City in the Sky

Rising above a mesa in New Mexico, an ancient site looks to the future, while trying to save its past.


Acoma, New Mexico

Credit: Preservation

On a chilly November day in central New Mexico, some 60 miles west of Albuquerque, I stand atop a sandstone mesa amid a cluster of tourists, staring at an ancient whitewashed church. With carved wood doors, a bell tower, and walls 10 feet thick, the San Esteban del Rey Mission church is a classic of adobe architecture. This austere and imaginative building has served as a model for many other structures in Santa Fe and elsewhere. And though the church might also be a grand vestige of Spanish colonialism, it is the native people whom the Spaniards subjugated in the 17th century, a people whose rich and distinct culture survived the conquest, who have drawn me to this site.

The mesa, spanning 70 acres and rising more than 300 feet, is the location of Acoma Sky City, home of the Acoma people, Pueblo Indians who have inhabited the site since around A.D. 1150. Their ancestors came from the north—from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Mesa Verde in Colorado, both erstwhile centers of Pueblo culture.  Migrating south in search of a new home, they came to this isolated place in a valley of strange, beautiful, mesmerizing stone formations. According to tribal belief, they called out the word Haak'u—roughly meaning "the place prepared," from which the word "Acoma" is derived—and the sound echoed among the surrounding cliffs. Here they decided to stay.


Saint Esteban del Rey Mission

Credit: Michael and Cindy Moir

No other city in the United States has been inhabited, without interruption, longer than Acoma Sky City, which is part of the sovereign, 600,000-square-acre Pueblo of Acoma. In addition to the San Esteban del Rey Mission church, the city is made up of about 300 flat-roofed adobe structures, along with a series of plazas and footpaths. Even though Acoma Sky City was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960 (the church itself received the same designation 10 years later), the site is in need of preservation and conservation, as can be expected with any place of such antiquity. In part to protect the city from potential threats to its culture and structures, the Pueblo of Acoma joined with the National Trust last September to make Acoma Sky City a National Trust historic site. From the Trust's perspective, this place, with its adobe architecture, extensive history, and connections to two religions, is unlike any other. I have come here to experience this culture firsthand, and to see what the future holds for this spectacular site.

Acoma Sky City is an official Save America's Treasures project.

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