January 5-6, 2020
We’ve spent the past two days exploring four more Mayan sites. Though the Mayans occupied the area for over 1000 years (roughly 200 BC until 1400 AD), and left over 1500 known cities, the five (counting Palenque) we visited spanned most of the entire period.
The biggest ruins in the Yucatan might well belong to those at Chichen Itza, or at least the most excavated and most visited. Up to 19,000 visitors a day arrive by the busload during peak season (last week), and it seemed like there were that many when we were leaving.
We got there shortly after the park opened at 800, so there were still a few spots left in the parking lot. That did not last long. I can understand the fascination with a site labeled as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Our hotel there had a main entrance that was part of a hacienda purchased by Edward Thompson, American vice consul in Merida, who was responsible for some of the early excavations—and the man who used his diplomatic pouch to secret a number of artifacts to the Harvard Peabody museum. Harvard won a battle waged by the Mexican government to get the material returned. The Mexican supreme court ruled that the laws at the time were inadequate to protect the nation’s treasurers, so Harvard could keep the items; in a gesture of gratitude, some of the materials were returned. Mr. Thompson himself was hounded out of Mexico, however, and the hacienda sold to archeologists who built cabins, one of which was occupied by Mr. & Mrs. Hoyt.
Like most of the excavated sites, only a small portion of any of the sites has been recovered or restored Given time, the jungle wins, or the cost of recovery is enormous. Coba, were we visited today, for example, spanned 40 square kilometers. Less than 15% is restored.
Chichen Itza is classic period—about 1000 AD—which means the buildings were architecturally and artistically at their peak. The city-state was one of the most dominant, controlling as it did, one of the ancient world’s most important products—salt–until drought and population pressure eroded its sway. The pyramid is 42 meters high, one of the highest, built atop an earlier version which contained a tomb whose finery now graces the national museum. My favorite buildings, though, were the ball court, the largest known with a “hoop” about 15 feet off the ground (try and dunk that); a ritualistic altar with thousands of skull figures (the macabre idea borrowed apparently from the Toltecs in central Mexico; the popular but apocryphal story is that the losers were decapitated); the observatory (the Mayans, like most successful agricultural civilizations placed great emphasis on the rain god and were adept astronomers and astrologers; the construction of the observatory allowed stargazing even during the day); the temple of 1000 warriors, with a jaguar god atop, and 1000 pillars that for all the world looks like something borrowed from a Roman movie set); and, bless the Spanish, two buildings named by them, the “nunnery” and the “church”, older buildings with some of the best intact steles and bas-relief that we’ve seen. Partly because of the crowds and the wear and tear, none of the buildings is readily accessible. That’s probably a good thing because the pyramid has 365 steps (the Mayans knew the days of the year). Carolyn is super impressed with any civilization that reveres jaguars. We did see two jaguar crossing signs on the way to Cancun.
Ek Balam, the jaguar city, was older.(pre-classic period) and easily combined in one day with Chichen Itza. The site had an unusual rounded building and some excavated common folk housing—all ten feet per room—that we saw nowhere else. I liked the reconstructed Mayan “arch” at the gateway to the city, which was triangular. The road there was full of pilgrims, many on bicycles, heading to a Church of the Three Wise Men, since Monday, the day of the arrival of the three wise men, is the gift giving day associated with Christmas in Mexico.
Today’s visits were to Coba and Tulum, two later (post classic; Tulum, in fact, lasting until the Spanish explorations, which was unusual for the Mayans). Coba, as mentioned, occupied 40 square kilometers, and even though only a small portion is excavated, those buildings are sufficiently scattered that we had a trishaw with a driver to take us around. Our guide noted that the workmanship deteriorated, but it was hard to tell in a city that had two ball courts (American and National League?), and a pyramid taller than the one at Chichen Itza (but unrestored).
The most stunning site was Tulum, settled for a long time, but come to prominence late—stunning because of its location on the coast. Apparently, it was sort of a customs station or duty free shop for Mayans along the coast, protected by a wall on 3 sides and steep cliffs down to the ocean on the fourth side. Large iguanas willingly posed for pictures, but the buildings atop the hills—again, some of them resembling Roman ruins because of the pillars used to hold up a (no longer there) wooden roof. The most unusual of the gods was an upside-down man, facing west—the direction of the setting sun.
Given that the palaces of the Mayan rich were much nicer than the (mostly unexcavated) hovels of the poor, it’s fittingly ironic that our last night is being spent in Cancun, in one of those updated 21st century palaces.
“Ruined” by 4 Mayan Sites
January 5-6, 2020