If you ever travel to Mexico you will not be able to escape how religion is completely intertwined with the culture. It is everywhere you go, whether you are experiencing modern Mexico, colonial Mexico, or pre-conquest Mexico. Whenever I made a purchase in the local markets, the person almost always kissed the money, then crossed themselves, thanking God for the business and the income.
Every single village you go to has a church that is grander than just about any you will experience in America. Even the churches in tiny little pueblos are impressive. The one above might look familiar to you. It is in San Pablo Etla and was featured in the movie Nacho Libre. Mexico is a highly Catholic country. It was not always so.
Before the conquest, the royal elites were revered as gods. Great cities were built for them. This is Monte Alban and it was used from 850bc - 850ad.
By the time the Spanish took control, Monte Alban had been abandoned for 700 years. The Spanish did not even know it was there. They were hungry for gold and had no idea how much gold was buried in the tombs dotted all over the mountain top city.
The conquistadors forced Catholicism upon the native people. I am not using 'forced' lightly - it was convert or die. For many of the native people it was convert and serve until you die, but that is a different story.
This city was once covered in brilliant white plaster and multi-chromatic pigments. An entire caste system serviced the priests and royal families. There was an army of people whose entire life consisted of carrying water to the mountain top. Day after day, year after year, they carried water up the 1500 foot climb from the water source below. They did it out of reverence for their gods. When conquered, many were forced to do the same type of labor, but as slaves.
I suspect many of you have seen the Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Though they were a similar culture living at the same time, the people of Monte Alban were not as focused on human sacrifice. They were a warrior nation, however.
When they waged war with a neighboring city state, they sacrificed the royal elites they conquered. They were also immortalized in stone.
Death was brutal for these prisoners, beginning with genital mutilation and then disemboweling.
What a divine view the divine had during their time.
Amazing that it took so many centuries for Monte Alban to be found again. It was not rediscovered until 1859.
One of the smart things the Spanish did was to blend the pagan religions and Catholicism together so it would be more widely accepted. You see hints of that constantly in Mexico.
Why do those floral elements look so similar to glyphs?
The Sacred Heart is a very common element. It comes in many variations.
The churches really are grand. This one is the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. It is the site of a miracle. It is said that at this spot, pack trains rested on their caravan route. When all the mules were collected, one remained unclaimed. In its pack was a crown of gold, which to this day rests on the carving of the Virgin Mary inside. You might notice I have no pictures of these church interiors. Photos are forbidden inside. The second a camera is seen, it is taken away. I learned this the hard way during my last visit to Oaxaca. You may have also noticed that in all my posts there are very few pictures with people in them. Many believe that a picture will steal one's soul. I try very hard to be respectful of this.
For such a poor country, great wealth was spent on church buildings. In the southern part of the valley, many were built using the stones of the pyramids that once stood in the same location. In Mitla, you can actually see the glyphs and carvings from those original buildings in the foundation stones.