the reasons why building was originally started here.

Fig. W0069: Monte Alban’s Main Plaza Looking North, note the odd shape and misalignment of Building J immediately in front of us.

The first clue that Monte Alban is not just a tactical fortress, is the strict north/south alignment. The builders deliberately cut-away the hilltop to create a space that allowed the main plaza and surrounding temples to be aligned from north to south. This additional complexity, and the work involved, proves that it was built this way through necessity – and it certainly wouldn’t have helped the city’s defences, so it must have been built this way for another reason. Typically, cardinal alignments such as this were used to align the temples with the rising and setting sun as well as constellations in order to track time and make offerings to the Gods.

The alignment itself is not unusual for a Mesoamerican city, but amongst the regimented pyrimidal structures and strict north/south alignments that the builders worked so hard to achieve, there is one building that stands out like a sore thumb, known as Building J. This curious building is one of the oldest structures at Monte Alban and sits boldly in the centre of the main plaza – which has also been cut into the hilltop deliberately on a north south axis. But Building J does not fit any axis and although it is aligned with
Fig MA01: Map detailing the alignment of Building J the three other temples in the central group, the building is skewed awkwardly and points diagonally towards the south west. Not only is its alignment wrong, but it is also a very odd pentagonal shape.

Whilst photo W0069 (above) shows the view due north up the main plaza and shows the odd shaped Building J directly in the centre, figure MA01 (left) shows a map of Monte Alban with south at the bottom and north at the top, and as you can see Building J is the only building not following a strict North/South alignment – and features a curious pentagonal shape. This clearly must be deliberate and it has been suggested that Building J may quite literally point to the answer like an arrow.

Curiously, both its shape and its alignment matches a star group known to us as Auriga. The pentagonal arrowhead of Building J can be traced backwards perpendicular to the rear wall and through a marker still present on a temple structure known as Building P. This alignment would have pointed to a star known as Capella on its heliacal rising between the 275BC and 100AD, which is when Building J is thought to have been
Auriga Constallation constructed. This theory is supported by the shape of Building J, which is the same shape as the five brightest stars of a constellation known to us as Auriga, in which Capella is the brightest star. So it is likely that the whole constellation held significance to the people of Monte Alban, even though it is specifically Capella that Building J was used to observe. The heliacal rising of Capella was incidentally on the same day the sun moved directly overhead as it travelled north and Building J features a “zenith tube” to capture this event. The heliacal rising of a star is the day on which it re-emerges at sunrise after a period of invisibility due to it rising after sunrise (the star then rises earlier each day, i.e. during the night, thus becoming visible again). A zenith tube is a narrow passageway which only allows light to shine directly through it on a specific day when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky . Normally, this would light up a sacred symbol on the floor or an altar where offerings would be left for the Sun God.

The combination of the rising of Capella and Auriga in conjunction with the sun moving directly overhead obviously held great meaning to the people of Monte Alban. Quite probably they had attributed the occasion to a mythical event where two Gods, personified as the Sun and Auriga, came together either in a sacred battle or in union. It is certain that a religious festival would have taken place and this maybe detailed in the so called “Conquest Slabs” which adorn Building J. These slabs, which number 40 or so, have been named as conquest slabs in the belief that they represent slain enemies of Monte Alban – presumed to be rival tribal chiefs.
Fig. 0258c – Colourised Conquest Slab However, they seem to represent human sacrifice rather than conquests (as discussed in the article “Monte Alban – The Conquest Slabs“), which would correlate with a religious festival during which captives or chosen representatives would be sacrificed as part of the ritual. Equally, the astrological event could have signified a favourable portent for going to war, and so successful conquests could also be related to the heliacal rising of Capella and the motion of the Sun overhead. Either way, Building J was certainly used to read celestial events and is deserving of it title, The Observatory.

Finally, excavations show that the site had been used for some centuries before the city was built. So, it would seem plausible that the hill was used as an observatory long before the idea of building an impractical city came along. In fact, far from being elected as a the perfect setting for an impenetrable fortress, the city may not have been deliberately built here at all. Instead, the hilltop clearly provided the perfect 360° views of the horizon required to create an observatory capable of reading the omens and portents attributed to astrological alignments and to act as a clock for agriculture and religious festivals. In time, as the plateau was levelled and monuments and temples were erected, a workforce of builders and priests began to occupy the hilltop. The success of its readings may then have made it an important religious sanctuary which attracted pilgrims and royalty from afar- there is even evidence of a Teotihuacan commune here. This in-turn required an ever-expanding workforce and steadily Monte Alban grew from a sacred sanctuary into one of the grandest cities ever built on the American content – to this day.

For further information about the astronomical principles used by Monte Alban’s builders, click here. Otherwise, see related articles below to uncover more of Monte Alban history and mstery.


Being visible from anywhere in the central part of the Valley of Oaxaca, the impressive ruins of Monte Albán attracted visitors and explorers throughout the colonial and modern eras. Among others, Guillermo Dupaix investigated the site in the early 19th century CE, J. M. García published a description of the site in 1859, and A. F. Bandelier visited and published further descriptions in the 1890s. A first intensive archaeological exploration of the site was conducted in 1902 by Leopoldo Batres, then General Inspector of Monuments for the Mexican government under Porfirio Diaz. [2]

It was not until 1931 that large-scale scientific excavations were undertaken, under the direction of Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso. In 1933, Eulalia Guzmán assisted with the excavation of Tomb 7. [3] Over the following eighteen years, Caso and his colleagues Ignacio Bernal and Jorge Acosta excavated large sections within the monumental core of the site. Much of what is visible today in areas open to the public was reconstructed at that time. Besides resulting in the excavation of a large number of residential and civic-ceremonial structures and hundreds of tombs and burials, one lasting achievement of the project by Caso and his colleagues was the establishment of a ceramic chronology (phases Monte Albán I through V) for the period between the site's founding in c. 500 BCE to end of the Postclassic period in CE 1521.

The investigation of the periods preceding Monte Albán's founding was a major focus in the late 1960s of the Prehistory and Human Ecology Project started by Kent Flannery of the University of Michigan. Over the following two decades, this project documented the development of socio-political complexity in the valley from the earliest Archaic period (c. 8000–2000 BCE) to the Rosario phase (700–500 BCE) immediately preceding Monte Albán. It set the stage for an understanding of the latter's founding and developmental trajectory. In this context, among the major accomplishments of Flannery's work in Oaxaca are his extensive excavations at the important formative center of San José Mogote in the Etla branch of the valley, a project co-directed with Joyce Marcus of the University of Michigan. [4] [5]

A further important step in the understanding of the history of occupation of the Monte Albán site was reached with the Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the Valley of Oaxaca Project begun by Richard Blanton and several colleagues from the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. Their intensive survey and mapping of the entire site demonstrated the full scale and size of Monte Albán, beyond the limited area which had been explored by Caso. [1] Subsequent seasons of the same project under the direction of Blanton, Gary Feinman, Steve Kowalewski, Linda Nicholas, and others extended the survey coverage to practically the entire valley, producing an invaluable amount of data on the region's changing settlement patterns from the earliest times to the arrival of the Spanish in CE 1521. [6] [7]

As indicated by Blanton's survey of the site, the Monte Albán hills appear to have been uninhabited prior to 500 BCE (the end of the Rosario ceramic phase). At that time, San José Mogote was the major population center in the valley and base of a chiefdom that likely controlled much of the northern Etla branch. [5] Perhaps as many as three or four other, smaller chiefly centers controlled other sub-regions of the valley, including Tilcajete in the southern Valle Grande branch and Yegüih in the Tlacolula arm to the east. Competition and warfare seem to have characterized the Rosario phase. The regional survey data suggests the existence of an unoccupied buffer zone between the San José Mogote chiefdom and those to the south and east. [5]

It is within this no-man's land that Monte Albán was founded at the end of the Rosario period and it quickly reached a population estimate of around 5,200 by the end of the following Monte Albán Ia phase (c. 300 BCE). This remarkable population increase was accompanied by an equally rapid decline at San José Mogote and neighbouring satellite sites, making it likely that its chiefly elites were directly involved in the founding of the future Zapotec capital. This rapid shift in population and settlement, from dispersed localized settlements to a central urban site in a previously unsettled area, has been referred to as the “Monte Alban Synoikism” by Marcus and Flannery, [5] : 140–146 in reference to similar recorded instances in the Mediterranean area in antiquity.

Although it was previously thought [1] that a similar process of large-scale abandonment, and thus participation in the founding of Monte Albán, occurred at other major chiefly centers, such as Yegüih and Tilcajete, at least in the latter's case this now appears to be unlikely. A recent project directed by Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has shown that, rather than being abandoned, the site grew significantly in population during the periods Monte Albán Early I and Late I (c. 500–300 BCE and 300–100 BCE, respectively). Tilcajete might have actively opposed incorporation into the increasingly powerful Monte Albán state. [8]

By the beginning of the Terminal Formative (Monte Albán II phase, c. 100 BCE – CE 200), Monte Albán had an estimated population of 17,200, [5] : 139 making it one of the largest Mesoamerican cities at the time. As its political power grew, Monte Albán expanded militarily, through cooption, and via outright colonization, into several areas outside the Valley of Oaxaca, including the Cañada de Cuicatlán to the north and the southern Ejutla and Sola de Vega valleys. [9] [10] [11] (Feinman and Nicholas 1990) During this period and into the subsequent Early Classic (Monte Albán IIIA phase, c. CE 200–500), Monte Albán was the capital of a major regional polity that exerted a dominating influence over the Valley of Oaxaca and across much of the Oaxacan highlands. Evidence at Monte Albán is suggestive of high-level contacts between the site's elites and those at the powerful central Mexican city of Teotihuacan, where archaeologists have identified a neighbourhood inhabited by ethnic Zapotecs from the valley of Oaxaca (Paddock 1983). By the Late Classic (Monte Albán IIIB/IV, c. CE 500–1000), the site's influence outside and inside the valley declined. Elites at several other centers, once part of the Monte Albán state, began to assert their autonomy, including sites such as Cuilapan and Zaachila in the Valle Grande and Lambityeco, Mitla, and El Palmillo in the eastern Tlacolula arm. The latter is the focus of an ongoing project by Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas of Chicago's Field Museum (Feinman and Nicholas 2002). By the end of the same period (c. AD 900–1000), the ancient capital was largely abandoned. The once powerful Monte Albán state was replaced by dozens of competing smaller polities, a situation that lasted up to the Spanish conquest. [12]

The monumental center of Monte Albán is the Main Plaza, which measures approximately 300 meters by 200 meters. The site's main civic-ceremonial and elite-residential structures are located around it or in its immediate vicinity. Most of these have been explored and restored by Alfonso Caso and his colleagues.

To the north and south the Main Plaza is delimited by large platforms accessible from the plaza via monumental staircases. On its eastern and western sides, the plaza is similarly bounded by a number of smaller platform mounds, on which stood temples and elite residences, as well as one of two ballcourts known to have existed at the site. A north-south spine of mounds occupies the center of the plaza and similarly served as platforms for ceremonial structures.

One characteristic of Monte Albán is the large number of carved stone monuments throughout the plaza. The earliest examples are the so-called "Danzantes" (literally, dancers), found mostly in the vicinity of Building L. These represent naked men in contorted and twisted poses, some of them genitally mutilated. The figures are said to represent sacrificial victims, which explains the morbid characteristics of the figures. The Danzantes feature physical traits characteristic of Olmec culture. [13] The 19th-century notion that they depict dancers is now largely discredited. These monuments, dating to the earliest period of occupation at the site (Monte Albán I), are now interpreted as representing tortured, sacrificed war prisoners, some identified by name. They may depict leaders of competing centers and villages captured by Monte Albán. [5] (Blanton et al. 1996) Over 300 “Danzantes” stones have been recorded to date, and some of the better preserved ones can be viewed at the site's museum. There is some indication that the Zapotecs had writing and calendrical notation.

A different type of carved stones is found on the nearby Building J in the center of the Main Plaza, a building also characterized by its unusual arrow-like shape and an orientation that differs from most other structures at the site. Inserted within the building walls are more than 40 large, carved slabs dating to Monte Albán II. They depict place-names, occasionally accompanied by additional writing and in many cases characterized by upside-down heads. Alfonso Caso was the first to identify these stones as "conquest slabs", likely listing places which the Monte Albán elites claimed to have conquered and/or controlled. Some of the places listed on Building J slabs have been tentatively identified. In one case (the Cañada de Cuicatlán region in northern Oaxaca), Zapotec conquest there has been confirmed through archaeological survey and excavations. [10] [11]

The site of Monte Alban contains several pieces of evidence, through its architecture, to suggest that there was social stratification within the settlement. Walls ranging up to nine meters tall and twenty meters wide were built around the settlement these would not only have created a boundary between Monte Alban and neighboring settlements, but also proved the power of the elites within the community. In Scott Hutson's analysis of the relationships between the commoners and the elites in Monte Alban, he notes that the monumental mounds found within the site seemed to be evenly spaced throughout the area. The mounds were thus close enough to each house to easily keep them under surveillance. Hutson also notes that, over time, the style of houses seemed to have changed, becoming more private to those living in the buildings and making it harder for outsiders to obtain information about the residents. These changes in the ability of the elites to gain information about the private lives of other citizens would have played a key role in the internal political structure of the settlement. [14]

Many of the artifacts excavated at Monte Albán, in over a century of archaeological exploration, can be seen at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City and at the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, located in the former convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca City. The latter museum houses many of the objects discovered in 1932 by Alfonso Caso in Monte Albán's Tomb 7, a Classic period Zapotec tomb that was opportunistically reused in Postclassic times for the burial of Mixtec elite individuals. Their burials were accompanied by some of the most spectacular burial offerings of any site in the Americas. [15]

Monte Albán is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Oaxaca. Its small museum on site displays mostly original carved stones from the site. The site received 429,702 visitors in 2017. [16]

The primary threat to this archaeological site is urban growth, which is encroaching and "threatening to expand into territories that have potential archaeological value." [17] To complicate matters, the administration of the site is divided amongst four different municipalities, making a unified effort to stop the urban encroachment challenging. [17]

Symmetry was not a major concern for the layout of Monte Albán plaza. Although the angles within the plaza are not perfect 90-degree corners, the plaza appears to be a rectangle without actually being so. The structures are not laid out in a symmetrical fashion, as the distances between the structures vary greatly from building to building. Construction methods used for orientation changed as Monte Albán expanded. Early structures, on the western side of the plaza, are rotated south of east, while later structures align more with the cardinal directions.

The exception is the structure referred to as building “J.” This structure is located on the center line of the plaza but it is rotated and does not align with the other structures. It is believed that building “J” had an astronomical relation/ significance. In design / construction of the structures, earthquakes were also taken into consideration. Thick walls were often used in construction, as well as sloped sides when constructing tall / larger structures.

Monte Albán was not just a fortress or sacred place, but a fully functioning city. The inhabitants had come from the rich agricultural land below Monte Albán and depended greatly on agriculture. Monte Albán became an agricultural center as the area expanded which was developed with structures. The population cultivated the valleys and land up to the crest of the mountain in order to support this growing population.