Experiencing the Maya
|Chichén Itzá, the famed Mayan ruins in Mexico's Yucatán, one of the modern "Seven Wonders of the World"
|This building is believed to have been an observatory.
|Nicknamed "the nunnery", this building has one of the most complex sets of hieroglyphics at this site.
The site is dominated by the “castle” pyramid, constructed to not only produce echoes (as demonstrated relentlessly by clapping tourists) and solstice and equinox light changes, but also to symbolize Mayan spiritual beliefs, such as the number 9, referencing the number of days it takes corn to germinate, or the feathered serpent.
|Chichén Itzá pyramid: The buildings are constructed of sturdy stucco, which is made by heating the ubiquitous limestone to a powder and then mixing it with water and mud.
|The revered feathered serpent symbol.
Despite a limited number of basic ingredients, though, the cuisine is extraordinarily versatile.
More serene and less touristy than Chichén Itzá, are the ruins of Palenque, originally discovered in 1773 and set in a lush jungle that was originally part of Guatemala, but now is in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Here, lack of rain has never been a problem. In fact, it is estimated that only two percent of the once great Mayan city has been excavated because of the extensive and fast-growing vegetation.
|Palenque: "Temple of the Inscriptions", first view on approach.
|Palenque palace courtyard: In the 1830s with the help of locals, explorers cleared the foliage to reveal
the temple courtyards in which extraordinary nine, six foot-tall and elaborately adorned figures
carved into the walls, can still be seen.
The ancient Maya built aqueducts in the jungle to redirect the water and actually had toilet facilities; in fact, a drainage canal system discovered at the bottom of the ruins contained traces of charcoal, suggesting there was even a filtering system.
Even more interesting to me than their architecture, is the Mayan belief system and traditional customs.
|Typically decorated Mayan Catholic church, Zinacantán, Chiapas, Mexico...but the church below is NOT typical!
|Chamula cemetery; note there are no stones, just mounds.
|Chamula women wear skirts made of black sheep wool.
|The white wool long vest is typical male attire here; the shamans in the church wear black.
|Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, rimmed by volcanoes, is a popular vacation and tourist spot.
|In the town of San Juan la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán, the eco-tourism center Rupalaj K’Istalin offers traditional Mayan cultural presentations and overnight homestays.
|Sorting and husking coffee "cherries
|Best way to do the hills in San Juan -- by tuk-tuk!
|Fascinating presentation on medicinal land herbal plants. We also had presentations on honey and chocolate-making.
The electric light kept going off, which distracted the presenter.
When the Spanish Catholic missionaries came in the 1500s, their brutal, forced conversion of the natives included burning some one million Mayan documents, so the written records of that astonishing civilization are few. Nevertheless, we know that the Maya appreciated and even worshiped the “different”, the opposite of what we today would consider “beauty”. They thought demons and monsters represented the power of the underworld; they admired the unnatural in a natural world and thought the deformed and the crippled were special. To them, albinos (often the result of incest), cross-eyed women and flat-headed faces were beautiful.
So, with all this knowledge and ability, why did the Mayan civilization die out in around the 10th century? There have been many theories, but the current predominant one is that their success as a sophisticated culture was also their undoing. It is now believed that through deforestation – by using wood to make the fires to heat the limestone to make the stucco – the Maya created an environmental disaster that left them without the means to survive. A cautionary tale, indeed.
Until next time...