There was a time when the Mayan people lived in great cities in Guatemala and Mexico. They had developed a syllabic form of writing and created books to record their history. They were advanced in the study of astronomy, predicting celestial events with great precision. Their calendar was remarkable in its accuracy, coinciding with the Roman version in stunning ways. They were among the first people to use zero as a place holder and had an uncanny understanding of mathematics. Their art and architecture was and remains beautiful in its representations. They were a remarkably advanced people but without much reason their influence began to wane around the thirteenth century. Today there are maybe six or seven million Mayan people left living mostly in Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, often in impoverished conditions.
There are many theories as to what may have happened to this once thriving society. Drought may have brought famine. Disease may have decimated the population. War with other tribes like the Aztecs may have resulted in great losses. Mostly though it was the arrival of the Spanish that spelled doom for the Mayan people. They greeted the white men from across the ocean as though they were gods and soon enough found that they were not destined to be treated well by the invaders. The people and their lands were commandeered and they were forced to learn and speak only Spanish, as well as to follow the Catholic faith of the missionaries who came to “civilize” the new world.
There had once been vast libraries of Mayan writing but the Spanish colonists feared the strange hieroglyphs and burned most of the volumes that they found thinking that they were works of the devil. By the nineteenth century the Mayan language was all but wiped out and only a handful of Mayan texts had survived. Many of the great structures lay in tangled mounds in the jungle, seemingly forgotten and laid to waste. The Mayan people were neglected as well, often spending their days growing corn and living in primitive conditions without education. It was difficult for them or anyone to realize how great their ancestors had once been.
In the mid nineteenth century a few people around the world began to take an interest in the forgotten civilization. One by one ruins from the past were uncovered and studies of the mysterious structures commenced. Of particular interest were the strange symbols that appeared to represent some type of writing. It would not be until the middle of the twentieth century for the complex characters to be translated by some very unlikely young people, including a twelve year old boy. Once the secrets of the forms were discovered a treasure trove of history and ideas was revealed to a startled public that suddenly realized how advanced this society had actually been.
During my recent visit to Cancun I was fortunate to be able to visit one of the premier Mayan ruins in the world at Chichen Itza. This had once been a great city that was developed toward the end of the Mayan era. It featured a grand pyramid that was as remarkable for its astrological features as its architecture. It is a mathematical wonder based on a three hundred sixty five day year with a total of three hundred sixty four stairs and a temple at the to complete the total. The pyramid itself represents the three states of existence, including the earthly condition, the underworld and heaven.
The Mayan people believed that when they died they would first visit the underworld which was not a bad place. Instead it was where they would have to complete certain tasks before they would be allowed to enter heaven. Much of their art and architecture alludes to birth, death and the final ascension into heaven with the gods.
During the time of the spring and autumn equinox a shadow appears to wriggle along the main staircases on the sides of the pyramid giving the impression of a snake slithering along. To this very day crowds gather to watch this strange and fascinating occurrence. It must have been quite magical to the ancient Mayans who saw it as a deeply religious experience.
The Mayans were farmers who depended on the production of corn but they were also great warriors who for a time dominated opposing tribes. They prepared their young men for battle by staging ballgames on a field that still exists at Chichen Itza. It is a long area enclosed by stone walls featuring the imagery of a snake and hieroglyphs and carvings that tell stories of the great leaders and events. The structure was built in such a way that it carries sound quite well so that the audience would have been able to hear announcements without the need of microphones or sound enhancing methods. Along the side walls there are large stone circles through which the athletes were to toss heavy balls using only their arms, legs and feet but no hands. The winners were lauded but the losers often became sacrifices to the gods. It was truly a blood sport and the letting of blood featured heavily in many of the religious ceremonies as well. There was definitely an element of extreme violence even among people who appeared to have so much knowledge about the natural world.
Chichen Itza is remarkably well preserved and features enough buildings to give a real impression of how large this city was. One structure boasts a rather quaint feature. If a group of people clap their hands in unison the sound of a local bird echoes through the air. Yet another wall depicts a man with a beard, a strange aspect given that the Mayans did not grow hair on their faces. Many theories have been developed regarding who this unlikely character may have been. Mayan legends tell of a tall white blue eyed man coming to the land in a huge boat and teaching the people many important things about farming and astronomy. He is said to have told them as he was leaving that he would one day return but he cautioned them to be wary of other strangers who might look like him but would be violent rather than benign.
Chichen Itza is about a two hour drive from Cancun. The best way to go these days is with a tour. Driving alone is not advised because the journey winds its way through miles of jungle and there are still worries that members of cartels may take advantage of unwitting visitors. We chose an all day tour that also took us to an old colonial town where we were able to visit San Sebastian Church and see the modern day Mayans at work. We also stopped at a lovely restaurant for lunch where we had an opportunity to shop for local works of art. After a guided tour of the Chichen Itza site we went to a cenote which is a sink hole caused by the collapse of land around an underground river. It was literally a kind of oasis in the middle of brutal heat and humidity. Many of the younger tourists took a dip in the one hundred fifty foot deep waters cooling themselves after a very hot day.
I’m now on a crusade to learn more about the Mayan civilization. I have purchased books and watched documentaries in an effort to discover the history and the accomplishments of a people who built centers of great knowledge at a time when my own ancestors were probably wandering from one place to another hunting and gathering just to stay alive. Visiting Chichen Itza was a mind altering kind of trip and I totally recommend the adventure.