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Montezuma Castle: Arizona’s Strange Monumental Cliff Dwelling

Montezuma Castle: Arizona’s Strange Monumental Cliff Dwelling

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Montezuma Castle is a national monument located in the western US state of Arizona. Although the name of the monument suggests a connection with the Aztecs, Montezuma Castle was in fact built by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian culture that lived in the area. Moreover, the monument is not a castle, but a cliff dwelling consisting of several levels.

Montezuma Castle is located near the town of Camp Verde, in Arizona. In the mid-1860s, the first American settlers arrived in the Verde Valley, and Montezuma Castle was declared a national monument in 1906, one of the first in the USA. These 19th century settlers also gave the monument its present name.

The story goes that some of these settlers were veterans of the Mexican-American War, and may have seen action in Mexico City, the former capital of the Aztec Empire. Apparently, the structure reminded these veterans of the Aztec buildings they saw in Mexico. Assuming that what they saw was built by the Aztecs, they named it after Montezuma, who lost the empire to the Spanish. 

The Sinagua

Montezuma Castle, however, was not at all related to the Aztecs. In fact, it was built by the Sinagua, a pre-ColumbianNative American culture that inhabited the area. Curiously, the name ‘Sinagua’ means ‘without water’ in Spanish, though it is unknown why the culture was named as such. 

The Sinagua also left behind petroglyphs such as these (Gittinsj / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sinagua built Montezuma Castle between 1100 and 1350 AD, and occupied it until 1425 AD. During their occupation of the site, the Sinagua left behind various materials and artifacts, which allowed archaeologists today to gain some insight into this culture. 

The archaeological evidence suggests that the Sinagua relied on both hunting-gathering and agriculture for their subsistence. Regarding the latter, they grew primarily maize, squash, and beans. Practical and ornamental toolsrecovered from Montezuma Castle also suggest that the Sinagua were skilled craftsmen. 

Moreover, many of the artefacts found at the site were determined to be of a foreign origin. This suggests that the Sinagua were accomplished traders, and that Montezuma Castle was a bustling trade center during its heyday. 

Montezuma Castle

The most visible accomplishment of the Sinagua people, nevertheless, was Montezuma Castle itself. This monumental structure is situated about two-thirds of the way up a 45.7 m (150 ft.) high limestone cliff. Montezuma Castle is therefore considered as a cliff dwelling. 

Montezuma Castle is a five-story pueblo with a floor space of about 381 m2 (4100 ft2). The Sinagua constructed the walls of Montezuma Castle using limestone and mud mortar. The walls at the base of the structure were found to be 61 cm (2 ft) thick, narrowing to half that thickness by the time they reached the top. The roof of the pueblo was framed by large beams covered by smaller beams, and subsequently covered with thatch and mud. 

Sideplan of the structures at Montezuma Castle over five levels (US National Park Service / Public Domain)

It is still a mystery as to why the Sinagua abandoned Montezuma Castle by 1425, and various speculations have been made. One of these, for instance, suggests that overpopulation led to a depletion of the local resources, which ultimately forced the Sinagua to leave. Another suggests that high levels of arsenic in their water source led them to seek other sites for habitation. After the Sinaguans left, Montezuma Castle was first inhabited by other Native Americans, before the arrival of the American settlers during the mid-1860s. 

Over the centuries, Montezuma Castle was protected from deterioration thanks to the low humidity, and the fact that it is built in an alcove in the cliff face, which sheltered it from the elements. The arrival of white settlers, however, threatened the survival of the structure. 

Once the site became known to the Americans, Montezuma Castle attracted various individuals, from amateur archaeologists to looters, who ransacked the place. Consequently, the structure was weakened, and towards the end of the 19th century, Montezuma Castle was in danger of crumbling. 

Saved From Destruction

Fortunately, in 1897, the Arizona Antiquarian Society fortified the structure, and repaired Montezuma Castle to the best of their ability, thereby rescuing it from destruction. In June 1906, the American Antiquities Act was signed, and later that year, Montezuma Castle was declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt. The site is one of the four original national monuments declared by Roosevelt. Montezuma Castle’s status as a national monument ensured its protection by the state. 

Visitors can no longer climb to the monument itself (Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock)

Today, the site of Montezuma Castle is open to the public, and formal ranger tours, as well as a self-guided loop trail are offered. Since 1951, however, visitors have not been allowed to climb up to the national monument, so as to minimize further damage to Montezuma Castle.   

Top image: Montezuma Castle. Photo source: Pamela Au / Adobe Stock. 

By Wu Mingren              


Buscher, L. & Buscher, D., 2019. Photos Reveal the History of Montezuma Castle in Arizona. [Online] Available at: Editors, 2018. Montezuma Castle. [Online]  
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National Park Foundation, 2021. Montezuma Castle National Monument. [Online]  
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National Park Service, 2021. Montezuma Castle. [Online]  
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The American Southwest, 2021. Montezuma Castle National Monument. [Online]  
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica , 2018. Montezuma Castle National Monument. [Online]  
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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