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Archive for August 29th, 2015

17 August 2015


Another early morning in a summer of early mornings. It’s a good habit. The kitchen door is locked, preventing me from accessing both my breakfast and my lunch. Fortunately, I find an open window and vault myself through it, glad that nobody is up yet to see me do this. Breakfast consumed and lunch acquired, I meet the Germans and we hit the highway toward Chichen Itza. The kilometers roll by as the sun rises behind us, dissolving the darkness of night in the soft morning glow. New forest growth borders both sides of the road and the milpas are few and far between, a notable difference from the roads in Chiapas. The road track lies flat and straight, straight to the heart of the Mundo Maya: Chichen Itza. We slow to creep over topes (speed bumps) signaling towns on the roadside), where Mexican men and women invariably press their faces to your window, offering to sell you snacks for the trip. “Poor bastards.” I think. I must remember to never complain about my job and recall these souls, melting into heat puddles on the road, selling food that has sat in the sun all day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually buy anything from them. I wave politely and stare ahead before we shoot off westward.

Chichen Itza was a major city for the Maya in the region and was an economic, political, and military stronghold throughout the late Classic period. At its height, the city was home to some 150,000 Maya. Now, it annually hosts 1.2 million sunscreen-slathered, sweating tourists that swarm to the site on day trips from Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun.

As planned, we arrive right at 8, just as the doors are being opened. Regardless, a line has already formed at the ticket office, though it is probably significantly shorter than it will be in the next few hours. We walk through the gate and into the central plaza. The Castillo, or Castle, Temple, towered over a grassy field. Its imposing figure was about 30 meters high and consists of nine square terraces constructed of mammoth grey limestone blocks leading to a temple at the apex. The staircases leading to said temple on the north side of the pyramid are bordered by banisters that flow down from the peak to the ground, capped by a carved snake head. The Maya, skilled astronomers who calculated astronomic cycles with extraordinary accuracy, constructed these banisters at such angles so that the banisters remain the only unshaded, sunlit features at midday on the Spring and fall equinoxes. Thus, the giant snake, the god Kukulkan, wriggles down from the temple on those days.

El Castillo

El Castillo

Immediately to our left lies the Great Ball Court. This is the largest of its kind in all of Mesoamerica, measuring in at 168 by 70 m. Tall, 8m high walls, each adorned with several small stone discs, tower above the court and are emblazoned with feathered serpents. The rules and purpose of the ballgame are largely speculative, but given their prevalence at multiple Maya sites, it was clearly culturally important. A modern version of the game, ulama, which is still played by indigenous communities in Sinaloa, serves as a source for many potential rules, which combined with bas relief sculptures depicting the gameplay provide some semblance of an idea as to how it was played. A solid rubber ball made from the sap of the Castilla elastic, was probably struck with the hips, though this was probably not the only way the ball was played. Two teams of 2-4 players played at a given time. The game was quite physical given that it may have been a contact sport, and even if it wasn’t, the 4kg rubber ball could severely bruise the players. The ball was probably hit back and forth between the teams until a team could no longer return the ball into play, similar to racquetball. However, a 16th century monk wrote that while this was how points were accrued, a victory could also be attained if a team managed to hit the ball through one of the rings atop the wall, which was probably rare given their size and height. The ball game was an extremely important aspect of the Maya culture that transcended that of a mere sport. First, it was a proxy for warfare. Sometimes, conflicts were not decided through combat, but through playing the ballgame. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could solve our problems with a game of soccer or baseball rather than killing one another? However, the game was not always completely innocuous. Captive soldiers may have been forced to play a rigged game and then executed after their loss. Finally, the ballgame is an important thread in the Popl Vuh, the Maya creation myth. According to the legend, the hero twins Xbalanque and Hunahpu were summoned by the lords of Xibalba, the Underworld, to play a ballgame, which they lost, resulting in their execution. The twins were resurrected and then returned to Xibalba and defeated the lords of the Underworld. As we walk through the ballcourt, I imagine the game being played. Did the spectators cheer when a point was scored? Was it a family event when parents would bring their children, who in turn hoped to become ballplayers themselves? But the crowds no longer roar and the ball no longer bounces off of these walls, so we walk on.

We continue to the Sacred Cenote. The pit is 60 meters in diameter and 22 m deep. Sheer 27m walls dropped to the soupy green water surface below. This was one of three possible entryways to Xibalba for the Maya, so they regularly dumped jade, gold, and other sacrifices into its depths. This may have been the primary reason for building Chichen Itza where it is. The city was constructed during the Late Classic in the 600s. It rose to prominence in the late Classic (800-900AD) and became a powerhouse that dominated the Yucatec Maya lowlands. However, it only retained its glory for a few hundred years, declining in population and importance in the mid-1200s. However, it was never fully abandoned like many other Classic Maya cities. In fact, the Spanish arrived and took over a still-active Maya population in the city. The site remained an important religious center and the destination of Maya pilgrimage until very recently.

Just behind the ball court stood the Temple of the Skulls, so named for the hundreds of sculls etched into the walls of the structure. Again, the serpent was an important figure in the site, and dozens of snake carved in bas-relief wriggled at the base of the temple. Snake heads with large fangs capped the corners of the buildings. Might this be the site where the losers of the ballgame were sacrificed before being brought to the Sacred Cenote?

Columns

Columns

The Temple of Warriors stood in the corner of the site, bordered by thousands of 2 m high columns, each carved with representations of soldiers, as though they stood in formation, guarding the site through the ages. A stone army, unblinking, always ready to defend the city should the need arise. I wonder if they slept when the city was depopulated and covered by jungle, and were reawakened by the excavations of the site in the 1920s.

Caracol

Caracol

The final area of the site had a number of buildings, the most notable of which were El Caracol, las Monjas, and La Iglesia. El Caracol, which literally translates as, the snail, was possibly an observatory given its unusual shape (a circular domed chamber) and orientation (certain windows aligned with particular astronomic events, especially those associated with the orbit of Venus. Admittedly, the purpose of the building is not entirely certain, but Maya astronomers were keen observers of the movements of celestial bodies. They were able to make accurate naked-eye observations to inform their complex calendar system, which corresponded to the movements of the stars and planets. The calendar itself deserves some explanation. It consists of several cycles, or counts, each with different lengths. The Tzolkin count was a 260 day cycle that combined with a 365 day solar year known as a Haab. 52 Haab formed a full cycle of the calendar. Imagine two nested gears. The smaller one, representing the Tzolkin, moves inside the larger, outside gear, which also rotates and represents the Haab. The Maya also had a Long Count of days since a mythological creation day. This may not make much sense in our eyes, but the Maya number system was base 20, so this combination of cycles worked in perfect synchrony given their counting system. You may recall the craziness associated with 2012, which was supposedly marked the end of the world. Of course, any Maya could tell you that this was nonsense, and that it only marked the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Many indigenous cultures have a cyclic concept of time, which conflicts and confounds the linear passage of time in Western cultures. Las Monjas and la Iglesia, the Nunnery and the Church, respectively, were some of the most impressive features of the site. The stonework is among the most ornate and intricate I have seen at any Maya ruin. The delicate bas-relief sculptures and elaborate stone masks remain well-preserved and would be enviable features for any building, demonstrating the skill of Maya craftsmen. This was the highlight of the trip, as Chichen Itza may be my favorite Maya ruin (so long as one arrives early, before the bulk of the tourists and the merchants.

The Church (left) and Nunnery (right)

The Church (left) and Nunnery (right)

We leave the site as hordes of tourists and the heat begin to arrive at the site. The chaos is magnified by throngs of merchants peddling cheap tcholtchke souvenirs. “Hey buddy. One dollar.” They all cry, shoving painted balsa masks at me. One stand is identical to the next. They unwrap their wares from old newspaper and place them in orderly rows on benches near every major temple and structure at the site. For one dollar, one can purchase an authentic Maya mask emblazoned with the logo of your favorite NFL team, or a 2 foot tall Predator sculpture. The speed at which they overtake the site is astonishing. In the two and a half hours that we wandered the ruins, the area transformed from a tranquil park to a crowded mall. It’s all rather excessive and a sure sign that we should leave. We eat lunch beneath the Castle temple and depart the site for a cenote we were recommended. Cenote Ik-kil is only about 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza and a popular stopover for returning tours. It was a perfect place for reflection and relief after our trip to Chichen Itza. The cenote itself is 60 meters in diameter and 40 m deep, where the water surface drops another 50m to the bottom of the pit. We descend by a spiral stone staircase to the water below. A blue sapphire amongst the jade forest, one can stare up at the sky, framed by tall trees rising above the cenote edge and the fringe of vines which droop over and into the water. Small waterfalls trickle down, forming natural showers. Shafts of light pierce through small holes in the vaulted cave ceiling far above like spotlights through the mist. A platform located some 10 m above the surface allows me to dive into the icy waters. I rest my toes on the edge and falter in a moment of doubt, before taking a step and plunging into the cenote, its cobalt waters embracing me in a cool embrace before I float to the surface. I, like the Maya consider this place, sacred. Swallows flutter in a swirling vortex in the chamber as they fly out into the open. One feels so small in floating 50m above the bottom and 40 m from the ground surface. Once again, we have timed the trip perfectly and just as we depart, three coach tour buses pull into the parking lot. The cenote soon fills like a public pool in the heat of the heart of summer.

We return to Tulum and I part way with the Germans, happy to have spent what is functionally my last day in Mexico visiting these wonderful places on my terms. Tomorrow I am traveling to Cancun, where I cannot spend any money (I managed to budget exactly enough money for my stay. I have a whole 4 pesos remaining to my name after I buy food and pay for the hostel there. I am far too proud of this accomplishment.). Even if I did have money to spend, Cancun, with its swarms of party-crazy coeds and bros does not excite me in the least. I already have a sunburn to nurse and the decaying Sargasso accumulating on the beach does not entice me there either. I depart for the airport at 4:30 tomorrow and will be in Buffalo for a late lunch. This summer has been at times trying, but provided with a wealth of experiences that I will never forget. I have logged some 3200 km in buses and collectivos, in 3 countries over the past 2 months. I look forward to taking a nap on my couch after all of it.

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