Not a Castle and Montezuma Never Slept Here…

The Sinagua people were my kind of folks: travelers. When Zach and I encountered their history at Walnut Canyon National Memorial last year, I remembered them from a previous visit to the Sedona area.  For different and more critical reasons than my own —exploring for survival rather than out of curiosity, they made their way around the state of Arizona.  What they left behind leaves a fascinating picture of another world, another time…

It’s not really a castle and Montezuma probably never even heard of it. But Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley of  Arizona was the cliffside dwelling of the 12th century Sinagua Indians.

Early settlers attributed the dramatic structure to Aztec emperor Montezuma with enough certainty that the name stuck even if the facts didn’t fit.


Serenely nestled within the recesses of a limestone cliff, the five-story structure blends into the surrounding stone with mixed success. The natural rust and cream colors of the primitive buildings merge easily with the rocky frame that holds them so high. But the smoothed walls and squared windows of the ancient community sit in stunning contrast to the craggy limestone.

Montezuma's Castle, Arizona, CU1

Comprised of native limestone, mud, adobe plaster and sycamore wood, the twenty-room high-rise was accessed only by climbing a series of ladders. Borrowing a cup of anything from your neighbor was not for the faint of heart! Elevation permitted ample warning of approaching dangers, security from enemies and animals, and a clear view of Beaver Creek, an integral source of their sustenance.The history and culture of the tribe is fascinating as is the striking geology of the area.

I found my mind wandering to more basic questions however…

When, for instance, could a Sinaguan mother trust her child to wander from her protective sight? Did the children freely climb down to play beside the tree-lined stream below or look at it with longing as they hid in the cliffs above? Did the Sinaguas’ rigorous life ever allow them to appreciate the artistic sprawl of stark white sycamores against the bold blue sky? Were all content living in their aerie home or did the younger ones long for something new, something different? Was there ever time to dream of the world beyond?

Montezuma's Well, Arizona, with prickly pear

Difficult living can lead to economical curiosities. I wonder if these ancient people had the luxury of wondering…

Montezuma's Well, Arizona, irrigation canal with foliage

Montezuma’s Well lies eleven miles to the north. The highly carbonated limestone sinkhole is not fish-friendly but hosts five endemic species. The well was a significant irrigation source for the Hohokam Indians of the 8th century and later peoples such as the Sinaguas.

Again, Montezuma’s name is his only real connection to the well. If those Aztec-crazy artifact-labeling settlers had traveled further north, one has to wonder what we’d be calling the Grand Canyon today.

Camp Verde Things To Do

24 Comments to Not a Castle and Montezuma Never Slept Here…

  1. i have been there once before when i was in elementary school…

  2. Heather

    The last time I visited the “Castle” I was focused on making sure that my three kids didn’t miss anything. And it was wonderful to see their wonder!
    This time I took a lot more photos and let my mind wander a little. Also splendid…

  3. that is amazing – i’d never heard of it*

    i have had Montezuma’s Revenge a coupla times in Mexico tho!!


  4. that is amazing, I blogged on those type of mud houses, I think they are called…;)

  5. You have a real travelogue here…wonderful.

  6. Health Is Wealth

    Its really amazing -i’d never heard of it.

  7. Very interesting post. Your audio piece would make a great radio spot. Apparently this spot might just qualify as the first high-rise in America?

    I can’t imagine what it was like to grow up in such a place, but it sure must have been very interesting, that I will say.

  8. Heather

    Hmmm… Gotta say I prefer the “Castle!”

    MEE MOE,
    They absolutely fascinate me! I remember climbing up ladders to Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde as a young girl. I checked out the National Park Service website and found you can still climb through those ruins with a guide! Unbelieveable!

    Thanks! I travel Earth, and you travel the Universe! Love your “Spacebook” posts…

    It’s so close to Phoenix or Sedona (or Flagstaff), it would be a shame to be in the area and not make the stop. We may not have the castles of Europe, but the Americas have such interesting native cultures to explore!

    Nice to see you back!
    The NPS website has a virtual tour that includes some photos looking out from that “high-rise”. It would have been an unusually intense way of life with some lovely views…

  9. Heather, these are beautiful photos. I’ve always loved the architecture of the Southwest. When I was a kid, (and now) I loved watching westerns because of the scenery. I lived in the Southwest for a bit and I loved to visit some of the pueblos and walk and hike throughout the hills and caves. It’s funny to hear your concern about children and their wondering off. Clearly that’s your wonderful maternal instinct. I see those hills, rocks, and caves and I think – This is play time- when can I go out and explore? Clearly my juvenile instinct. Thanks so much for your post. I enjoyed it.

  10. Debo Hobo

    I have to admit that is pretty cool. You are really bringing AZ to life for me.

  11. Todd

    very interesting heather, thanks for sharing,todd

  12. Thanks for sharing, it’s very interesting. I got lots of information in your blog posts, keep it up! 😉

  13. Some incredible archirecture for the time. I am surprised that most of the walls are still intact.

  14. Heather

    There is a definite thrill in exploring the more desolate places. And when the color spectrum is narrowed a little, you tend to notice lovely textural and geometric details that you’d otherwise miss.

    I would LOVE to climb through those cliffs. What I lack in coordination is more than made up for in enthusiasm… which is kind of a dangerous combination, huh? Which is probably why I worry about the children… It’s the “I’m cold; go put a sweater on” mentality!

  15. Heather

    It’s always easier to spot the “wonderful” in someone else’s back yard, isn’t it? Which is probably why we love to travel…

    You’d love AZ. Artistic inspiration and tons of great hiking (and rattlesnakes too!)…

  16. Heather

    Wish I could just travel and write full-time… So much to see and learn!

    It is fairly amazing that it’s so well-preserved. It’s situated in a well-sheltered hollow ( “Location, location, location…”). And I’m guessing they accomplished it without zoning boards or committee approvals…

  17. This place is amazing. I would love to go there just to soak in the atmosphere of the place

  18. Heather

    There is a hush there that makes you want to listen for echoes of those who were there before. It’s both lovely and captivating.

  19. I guess that these rock cells were used by sacrificers or somebody like that. Because there is an analogy with Europe: first Christian monks lived also in rock cells (but they were more “natural”)and we can meet this phenomenon in very many places

  20. rainfield

    It is very interesting, and how they managed to built it.

  21. You discover some great places, Heather.

  22. Gorgeous pix. I don’t think that they had the idea of living a difficult life. From our perspective, it looks difficult but from the perspective of an ancient culture living in tune with nature, they probably were just grateful for everything they had.

  23. Old ruins like this really start the mind wandering and the heart dreaming. To think of these people and their travels and travails so many centuries ago leaves me spellbound and breathless. Great job, Heather!

  24. Hotels Paphos: The “Castle” gave the Sinaguas a good view of coming threats, natural and otherwise. I don’t believe they engaged in human sacrifice, but I know that more southern peoples such as the Aztecs certainly did.
    Rainfield: It’s hard to envision building such a structure without the technologies and building equipment we rely on today, isn’t it?
    Graham: Thanks. So many left to explore!!
    Fly Girl: You are right that simple living can be very pleasing and peaceful. They didn’t have to go to the zoo to see native animals, and family togetherness was built in to their way of life.
    NothingProfound: My mind does the same kind of journey -looking for common experiences and emotions and wondering at the different sorts of adventures that might have been part of their daily life. Thanks!

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