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5 Surprising Facts About This Place in Arizona That Doesn’t Quite Match It’s Name

#1 Montezuma Castle’s name can be a little misleading.

Flickr User Gr8ful Ted

Flickr User Gr8ful Ted

In fact, this ancient ruin near Campe Verde, Arizona doesn’t match up to any part of it’s name. European-Americans were the first to come across the ruins of this old settlement in the 1860’s. Like many structures they discovered, they readily credited it to the famous Aztec emperor, Montezuma. It wasn’t uncommon that he was given undue credit for having built structures that he had had nothing to do with. What the European-Americans didn’t know at the time was that this structure had actually already existed, at least in part, for centuries before Montezuma was even born. Despite the current knowledge that the name of this ruin misattributes credit to Montezuma, it has stuck. Not only this, but the other part of the name, the “castle” description, hardly seems accurate either. The structure in no way resembles a castle. It would more fittingly be described as a high rise apartment complex. For whatever reason, the National Park Service chose to stick with the name, rather than change it.

#2 If Montezuma wasn’t the architect of these ruins, then who was?

Flickr User Jeremy Tilston

Flickr User Jeremy Tilston

Today we know that these ruins were built and used by the Sinagua people. The Sinaguan people were a Pre-Columbian culture that was related to many other indigenous peoples of the southwest. Their name, from the Spanish “without water” reflects the incredible ability of this people to exist in a region with such little water that it might even be referred to as a hostile environment. Archaeologists estimate that the Sinagua people built these structures between 1100 and 1425 A.D.

#3 Montezuma’s Castle is one of the best preserved cliff-dwellings on the continent.

Flickr User Jeremy Tolston

Flickr User Jeremy Tolston

These ruins are protected in part by the fact that they are located in a location that naturally protects them from the elements. But not only are these ruins well preserved, even today they are clearly impressive. The ruins face Beaver Creek, but they do so at an astonishing ninety feet in the air on the side of a limestone cliff face. The dwellings cover a massive amount of area — five stories with more than forty rooms and nearly 4,000 square feet of floor space spread across them. The walls demonstrate the use of stone and mortar masonry, combining mud and clay from the nearby creek bottom with stones that were clearly sourced from the base of the cliff. Hardwood roof thatching made from the native Arizona Sycamore tree further proves that the Sinagua people were phenomenal builders and engineers. It is hypothesized that the settlement was built little by little over the course of three centuries.

#4 Why did the Sinagua people build their settlement so high in the air?

Flickr User goodhike

Flickr User goodhike

The short answer is, no one really knows. Surely the effort of creating their settlement ninety feet in the air must have posed even more difficulty for these people than had they decided to build it at ground level, which leads experts to believe that there must have been a good reason for the placement of the dwellings. In fact, there are a number of theories that are very likely. One theory suggests that, since the Sinagua people were agriculturalists, perhaps they simply didn’t want to take up any precious space that could be used for farming. Though nearby Beaver Creek was an integral factor in making farming a possibility for the Sinaguans, it also flooded quite often, especially during monsoon season. Though these floods were actually beneficial for agricultural purposes, they could have been quite damaging to a settlement, which is another possible reason that these dwellings might have been lofted into the cliff side. A third hypothesis suggests that the height was a defense mechanism — simply pull up the ladders used to get to the dwellings and wait. It has even been proposed that perhaps the Sinagua people were simply appreciative of a room with a view.

#5 The Sinagua people abandoned their impressive cliff dwellings. 

Flickr User kirsten

Flickr User kirsten

After enjoying their high rise settlement for about 300 years, no more than the total amount of time that it took to complete the entire settlement, the Sinagua people vanished. Once again, experts aren’t quite sure where the Sinagua people went or why. Perhaps they had depleted their resources, or perhaps they were at odds with new settlers, but by 1450 they had gone, and the settlement wasn’t rediscovered for over 400 years. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Montezuma Castle a National Monument. It used to be that you could climb a ladder and explore the levels, but as more and more tourists came to visit this historic place, the increasing traffic began to damage this scientifically and ethnologically important location. By 1952, the monument had ended their hands-on tours. Today, though, you can still visit Montezuma’s Castle and take in the impressive view of a community built way above you. The visitor’s center museum allows you to view a plethora or artifacts that will teach you everything you want to know about the Sinagua people and their culture, so that you can truly appreciate Montezuma Castle.

Cheyenne Reed

Cheyenne Reed was born and raised in Ohio. She recently relocated to rural Wyoming to try out working at an exclusive guest ranch. She graduated from Kent State University with an English degree, and most enjoys writing about travel. If she has free time, you may run into her anywhere, because she is always itching to explore new places. Her personal motto is, "Any day can be an adventure if you make it one!"

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