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Montezuma Castle: Living the High Life

Slip a fiver to the guy in the funny hat and it's just a short walk out the back door to one of Arizona's most remarkable perplexities. The postcards in the visitors’ center provide all the details you're going to see, but catching sight of the real thing still delivers a subtle jab to the optic nerves, not to mention the reasoning centers of the brain.

Lodged in a cranny on the side of a limestone cliff, Arizona's most staggering housing community teeters about 100 feet overhead. It's still advertised

by the National Park Service as Montezuma Castle, although, as it's pointed out in every write-up, Montezuma never lived there, nor gave it his celebrity endorsement. Some say it isn't a castle, either, but if a five-story stone refuge atop a sky-high embankment doesn't count, I don't know what does.

This mind-boggling feat of architecture has been attributed to the Sinagua Indians, who lived in this region as agriculturalists and traders. According to the experts, they built this dwelling in the 12th century, completing it in stages until it consisted of 20 rooms stacked in five layers, totaling a height of about 40 feet. When you consider that the build site was accessible only by a precarious series of ladders as well as how many tons of rock, mortar, and timber it took to construct these homes, the achievement is incredible. While a cut-away diorama attempts to depict the cliff dwellers as ordinary people, it's hard to think of anyone who cooks breakfast ten stories up the side of a sheer crag as run-of-the-mill.

Tours were once conducted through this cliffhanger address, though visitors were still required to reach it via ladder, same as those who lived here. Their visits included not only a stroll through the various levels, but also the presentation of a glass-encased, mummified child that was disinterred during repair work, one of many bodies discovered buried throughout the structure. Due to the damage caused by increasing tourism, however, both the tours and the mummy show were terminated by 1951.

No one's quite sure why the Sinagua chose to settle down on high. Theorists have offered explanations as varied as tradition, utilization of the warm southern exposure and an appreciation of the view.

Being farmers, it's possible they just didn't want to take up any plow space. Many assume it aided in defense against invaders, but that makes little sense when all the enemy would have to do is unwind with a good petroglyph and wait below till they ran out of food. Perhaps one of the park's volunteer guides had the best explanation: "They kept looking up there at that spectacular cave, and one day one of them said, 'All right, let's get going! We gotta build something up there!'"

Just to cloud the situation a bit more, no one can be sure of the former inhabitants' fate, either. After living on the side of a cliff for about 300 years, the Sinagua up and left. Again, theories differ as to the reason. Their destination has also remained unknown, though many Hopis claim the Sinagua as ancestors. All we can be sure of is that by 1450, Montezuma's Castle sat abandoned, waiting four centuries to be rediscovered.

Weird Arizona


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