They call it the Montezuma Castle, but the 90ft high monument should never have been named that. The thing is, the Aztec emperor who the ruins were named after, Montezuma, mistakenly believed to have been connected to their construction, was not even born until the cliff dwellings had already been abandoned for several decades. The European-Americans who re-discovered the ruins near Camp Verde in Arizona during the Civil War, also christened it a “castle”, but that wasn’t right either. In fact, modern research has revealed that these ancient cliff dwellings functioned more like a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex”, or as I like to call it, America’s first condo.
Built over the course of three centuries by the Sinagua people, a pre-Columbian civilization closely related to indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States, they were lived in between approximately 1100 and 1425 AD, over five stories in twenty rooms overlooking the desert.
It’s still in great shape, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North American in fact, despite having been abandoned more than 600 years ago. The reason for its abandonment remains a mystery, although theories include the running out of agricultural resources, prolonged drought, or conflict with other tribes. It’s believed the Sinagua later merged with other tribes to the north and the Hopi tribes of today believe they are their descendants.
The height and scale of the dwelling carved out of sheer limestone cliff, indicates the Sinagua were daring but highly skilled engineers. The structure would likely have been accessed by a series of ladders, creating a natural defence against intruders as well as annual flooding of the adjacent Beaver Creek.
Once residents reached their dwelling, they had almost 4,000 square feet of floor space to make themselves at home.
Unfortunately, due to heavy looting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very few original artifacts survive from the ill-named Montezuma Castle. It was declared a U.S. National Monument in 1906, however access to the interior of the ruins has not been allowed since 1951 due to concerns about visitor safety and damage to the dwelling.
But if you ever find yourself on Interstate 17, take exit 289 to the get a look at this pre-historic architectural feat of mankind. Like a giant eagle’s nest in the cliff face, it seems we’ve always had a thing for the penthouse apartment.
The Montezuma Castle‘s park is open from 8am to 5pm every day of the year, except for Christmas Day. The visitor center includes a museum and a gift shop.