Friday, December 03, 2010

first steps into mayaland

That first day in Athens sticks in my mind.

Even though I knew I would be stationed there for a year, I wanted to see the attraction that had drawn me there.

Athens was -- and still is -- a jumble of a city.  More like a village suffering from the urban equivalent of elephantiasis.

The traffic was terrible.  But for a moment my focus shifted up and to the left.  And there it was.  The Acropolis.  The essence of ancient Greece.

I can still feel the catch in my breath at the sight of the sun flashing off of those columns.  Almost as if the entire hilltop of marble was internally illuminated.

I was hoping my first Mayan site (Dzibilchaltún) would be as memorable.  In one sense, it had to be.  Like imprinting, this would be the template I used for all other Mayan sites.

The choice was not scientific.  The site is midway between Mérida and Progreso.  We decided to stop there first simply because it was convenient -- not because it was the best of all possible sites.

I knew a little bit about the place before we got there. 

That the name meant "place with writing on flat stones." 

That it had been inhabited since around 300 BC, and remained inhabited right up to the arrival of the Spanish -- one of the oldest places we would visit on this trip. 

That it was rediscovered in the 1940s. 

That its population ebbed and flowed with a high point during the late Classical period (600-900 AD) when it grew to 20,000 inhabitants.  It was an urban center -- at one point.

None of that prepared me for my first impression of what the Mayans accomplished. 

There are no truly monumental buildings at Dzibilchaltún.  The site consists mainly of  a central plaza surrounded by a small pyramid and the ruins of administrative buildings. 

The only building that approaches monumental status is the Temple of the Seven Dolls.

As I mentioned earlier, the Mayans had developed amazing mathematical and astronomical skills.  The evidence of that shows up in this little temple. 

Scientists have discovered (much to the delight of New Age types) that on the spring equinox, the sun rises in one window and shines directly through the other.  (We will discuss a similar, but far more creepy, event when we get to Chichén Itzá.)  This assumes, of course, that when the temple was reconstructed the windows were oriented correctly.

But the building has other mysteries.

The temple got its name from small clay dolls discovered buried in front of the altar -- some with deformities.  No one knows exactly what the ritual importance of the deformed dolls was. 

Substitute sacrifice is a wishful theory, even though Mayan religious rites would suggest a far less happy reality.  But there are other possibilities suggested in contemporary Mexican religious life.  Perhaps they were distant relatives of the healing charms (milagros) seen in Mexican Catholic churches.

We did not get to see the dolls.  They are located in the site's museum.  But we were there on a Sunday.  And the museum is closed on Sunday.  (A curse that has traveled with me around the world.)

The temple is tied to the rest of the complex with the remains of another Mayan innovation -- a sacbe: a paved street constructed of a layer of limestone over stone and rubble.  When it was in its prime, its must have made an impressive connection.  Today, it has the look of a bovine path.

Islagringo's favorite structure on the site is a small Franciscan chapel -- built between 1590 and 1600.  The stone portion of the building was recycled from rubble found at the site.  At one point, a palapa acted as a nave.

I share Islagringo's enthusiasm for the small chapel.  It is a reminder of a simpler time when Franciscan missionaries did their best to bring the local Mayans into communion with the church universal by preaching in the midst of the natives. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the Spanish invasion was set on far more worldly pursuits.

And there are still some worldly pursuits on the grounds of Dzibilchaltún.

The site is home to a modest cenote -- a natural spring.  It is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Mayans settled here. 

Water is a precious commodity on the Yucatán.  And Dzibilchaltún has a pot of gold in its spring.  (I should add that comment is a metaphor.  Similar comments by Indians caused the Spanish to vandalize Mexico in search of Leprechaun gold.)

The cenote no longer has a religious or utility purpose.  Instead, it is simply an incredibly refreshing swimming hole.

When we were there, it was evident that many Mexican families (and a few painfully pale German tourists) had come to seek relief from the November heat.  And to simply have a good time. 

They were not there to celebrate the past.  They were celebrating the moment.

I did not really have an Acropolis moment at Dzibilchaltún.  What I came away with was an admiration for the ability of the Mayans to build large urban centers on a human scale. 

And to appreciate the engineering skills necessary to build their stone structures.  Even though the temple of the Seven Dolls is small, it feels as if people actually stood there in awe of their surrounding.

It was a good starter site.  And it turned out to be a very good place to begin my journey into Mayan civilization.


Anonymous said...

Ever the teacher. Good stuff.


Steve Cotton said...

And always the student. At least, I am not wandering around with a PowerPoint clicker.

Anonymous said...

There is more than water in those cenotes. I was lectured about this by a Munchen doctor when I was visiting Mayan ruins. Having read the brochure provided by officials, he was able to recite to me, from memory, the archaeological artifacts recovered from the cenote we were looking at. If I recall the good doctor's recitation at all correctly, several skeletons were found at the bottom. Not a spring I'd want to be taking my drinking water from. Reminds me of when Uncle Verl's dog fell into their well and drowned. I only drank soda pop when I visited their farm. I could never get the picture of a dead dog at the source of my glass of water out of my head.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the writing, Steve. We that read it are fully enjoying it. As we travel with you, we see the ancient temples, the remnants of past generations. We feel the heat, but the excitement to find what is just ahead keeps us wanting to see more.


Steve Cotton said...

ANM -- Bodies. Jewels. Old shoes. Idols. The cenotes sound like rubbish heaps. But they were sacred rubbish heaps. Those bodies were sacrificed before doing their Greg Louganis routine.

Mom -- Always nice to know that the most faithful of all readers is out there.