The Route of the Monasteries
Dazzling scenery, stirring history and its poignant remains make the Alto Mixteco and its various valleys a remarkable travel experience, either for a day trip or for more.
The Historic Route
Now accessible thanks to the highway outside Tehuacan (Cuacnopalan) into Oaxaca (148 miles), the "Route of the Monasteries" actually began long ago on the shores of Asia Minor, in present day Turkey.
The Occidental version of a formal structure to house monks, their knowledge, their theological debates, their physical well-being, initially served as protection against attacks or the elements for the hermits of North Africa or the Aegean Coast.
Under Charlemagne, however, with the regimentation of the incipient Benedictine orders, the requirements for a monastery were submitted to debate, were carefully defined, and were then carried out under strict architectural and jurisdictional supervision.
Building a Monastery
The Benedictines, of course, divided and subdivided, but always from the point of view of their self-sufficiency in a stationary jurisdiction. So what does it take to build a monastery, after all? How big does it have to be? How much land attached? What were the gardens like? The mills, vineyards, oil presses, services and maintenance?
The only surviving plans refer to "Sankt Gallen," and persisted thanks to the work of the Swiss abbot Gozbert (A.D. 816-837). They give us an idea of the division of spaces, their assigned functions and the notion of building materials, according to the 9th century standards.
The remains of monasteries in Europe are enormous, but verify the diversity of duties performed, the importance of the libraries, the Medieval notion of medicine, of travel services for pilgrims or visiting dignitaries, or piety, prayer and isolation.
Monasteries in "New Spain"
None of this applied in New Spain. The Mendicant Orders, principally Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian, later followed by the Carmelites, required mobility over the largest possible area, in order not only to convert but restructure an entire social order, according to Christian standards. The monks begged, and therefore had little need for land to plant. And anyway, they were seldom at home. They rarely received visitors and had no pilgrims. The vast establishments of Europe, where preaching was usually directed at people of like race and faith, were of no use in the climate, topography and diversity of what the Iberians saw as a New World. And what had been taken for centuries as precise standards of painting, sculpture, architecture and adornment, in the high mountains, thick jungle, fertile valleys and dusty plains of a wide range of people, already greatly civilized in their own terms, with amazing dexterity and creative imagination, took unsuspected turns. New styles evolved, and a new standard to define them.
Each of the monasteries in the Valley of Nochixtlan, down the Pinotepa road, into the Valley of Etla, along the rich Valley of Oaxaca, up into the mountains toward Guelatao, is a unique masterpiece. The "open chapels" replaced the pre-hispanic ceremonial plaza and the atrial cross became the substitue for the earlier, informative stela. The porous building blocks, unlike anything in Europe, were culled from Mixtec and Zapotec structures. They were reoriented and redecorated. If they fell down in the many earthquakes they were put back up again. And each time, architecture and design were reinvented.
And so were language, the documentation of history, the notion of libraries and the style of the volumes they contained. And so was medicine. Medieval "bleeding" was replaced by a rich knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants; their flavor and aroma extended into cooking.
Monasteries Worth Seeing
Some of the favorite monasteries include Teposcolula, Coixtlahuaca and Yanhuitlan in the Alto Mixteco, but we also love Cuilapan and Tlacochahuaya in the Valley of Oaxaca, Etla and Huitzoin, the Valley of Etla. There are dozens to choose from. Some are in ruins, others are being reconstructed by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Some are hidden on remote back roads, others are just off the highway, or hiding in plain sight in downtown Oaxaca, like massive Santo Domingo, the pride and passion of the Dominican Order. Over six square miles of brick vaulting have been recovered. The ruins of the orchard are also an archaeological site. The library will soon be open to the public. The long galleries, redeemed from abandonment and despair, now serve as extensions for the Regional Museum, whose walls have been broken through to effect the connection.
Where, in the whole of the history of architecture, are to be found buildings like these? Only along the "Route of the Monasteries."
By Carol Miller
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