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