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Mitla is one of the most important Zapotec settlements in Oaxaca.

History of Mitla

First established around 600BC, it was later taken over by the Mixtecs in approximately 1000 AD and was still a thriving city at the time the Spanish arrived and destroyed it. Many believe Mitla was the most important Zapotec religious centre, and where a large number of human sacrifices would have taken place.

Mitla’s archaeological ruins are dotted around the modern town and divided into five units. The Church Group, which is the one pinpointed on the map, is near the main entrance to the site and close to the sixteenth century Church of San Pedro. This is one of the better excavated parts of Mitla.

Beyond this group of sites are four others, namely the Adobe Group, the Arroyo Group, the South Group and the Columns group. The Columns Group is often called the Palace group for its series of palace buildings.

One of the most impressive aspects of Mitla is the decoration of its buildings. Some are covered in geometric ‘mosaics’: tiny pieces of stone cut, set in the walls and painted. There are 14 different designs, all sophisticated in their own way: some see them as symbolizing the sky (or heavens) and earth. It is also unusual that most of the carvings at Mitla are abstract rather than of people or animals: many feature geometric patterns and motifs thought to be inspired by textile patterns. Other buildings have high relief carvings directly into the stone rather than in mosaic form.

Mitla today

There’s relatively minimal signage at the site so it’s worth downloading or photographing a map and any information you might want before you arrive. There’s a couple of hours worth of exploration if you visit the entire site: look out for some recreated roofs and the geometric mosaics inside some of the buildings.

There is a small museum at Mitla which exhibits several finds from the site.

Getting to Mitla

Mitla is about an hour away from the city of Oaxaca, and extremely close to the popular site of Hierve el Agua: you could do both in a day. Local buses or colectivos will get you there easily – a taxi from Oaxaca is possible but expensive.

The Ancient Ruins Of Mitla Oaxaca – A Complete Guide

The Ancient Ruins of Mitla Oaxaca is the second-most important archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca and a must-see during your travels through central Mexico!

Mitla is most famous for its beautiful mosaic features which can be admired on the interior and exterior walls of the temple structure.

I have put together this complete guide of the ruins including how to get there, how much it costs, and what to expect when you arrive.

Want cheap flights to Oaxaca? Check out CheapOair to book now and travel for less!

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When it comes to tourism, the images usually associated with Mexico are the pristine beaches of Cancun and the colorful town fiestas of the interior. What visitors usually forget is that Mexico has a long and ancient history that dates as far back as before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Ancient history buffs and those who enjoy places with character, as Mexico does, offers a wide array of places that can rival even the best of Rome and Greece. One of these places is Mitla.

Mitla is the name that has been given to a site of archaeological interest located in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. This town is in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It receives its acclaim for having a number of well-tended and intact Mesoamerican buildings from the Pre-Columbian era. Actually, unlike most towns with ancient structures, Mitla is a functioning town in the present-day. The town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla has a population of just almost 8,000 and is located about 45 km from the state capital. The people in Mitla speak a Zapotec language variant. The visitor attractions of pre-Hispanic buildings are found at the town’s north end. Stone mosaics adorn these buildings, which have been an inspiration for some if the world’s most famous artists, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Aside from the impressive buildings, Mitla also houses a small museum full of ancient artifacts. There is also a small outdoor market on Saturdays, where visitors can also buy indigenous products. There are also a number of “palenques” in the area. These are manual producers of mezcal, a drink that is produced from the heart of the agave plant. Have a drink for that authentic ancient Mexican experience!

2 responses to “Mitla”

i were in mitla last weekend and it was so beautiful, i loved all the phyramids and ceremonial centers
it was awsome! i really recomind you to got o mitla on oaxaca you will apreciate it

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The California Taco Trail: 'How Mexican Food Conquered America'

For 50 years, the taco has been a staple of American life. It's in school lunches and Michelin-star restaurants. It even helped launch the food truck craze. So how did the taco come to loom so large in American bellies?

In Gustavo Arellano's new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, he explains our love of all things folded into a tortilla. I recently joined him for a 150-mile tour of Southern California's taco trail, visiting cultural touchstones in the evolution of the Mexican snack in America. Here's our tour.

Stop One: Cielito Lindo Food Stand, Olvera Street, Los Angeles

Since the 1930s, this tiny stand — located in the heart of historic L.A. — has been famous for its rolled, fried taquitos, covered in avocado sauce. Arellano thinks of the food stand as a Plymouth Rock of tacos, one place where the Mexican staple met a broader American audience.

Today, co-owner Diana Guerrero Robertson still makes them the same way, hand-rolling tacos around seasoned, shredded beef. "They start at our warehouse in Lincoln Heights, where we make our tortillas fresh," Guerrero Robertson says. "Then we hand roll them with our steamed, seasoned beef that's the style of barbacoa. And our salsa is also made there, which is made with spices, chili and avocado."

Cielito Lindo's taquitos quickly gained a following among Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. "People all over Southern California started copying it," Arellano says. "The exact same way to fry it, the avocado salsa, everything."

Americans had discovered the taco.

Crunchy tacos are one of the staple dishes served at Mitla Cafe in San Bernadino, Calif. Carolina Miranda/NPR hide caption

Stop Two: Mitla Cafe, San Bernardino, Calif.

From L.A., Arellano takes me 60 miles east, to San Bernardino. It's a horizontal place, full of truck yards and train depots. It's from here that the taco eventually went national.

Taco Bell was launched in an L.A. suburb in 1962 by Glen Bell. Prior to that, he lived in San Bernardino, where he owned a burger stand, and later a small chain called Taco Tia — Taco Bell's precursor. Today, the company, based in Irvine, has 6,500 locations in all 50 states and almost a dozen countries. They sell more than 2 billion tacos a year.

Tom Wagner is a vice president for the company. "If you go more to the Midwest and to the Northeast, often times Taco Bell defines people's experiences with Mexican food," Wagner says. "Even though we call ourselves 'Mexican inspired,' in much of the country, Taco Bell defines what Mexican food is."

The chain helped make Mexican food palatable to a country that had historically regarded it with suspicion, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, a food historian at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food.

"There's this fascination with Mexican food," Pilcher says. Part of that, he says, comes from the sense that it's dangerous. "It's hot, obviously, but there's also this fear that it's contaminated." Glen Bell's great triumph came in franchising and selling Mexican food to a mainstream audience, Pilcher says, in still-segregated 1950s and '60s California.

But where did the recipe for the Taco Bell taco come from? Arellano says he has figured it out — and the answer can be found in San Bernardino.

"Here, we're at the intersection of old Route 66, now called Mount Vernon, and Sixth Street," Arellano says.

Here stands Mitla Cafe, a family diner that has been serving up Mexican food since 1937. Mitla's crunchy tacos are strangely familiar: crispy, stuffed with ground beef, iceberg lettuce and a pile of yellow cheese. Irene Montaño is the cafe's owner. Her in-laws started the business.

"Glen Bell had his hamburger stand across the street," Montano says, "and he used to come over here and talk to my father-in-law and ask him how to make tacos and how they did different things — but especially the tacos."

Mitla's tacos may look like a Taco Bell taco, but they certainly don't taste like one.

"I could tell, eating this, you could tell why America fell in love with this type of taco so fast," Arellano says.

The tortilla is light and crisp. It dissolves the minute it hits the tongue.

Alebrije's Grill, a taco truck that can be found roaming the streets of Santa Ana, Calif. Carolin Miranda/NPR hide caption

"If Cielito Lindo's little taquito is the ancestor of what we know now as the taco," he adds, "this was the ur-taco, the taco that launched a thousand tacos."

Stop Three: Alebrije's Grill Taco Truck, Santa Ana., Calif.

Another 60-mile drive takes us to our last stop, in Santa Ana. It also brings us to the present — to the middle of Southern California's taco truck renaissance.

"If you see a bright pink truck, that's the truck," Albert Hernandez says. "We're the only pink truck here in Santa Ana."

Hernandez is the chef and owner of Alebrije's Grill Taco Truck. For eight years, he has produced a renowned local dish called the Battleship Taco.

"It deserves its own food channel," Arellano says. "Not just a food show. It deserves a food channel. It is a baroque masterpiece."

See Also

The Salt

Pride And Prejudice: For Latinos, Tamales Offer Up A Delicious Serving Of Both

The Battleship Taco is the size of a small dog. It's an architectural mass of breaded steak, with rice, grilled onions, roasted cactus and hot sauce — all piled on a fresh tortilla.

Like all of the tacos we've eaten, it's a fusion. The recipe has its roots in Mexico. But the scale and presentation is all U.S.A. Tacos have become so American, they sometimes barely seem Mexican.

"Mexican food is as American as nachos," Arellano says. "You find nachos all over ballparks in the United States. It's just part of the cuisine at large."

There are now spaghetti tacos. Korean tacos. And broccoli pine-nut tacos. The taco, it seems, is right up there with hot dogs and apple pie.

  • Oaxaca’s coat of arms features a red background that commemorates the many battles that have been fought in the state. The top of the design is adorned with an eagle holding a snake atop a cactus, Mexico’s national symbol. Seven silver stars represent the state’s seven geographical regions: Istmo (isthmus), Costa (coast), Papaloapan (river basin), Sierra (mountains), Mixteca (Mixtec territory), Valles Centrales (central valleys) and Ca󱫚 (woodlands). The emblem’s central oval is bordered by the phrase “Respect for the rights of others will bring peace.” At the bottom of the oval, two hands are breaking a chain, symbolizing Oaxaca’s struggle against colonial domination. On the left is an indigenous symbol for Huaxycac, the first Oaxacan region settled by the Spanish conquistadors. To the right are the Mitla Palace and a Dominican cross, representing Oaxaca’s indigenous history and its ties to Catholicism.
  • The diversity of Oaxacan cuisine is suggested by its nickname, Land of the Seven Moles. Each of the state’s seven regions produces a unique variation of the spicy mole sauce.
  • Prominent natives of Oaxaca include Benito Juárez, Porfirio D໚z, José Vasconcelos (a writer who greatly influenced the Mexican Revolution), famed painters Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo and baseball hero Vinicio (Vinny) Castilla.
  • An unusual Oaxaca delicacy is chapulines, a dish consisiting primarily of barbecued grasshoppers.
  • Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast, which surfers call the Mexican Pipeline, is known for its large, consistent waves.
  • The city of Oaxaca celebrates the festival of Guelaguetza on the last two Mondays of July. Guelaguetza honors the diverse cultures that contribute to Oaxaca, giving communities from around the state the opportunity to share their music, traditional costumes, dances and food. The main event takes place in the city’s open-air amphitheater located on Cerro del Fortín, a nearby historic hill.
  • One of Oaxaca’s best-known products is mezcal, an alcoholic beverage similar to tequila but distilled from varieties of cactus other than the blue agave, which is used for tequila. The plant must be six to eight years old before it can be harvested. Most bottles of mezcal include a worm, a practice that originated in the 1940s when Jacobo Lozano Pพz accidentally discovered that a worm enhances the flavor of mezcal.

The Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a Dominican church founded in 1575, is located just north of Oaxaca City’s main square. The interior walls and ceiling of the Baroque church are adorned with gilded ornamentation and colorful frescoes.

Archaeological Sites
Monte Albán, which was the capital of the ancient Mixtec-Zapotec empire, is the most important archaeological site in the state. The city came to dominate the Oaxacan highlands and engaged in commerce with other major settlements in the area, such as Tenochtitlán.

Mitla (meaning place of the dead) is a town in Oaxaca known for its unique ancient architecture and tile mosaics traceable to Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. Just over 15,000 people still live in Mitla, which is a short distance from Oaxaca City.

Huatulco Beach (Bah໚s de Huatulco) features nine bays and more than 30 beaches. A very calm beach removed from the noise and congestion of major cities, Huatulco is a favorite among families with children.

Puerto Escondido has two main beaches, Playa Principal and Zicatela, as well as several smaller ones. Zicatela’s strong waves make Puerto Escondido a world-class surfing spot. Often compared to Hawaii’s famous surf, the waters of Zicatela have been nicknamed the Mexican Pipeline.

Five Groups of Mitla Mosaics

Mosaics can be found adorning a number of different buildings in Mitla, which may be divided into five distinct groups – the Southern Group, the Clay Group, the Creek Group, the Columns Group, and the Church Group. Of these, the mosaics of the Church Group and the Columns Group are the most impressive.

The Church Group is also known as the North Group and is situated at the entrance of the site. The name of this group is derived from the Church of San Pablo, which was built by the Spanish during the 16th century. Interestingly, it was believed that the lord and the lady of the Underworld lived in that area, hence the church was built to keep these entities from escaping into the human world. As for the Columns Group, this complex is located to the south of the Church Group. The main building of this complex is called the Palace / the Grand Hall of Columns and is believed to have been the residence of the high priest.

Church of San Pablo (1590), built on top of a pre-Hispanic structure including some of the mosaics. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Unlike famous Roman mosaics, which were created using pieces of tesserae, the mosaics of Mitla were made with pieces of cut-stone that were inlaid onto panels. Alternatively, these works of art have been referred to as fretwork. In any case, the designs of the Mitla mosaics is known as step-fret designs, which are like those produced by civilizations in the Old World, such as Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.

Mitla and its Cultures

Twenty-four miles outside the city of Oaxaca, in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a group of ruins subsist in a state of repose, waiting to be encountered. The site’s original name in Zapotec is Lyobaa, meaning “place of rest,” in the Nahuatl language it is known as Mictlán, or “place of the dead”. The name Mitla is derived from a Spanish perversion of the Nahuatl name, but the meaning translates clearly in all languages: the dead reside here.

In the postclassic period, Mitla was the most important religious center in the Valley of Oaxaca. When visiting Mitla, the first visible thing is the large cactus fence that surrounds the site, adding to the mystery that enshrouds the ancient ruins. Along with mystification is the sacredness that has attracted thousands from pre-Colombian times until today. The legend told to the Spanish was that the royal Zapotecs were buried in cruciform tombs directly under the floors in Mitla archeologists have proven this legend true. Local folklore stated that Mitla was the entrance to the underworld. Reports from the Spanish speak of a Zapotec priest that could be likened to the Catholic pope. They called him the vuijatao, or the “Great Seer.” People would come from all over the Valley of Oaxaca to speak with the vuijatao, who functioned as a prophet, magistrate, and intermediary for the deceased. The oracle resided in the fully excavated Group of Columns. It was in this group that held burial chambers for the highest of royalty, where families would bring their mummified rulers to be buried so the priest could speak to their ancestor. When the Mixtec took control over Mitla, the reverence for the city’s sanctity was still maintained. The city was still functioning and expanding in 1521 when the Spanish arrived, and some priests took up residency there in the church group buildings, eventually building the church of San Pablo directly into the ruins.

Mitla may be modest in its size, but its decorative detail is exceptional. The mosaic fretwork that can be seen in the colonial church encompasses all of the buildings in Mitla. This geometric style of design is known as greca friezes. Although this style is not limited to Mitla, it is unique here for two reasons: the grecas were designed out of thousands of cut and polished stones, set in place with no mortar, which required the highest craftsman skills, and it covered every structure in Mitla, with no two designs the same. Some scholars believe the fretwork may represent royal family lineages or geographical places, while others believe the stonework was meant to mimic textiles.

Another aspect of Mitla that solicits analysis is the apparent syncretism of cultures. Spanish chroniclers have told us that both Zapotec and Mixtec nobility venerated the vuijatao. Spanish holy men not only built a church here, but they also resided in the palaces. There is also proof in the lintel paintings that survive on the walls in the Church group. These paintings are fashioned like the Mixtec codices that tell creation stories and royal history. John Pohl, in his work “The Lintel Paintings of Mitla and the Function of the Mitla Palaces,” believes that these murals tell the creation story of three regional cultures: the eastern Nahau, the Mixtec of Apoala, and the Zapotec of Zaachila (176-97). These painted legends bound together indigenous groups that were linguistically and ethnically different. The multiethnic history of Mitla proves that sanctity speaks across cultural barriers. What was once home to the Zapotec patron deities of death and the underworld is now home to twenty-one Catholic patron saints. Still today, the procession for Saint Paul begins within the ruins every year, with the majority of the town in attendance. Some places never lose their hallowed significance.

Parting Thoughts on the Day Trip to Mitla

All in all, this was an amazing and diverse day trip. It is well worth taking the time to make arrangements. The itinerary took us from 8:30 am to about 5:30 pm, and was a full day trip. Granted, we took our time eating and walking around the markets and things. I’d definitely consider it the best Oaxaca day trip you can take!

The cost we paid to our Airbnb host was about 2,250 Pesos (or a little over $100 USD), which was split between the two of us. Entrance fees for Arbor del Tule, Hierve el Agua, and Mitla added to 115 Pesos (approximately $6 USD), per person. Great for the budget conscious traveller!

For an added bonus, consider combining Teotitlan del Valle with this day trip. It is a small village known for its artisans and weavers. It is conveniently located along the way, and is included on the Google Map below.

If you’re looking to join a tour instead, it will cost about $45 USD per person, on average. Either via tour or on your own, it’s definitely worth it, and like I said – the day trip to Mitla was one of the best Oaxaca day trips we took!

Please note that many products or referrals in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase or booking, I will earn a commission. I share these product and booking links because they are related to the post and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases. The decision is yours whether to click through and make a purchase through these links.


William Henry Holmes, Archaeological Studies Among the Ancient Cities of Mexico (1895–1897).

Nelly M. García Robles, Alfredo José Moreira Quiros, Rogelio González Medina, and Victor Jiménez Muñoz, Mitla. (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Feinman, Gary M., and Linda M. Nicholas. Hilltop Terrace Sites of Oaxaca, Mexico: Intensive Surface Survey at Guirún, El Palmillo and the Mitla Fortress. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 2004.

González Licón, Ernesto. Zapotecas y mixtecas: Tres mil años de civilización precolombina. Barcelona, Spain: Lunwerg, 1992.

Pohl, John M. D. "The Lintel Paintings of Mitla and the Function of the Mitla Palaces." In Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol, edited by Jeff K. Kowalski. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Robles García, Nelly M. Las canteras de Mitla, Oaxaca: Tecnología para la arquitectura monumental. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, 1994.

This Egyptian Unit Escaped Destruction In 1967 By Invading Israel

When faced with an attack by a superior force, sometimes the key to survival lies in an unexpected move, or in remaining out of sight. But the survival of that single unit may be irrelevant when the rest of its army is destroyed. Such an example occurred in June 1967, when Israel almost totally destroyed the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula. With skill and luck, one of Egypt’s best generals saved his force – and even managed to cross into Israel for several days – but failed to affect the battle at all.

The war began when tensions between Israel and Egypt’s ally Syria during the spring of 1967 grew and pulled in Egypt. Egypt moved much of its army into the Sinai Peninsula facing Israel: 100,000 troops, 950 tanks, and 1100 armored personnel carriers.

As in previous wars, the Egyptians outnumbered the Israelis, but in quality of equipment they were about equal, and the Israelis had the clear advantage in training and leadership. Both sides knew the battlefield intimately.

One of the Egyptian units in the Sinai was a division-sized group of tanks and commandos commanded by Major General Saad el-Shazly. Shazly was a 45-year old major general, a bold and often boastful officer, who had trained in American and founded Egypt’s paratrooper force.

General Shazly around the time of the 1967 war.

His task force, thrown together only three weeks earlier, was made up of a tank brigade with 150 T-55 main battle tanks, two commando battalions, and some infantry and artillery, perhaps 7500 men in all. Its component units were competent, but they had little experience working together.

Based in central Sinai near the Israeli border but relatively far from other Egyptian and Israeli units, it would be a reserve or exploitation unit in the event of an Egyptian attack.

The war started with one of the most famous pre-emptive attacks in history. Israeli airstrikes early on 5 June destroyed most of the Egyptian Air Force while it was still on the ground, then Israeli tanks swept over the border. The war was essentially over by nightfall.

But Shazly and his task force were unaware of most of this. Shazly was driving back from a headquarters meeting 70 miles away when the war started, he later claimed to a British journalist.

The “highway of death” at Mitla Pass. (Israeli Government Press Office)

Elsewhere in the Sinai, ferocious battles were taking place, with Israeli tanks outflanking and outshooting the surprised Egyptian defenders. The Israeli fighter-bombers ignored or failed to spot Shazly’s unit.

The next afternoon, Cairo ordered a retreat from the Sinai. The orders went out at once to all units without details or time to prepare, which triggered a mad scramble back over the Suez Canal. Many troops abandoned their vehicles and equipment as they rushed westwards to safety. Soldiers fell back through the Mitla Pass, a natural bottleneck that became a nightmarish highway of death as Israeli jets and tanks raked them with gunfire.

Shazly never received the retreat orders, he claimed. Israeli tanks thrust to the north and south, and the front lines quickly moved on. With no Israelis nearby, and the only exit sealed behind him, Shazly ordered his force to advance – into Israel.

The tanks and commandos moved forward cautiously but quickly into the desert, crossing into Israel with no resistance. There, in a shallow L-shaped valley, they hunkered down, forgotten by both sides.

“There were some long-distance skirmishes, but during that time we were not in a war,” Shazly recalled. He probably knew his unit had little chance of retreating on its own across rugged deserts and through Israeli lines. For once the bold general took the cautious choice.

Not until two days later, on the evening of 7 June, did Cairo headquarters contact him. Stunned by his survival, and presence inside Israel, they ordered him to withdraw immediately. His force was one of the few units still surviving, and its escape was essential.

Shazly agreed to pull back, but waited for cover of darkness to move. Overnight, his tanks and commandos moved 60 miles across the pitch-black Sinai wilderness, across eerily empty roads.

As dawn broke, Israeli aircraft spotted his column and made low-level passes, pummeling them with bombs, rockets and cannon fire. Lacking specialized antiaircraft weapons, Shazly’s column fired on the Israeli jets with the only weapons they had, machine guns and small arms. Over 100 Egyptians were killed, but the column drove on, and the Israelis went off in search of easier targets.

Once Egypt’s spearhead, now a junkyard. (Israeli Government Press Office)

Shazly’s staff had no idea where the Israelis were, and only through sheer luck did they avoid running into enemy tanks.

They reached the Suez Canal by dusk on 8 June, nearly 24 hours after setting out. The only bridge across the canal was still in Egyptian hands. Bloodied but largely intact, Shazly’s men crossed into mainland Egypt and safety. It was one of the last units to escape the Sinai desert, and seemed to be the only one that avoided any real combat.

Shazly’s version of events is disputed by some Western historians, who accuse him of remaining immobile before withdrawing, or even abandoning his command. Egypt’s archives remain a state secret, and the truth may never be known.

Assuming his story is true, the daring choice to “retreat by advancing” spared his men. It also meant he was of the very few Arab generals to ever successfully take and hold territory inside Israel. But it counted for nothing against the catastrophic Egyptian defeat.

The “highway of death” at Mitla Pass. (Israeli Government Press Office)

In just four days, the Egyptian Army lost 80 percent of its equipment, including at least 530 tanks. By contrast, Israel lost only 61 tanks. The Sinai was lost Israel tripled the size of its territory. Determined to avenge defeat, Egypt rearmed and prepared to retake the Sinai.

Could Shazly have done more? His force could have moved deeper into the Negev, perhaps cutting off the southern half of Israel. Alternatively, it could have stayed in place as Israelis bypassed it, becoming a thorn in their rear. Both would have been embarrassing for Israel, but would not have changed the war’s outcome, and probably guaranteed the destruction of the force when Israel’s tanks turned on them.

Shazly was one of the few Egyptian officers who survived the war with his reputation intact. He went on to become Armed Forces Chief of Staff, and prepared the military for its greatest achievement, the October 1973 surprise attack on Israel. But his temper got the better of him, clashing with President Anwar Sadat and blaming him for Egypt’s defeat in that war. Shazly was declared a traitor and fled the country, returning only in 1992.