Montezuma Castle and the Honanki Ruins are among a handful of remaining cliff dwellings in the United States. They were inhabited from 1000-1400 AD by the Sinagua culture and part of a thriving community of similar complexes along a lengthy commerce trail in Arizona.
Montezuma Castle is 20-room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff. The Honanki Site is similar except that it’s hidden deep in a canyon. It also features petroglyphs from the three distinct cultures who lived there over time. Both sites tell the unexpected story of survival and prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape.
The Sinagua were surprisingly similar to modern mankind. They worked, raised families, and celebrated successes. They also left a legacy of pottery, intricate weaving, picture-writing, and stone and metal tools that showcase the attention to detail of skilled craftsmen whose lives depended on their ingenuity. A highly advanced culture, they lived a communal lifestyle where they looked out for one another.
During this same time period, France’s Colmar Cathedral was under construction. I visited this glorious site, and others like it, and marveled at the craftsmanship and the splendor of this holy place about six months before I saw the cliff dwelling sites.
By modern standards, some might assume that the rugged lives of the Sinagua can’t compare to those of Europe’s advanced civilization. I don’t believe that’s true.
Just because something looks like “less” doesn’t mean it is. Therein lies the big paradox: sometimes “less” is really more.
I’m not trying to reduce Europe’s impact on the world. It is well-documented and has served as the foundation for many of the world’s modern beliefs. I do, however, believe we can learn something from the simpler lives of the Sinagua. Their ruins tell the story of a life equal in richness and complexity to that of the Europeans of the same time period, albeit in different packaging.
It’s easy to become enamored by the “packaging” of modern life. And, it’s okay to want to advance ourselves. Learning is always good. The trick is to not get so caught up in our ability to chase something new, that we overlook or devalue what appears to be simpler.
I’m grateful I got to see the remains of both the Sinagua and early European cultures so close together. Both are beautifully rich. Both played an important part in history. Best of all? Both reminded me that lives well lived matter the most and can be defined in many ways. Our life stories are all equal - whether cathedral or cliff dwelling.
Our life stories are all equal.