Ancient Secrets of Mitla for Micropreneurs

Weekly #101 | Strategies, Innovation & Community - Timeless Lessons for Today's Micropreneurs

Table of Contents

Mitla re-imagined with ChatGPT4


Today, we’re turning our focus to Mitla, a somewhat lesser-known but fascinating site. Mitla is located in the modern-day region of Oaxaca, Mexico and existed as one of the most important religious centres for the Zapotec civilisation. But, unlike many ancient sites that were purely political or economical centres, Mitla was renowned for its intricate mosaic fretwork and unique geometric designs, which covered the walls and buildings of this vibrant ceremonial centre.

Mitla is a Mesoamerican marvel nestled in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, standing out as one of the country's most renowned archaeological sites. Positioned in a picturesque valley framed by the Sierra Madre del Sur, the surrounding striking scenery complements its historical depth.

The name 'Mitla' or 'Mictlán' translates from Nahuatl to 'Place of the Dead,' a moniker reflective of its origins as a sacred Zapotec burial site, which was a tradition practiced from as early as 100 CE until around 900 CE. But Mitla was more than just a necropolis; it served as a vibrant center of governance, religion, and commerce.

The distinct architectural style attributed to Mitla, characterized by intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs weren’t only unique in their execution for their time, but held symbolic significance that denotes an advanced understanding of the cosmos and the divine. The Mitla site includes several ceremonial centers, palaces and tombs that were organised in a way that suggests a structured social hierarchy and complex administrative systems.

Taken during my visit to Mitla in 2023

Strategic Traits of Mitla

1 — Geographical Territory

Mitla was more than just a religious centre, it was a thriving micro-empire that exerted considerable influence over its neighboring regions.

The layout of the city demonstrated an advanced urban planning scheme with meticulously organized zones for religious, residential and ceremonial purposes with integrated water management systems and defensive structures. All of this development reflected a society with a complex socio-economic structure and the well developed capability to orchestrate large-scale architectural projects. Each of these zones were connected by a network of paved pathways that facilitated not only internal cohesion within their people but also external trade and communication.

Strategically nestled in the Valley of Oaxaca and surrounded by the imposing crystalline mountains of Sierra Madre del Sur, Mitla capitalized on its geographical location to exert control and facilitate trade. The valley was a fertile expanse along the eastern end of the Central Valleys region and proved crucial for agriculture - supporting the sustenance of its growing population and the production of surplus goods for their trade.

Mitla’s position also placed it in the line of key trade routes, turning it into a nexus for cultural and economic exchange, drawing the attention of traders and travellers alike from the broader Mesoamerican region. Their geographical position enabled Mitla to influence and absorb diverse cultural practices, enhancing its religious and ceremonial life, which in turn attracted pilgrims and dignitaries and solidified it as a formidable micro empire within its geographical realm.

2 — Population & Economic Scale

Despite not matching the sheer scale of many larger Mesoamerican cities, Mitla was nevertheless a bustling hub of religious, artistic and economic activity. Though modest in size, Mitla’s population was exceptionally specialized, fostering a community where each individual played a vital role in the city’s socio-economic structure.

Economically, Mitla took full advantage of the fertile lands of the Oaxacan valley, cultivating maize, beans, squash and chili peppers which supported both local consumption and external trade. The agricultural surplus allowed the local population to focus on their specialties of craftsmanship and trading, meaning Mitla flourished into a vibrant market system where goods from distant regions were exchanged, including textiles, pottery and obsidian.

Mitla’s artisans also had a significant contribution to their economic success, producing goods that were highly prized across Mesoamerica. This included textiles, pottery and religious artifacts, which were exchanged at regional marketplaces, extending their economic influence further beyond Mitla’s geographic territory. This established network of trade ensured a flow of goods and ideas with other cultural centers, reinforcing Mitla’s power as an economic hub within the broader Mesoamerican trade networks.

In addition to this, their strategic geographic location also meant that it was a key position on trade routes in the region where it served as a crucial intermediary between the highlands and the coast, facilitating the exchange of valuable products between these regions.

3 — Influence & Autonomy

Mitla’s influence lay primarily in its spiritual and cultural dominance. As one of the most important religious centers in the region, Mitla held significant influence over the spiritual and daily lives of the Zapotec and later the Mixtec communities, acting as a custodian of religious rites and cosmological knowledge. Priests and religious leaders weren’t just spiritual guides but key figures in local and regional politics, reinforcing Mitla as an autonomous power with control over its own affairs and those of surrounding regions.

Architecturally, Mitla was distinguished by its unique style - characterised by complex and intricate geometric patterns and precise stonework that are seen nowhere else. This design innovation reflected the advanced engineering and artistic vision of Mitla and also served as a center of culture and influence throughout the Mesoamerican region. Their distinctive style inspired similar constructions in neighbouring areas, making its artistic language a medium of cultural exchange and influence.

Perhaps the most notable example of Mitla’s influence and autonomy lies in their longevity. With the rise of the Mixtecs and then later the Aztecs, Mitla managed to maintain a considerable amount of autonomy. It continued to adapt politically and economically, continuing to integrate new ideas and practices into their daily lives without losing their core cultural and spiritual identity. This ability to adapt and influence while preserving their distinct cultural identity proves Mitla’s status as a strong and resilient micro empire that left a lasting legacy that transcended its era.

If you look close enough, you can see George taking in the sights of Mitla too.

Micro-Empire Lessons from Mitla

The legend of Mitla is packed full of lessons for those who want to learn, but for now I’ll leave you with three key takeaways:

  • Strategic location is key: Crucial not only in terms of geography but also in the cultural and economic ecosystem of your market

  • Innovative infrastructure: Mitla’s unique architectural innovations highlight the importance of creativity and precision in business operations.

  • Community and Culture: Building a community with shared values around your business can enhance customer engagement and foster a loyal following.


Mitla teaches us that spiritual and cultural influence can go hand in hand with economic success. This micro empire found its success by drawing on its strengths of strategic location, innovative infrastructure and community building - showing us modern micropreneurs how to create our own strong, sustainable business models.

If we allow ourselves to draw inspiration from Mitla to build our micro empires with the same level of ingenuity, precision and cultural insight we can all develop our own empires that are not only successful but also enriching to the communities they serve. Isn’t that the dream?

Till next time, happy empire building!

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