The Newly Appointed World Heritage Sites of Yagul and Mitla

Things to Do, Whats New — By Vica Amuchastegui on January 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm

It seems like Oaxaca is starting 2011 with some new titles. Just four months ago the UNESCO -United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization- appointed the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and the Pre-Hispanic sites of Yagul and Mitla, just 22 miles from the city of Oaxaca, a World Heritage Site. This means that, even though the sites are property of Oaxaca, the international community has the interest of preserve them. This also means that the UNESCO believes that the importance of these sites are fundamental for the education and culture of the world.

To have a clear idea of what the UNESCO is, I’ll tell you really quick that it was created in 1945 to preserve and promote international collaboration through education, science and culture. Its World Heritage program seeks the preservation of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

In this case, the pre-historic caves and rock shelters were chosen because they’re considered the oldest evidence of civilization in America. They are located in the valleys of central Oaxaca and were nominated because of the 10 thousand years old pumpkin seeds, six thousand years old bean seeds and four thousand two hundred years old corn seeds founded in there, the pumpkin one being considered the oldest remaining of domesticated plants known so far in this continent.



As for the pre-Hispanic sites, Yagul has been occupied since 500 AD -some of the burials excavated on the site date from that era- but it was during 1250-1521 AD when this site lived its golden era, influenced by Monte Alban. There are about 30 tombs, some bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions, thus making them even more unique. The word Yagul means old tree in Zapotec and it can be easily guessed why, since it’s set around a hill.

Pre-Hispanic Sito of Yagul

Pre-Hispanic Site of Yagul

Now, about Mitla, why it took the UNESCO so long to inscribed it in its World Heritage List it’s beyond my comprehension. Mitla is an unique place in Mexico, and I dare to say, in the world. It was the most important religious center of the Zapotecs and is the second most important archeological site of Oaxaca, only behind Monte Alban (the political center of the Zapotec culture). The word Mitla comes from the Nahuatl Mictlán, which was the place of the dead. Its Zapotec name was Lyobaa, which means “place of rest”; the city was built as a gateway between the living and the dead.



After the Spanish Conquest, the clergy built the San Pablo church where Mitla’s main temple was, but never demolished the rest of the city, so the ruins were preserved making of this place an interesting marriage between the Spanish and the Zapotec cultures.

But what really makes Mitla unique is the decor and the geometry of the site. The intricate and unique entwines and fretworks designs covering tombs, friezes and walls were made with small cut stone pieces forming any pattern you could imagine. The city golden age was around 750 and 1521 when both the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs influenced its architecture.



In 1910 Mitla was chosen as symbol of pre-Hispanic civilizations for the celebrations of the 100 anniversary of the Independence. In 2010, for the celebration of the 200 anniversary it was chosen again.

Yagul and Mitla are a must see if you’re in Oaxaca. They’re about 40 minutes from the city, but you can either rent a car for a day or you can ask at the information center at Andador Alcalá for day-excursions. Find out for your own why these sites were added to the World Heritage list.

[photos courtesy of ames sf, maximalideal, maximalideal, RussBowling and Richard Weil/Flickr]

Tags: Mitla, Oaxaca, UNESCO, Yagul