Montezuma Castle National Monument is one of two national monuments in the Verde Valley in central Arizona that preserve the world of the Sinagua, a group of Native Americans who flourished here hundreds of years ago.
Together with Tuzigoot NM, which we will visit when we return to the area in June, Montezuma Castle gives us a glimpse into what life was like for these ancestors of the Hopi Indians as they hunted and gathered and planted and harvested in this valley area for thousands of years.
Montezuma Castle is a five-story, 20-room dwelling that was built sometime between 1100 and 1300 CE. As can be seen in the photos, this structure actually sits in a cliff recess about 100 feet above the valley floor. Ladders made of sycamore and yucca assisted the climb up to and down from it. It is believed that about 35 people lived in the castle structure, but just below it is a larger pueblo and some smaller alcove homes. Although we call it Montezuma Castle today, descendants of its residents know it by other names. To the Hopi, it is Sakaytaka, “place where the step ladders are going up” and Wupat’pela, “long high walls.”
Between 1350 and 1400, the Southern Sinagua migrated away from their pueblos. No one knows for sure why… it may have been overpopulation, depletion of resources, disease, conflicts within or between groups, climate change, or perhaps spiritual beliefs. Whatever the reasons, many Southern Sinagua likely migrated to the north and left this structure behind. When it was found, remnants of its residents were found inside, for whenever a dwelling was abandoned, tools and implements and food were left behind for use when its inhabitants eventually returned.
We always get so much more out of our visit to a park unit when we get to sit in on a presentation by an NPS ranger. We were fortunate with the timing of our visit to Montezuma Castle NM, for one was just getting underway when we walked down the path to the limestone cliffs which house this iconic dwelling. The ranger shared many factoids and tidbits and snippets of information about the area and lifestyle of these first peoples, but one thing she shared particularly resonated with me. To the ancestors of these Native Americans, places like these are not ruins; they are living sites. Respectful we must be, then, when visiting these sacred locations.