Mexico: Lands of the Maya

22 Mar

As some of you may know (I think I may have mentioned it once…or twice, maybe) I have recently been on holiday to Mexico, which involved visiting a number of the Mayan sites. Thought I’d share some of my favourite pictures from the trip

Here’s Tulum’s Temple of the Wind:

Here is the El Castillo monument at Tulum which is believed to have been an efficient Day/Night Beacon for Mayan boats returning with precious goods that would help them avoid the treacherous reefs:

Here is the sea-facing side of El Castillo. Day and night, Mayan boats could use the angle of light through the windows to ensure safe passage through the reefs below:

Below is the temple of Frescoes, Tulum, which is adorned with a variety of carvings and contains, within, a ground floor and second floor gallery believed to have been used for celestial observation:

Here’s me stood in front of probably the most recognisable of all the Mayan Pyramids, El Castillo at the site of Chichen Itza:

The Castle, or Temple of Kukulkan, is remarkable in that it it aligned perfectly (or entirely accidentally) that twice a year, during the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, an optical illusion of a serpent descending the north staircase is seen for an hour between 4-5 pm local time. There is much argument amongst archaeologists as to whether this was an intentional effect created by the original temple builders or a quirk of fate. Considering we know the Mayans had a reasonable astronomical knowledge it’s hard to imagine this was an accidental feature of the construction. I was there during the equinox and this is the best picture I have of the ‘Snake’ made up of a series of linked isosceles triangles of light:

There is another feature of The Temple of Kukulkan pyramid that is far less controversial and that is the thought that the Mayans put into acoustics of the Pyramid. If you stand at the bottom of the North Stair case and clap, the sound that is returned is similar to that of the Quetzal bird, which was sacred to the Maya. It is largely accepted that this was an intentional design feature of the pyramid as similar acoustic awareness has been noted at other Mayan sites in Mexico; the Mayan’s liked their temples to tweet. The Mayans wewre doing something thousands of years ago that we have only learnt to do in the last few decades, encode sound into stone, and they didn’t have computer simulations, just trial and eror! Here is a fascinating report from the Acoustical Society of America on the Acoustic phenomena at Chichen Itza, which include the voice of any speaking from the top of the pyramid being amplified and made possible to be heard from some distance away. You can find a number of recordings of the Quetzal Bird Echo online, but unfortunately none quite compare to hearing it in person.

The Temple of a Thousand Warriors which is flanked by huge pillars that once held up an elaborate roof system.

Strong links have been drawn between the architecture of the Temple of a Thousand Warriors and the Toltec site of Tulu, which is to the north of Mexico City. Unfortunately for those who would have the Toltecs as invaders of Chichen Itza, there is evidence that puts the date of the building of the Temple of a Thousand Warriors before the date of it’s counterpart at Tulu. Debate rages on this topic and it is one of the many mysteries that remain about who influenced the Maya.

When it comes to the Maya, there are always surprises, even at sites that we have known about for centuries, such as Chichen Itza. Below is a 2009 excavation trench next to El Castillo that discovered another, much older, Mayan Pyramid buried beneath the Plateau. It is speculated that more still are hidden underground and in surrounding jungle areas:

Although we know quite a lot about Mayans, by comparison with some of their older neighbouring cultures such as the Olmec, speculation (ludicrous and otherwise) remains rife. It wasn’t that the Mayans did not keep records of their history, beliefs and customs, in fact they kept wonderfully extensive records on Amate Bark Paper, which was far more durable that the papyrus paper used by the ancient Egyptians to record their legacy but, however durable it was, it was not immune to fire and this is where most of the Mayan codices met their demise. We have the Spanish Conquistadors, who conquered much of Central America in the 16th Century, and one particular Franciscan priest to thank for much of the speculation that endures today about the Mayan’s history.

The priest was Diego De Landa, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the Yucatan Peninsula and it was under his brutal rule that a huge number of atrocities were carried out against the Maya (all in the name of religion of course). For me, Del Lando’s worst crime (from his vast list!) came on July 12th 1562 when, having collected up a large amount of Mayan books and religious images, burnt everything. His justification was that it was the writings of the devil who his imaginary friend had told him were bad. In one day history was robbed of the one chance to fully understand the Mayan History and culture in their own words. All that remains is one good quality codice held in Dresden and 3 poorer quality codices held elsewhere in the world, but that’s it and so attention has turned to the stones and pyramids left behind by the Mayans, which has led to a lot of  the interesting interpretations and misconceptions/lies.

As an aside, De Landa’s second worst crime is the reason it’s rare to see pictures of 2 sides of the El Castille Pyramid at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza. Here’s what it looks like:

Here is a picture of the first Roman Catholic church in the Mexican Yucatan:

It was built with stones stripped from nearby Chichen Itza. Our guide wryly told us that if anything happens on December 21st 2012 it would only be fitting for the churches, built using desecrated stones from the Mayan temples, be the first to go.


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5 Responses to “Mexico: Lands of the Maya”

  1. raptor April 9, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    It is amazing to think that many centuries ago civilizations were walking our planet before us. It looks to me that there were bigger civilizations than we thought. If that’s the case then they must were more advanced than we actually know about them. More discoveries will let us know them better.

    I want to share with you this music about the mystical place Chichen-Itza. The message of that music is about a CHANGE all humans must do in order to live in peace and harmony. Maybe that’s the message ancient civilizations wanted us to know.

    Arriving at Chichen-Itza 2012

    In Lak’Ech. Peace from Mexico.

    Like

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