"All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"
It is one of my favorite scenes from The Life of Brian. It comes to mind whenever I hear anachronists bang on about how the Spanish ruined Mesoamerica. If you need ammunition to pour oil on that water, come to Antigua. The town feels as if it was frozen in crystal in 1776 when it lost its provincial capital status.
Yesterday we were treated to one of the traditions the Spanish brought to the New World -- a tradition that was ancient when it bobbed its way across the Atlantic. Being the agents of His Most Catholic Majesty, the conquistadors and their priests brought a rich Catholic heritage with them -- including religious processions.
To call what transpires in Antigua during the Easter season as a "religious procession" understates what a visitor will experience. A religious procession may have a few participants hauling a statute around town on a litter.
What happens in Antigua is something quite different. If you like your religion filtered through the camera of Cecil B. DeMille, or think that a super bowl half-time show would spice up your church proceedings, you are going to love Easter time in Antigua. I certainly did.
To give some context to its importance, Guatemalans come from all over the country to not only see the procession, but to participate in it. Most of the Roman soldiers I talked with were from Guatemala City.
Since the Middle Ages, the Spanish had decorated the streets for their processions with colorful designs of flowers and dyed sawdust, called alfombras de aserrin. The tradition appears to have originated in the Canary Islands.
This was one western tradition the Maya had no problem adopting. They had been accustomed to idol processions where fruits and feathered decorations were strewn in the path of the procession.
In Antigua, the alfombras art form has been perfected. (Even though there are many experts who claim the designs in Tlaxcala, Mexico are superior. I don't know. I have not seen the Mexican version.)
The processions in Antigua are held every Sunday following Ash Wednesday until Palm Sunday. During Holy Week, processions are held every day until Easter.
Early on the morning of the day of each procession, families along the route start constructing their alfombras. The process can vary according to the desired outcome, but most start with a large rectangle of plain sawdust dampened to formed a sound foundation.
The family will then begin adding designs using stencils to create some of the most fantastic combinations imaginable. Because this is all Catholic-oriented, Catholic symbols predominate.
But the Maya were a wily folk and did not give up their own traditions that easily. They worked their own pagan symbols in with the church's designs. You can see similar examples of the same approach in carvings on Mexican and Guatemalan churches. The priests did not care as long as the passion was being portrayed.
And that was the point of all this. In a pre-literate society, the church could use these movable feasts of salvation through the streets to portray the gospel -- or a version of the gospel. Much in the same way that stained glass windows were used in Europe.
That is why most of the designs on the alfombras are allegorical. Either Catholic or Maya.
The alfombras are not solely made of sawdust. Some are decorated with palm flowers and berries.
Some are made of kale -- which only proves it does have some utilitarian purpose.
Some are almost entirely flowers. Tulips in this example.
And some are made entirely of flowers.
The procession passes through most of the neighborhoods of Antigua. From start to finish, it lasts approximately thirteen hours. And you will soon see why.
No Easter procession would be complete without imperial Roman soldiers, persuasively costumed to lead a procession dedicated to the Messiah's crucifixion. The first formation are pictured at the top of this essay.
More Roman soldiers followed carrying placards depicting the stations of the cross, in what has to be one of the best uses of irony I have seen in the service of Catholicism.
What made all of this worth watching was lugubriously wending its way down the street through clouds of incense. It was an andas. The true star of the procession.
An andas is a float the size of a barge. And it really floats -- on the shoulders of purple-robed retainers called curcurachas, devout men working out their salvation through self-mortification. It takes fifty to a hundred of them to shoulder the burden -- a burden that can weigh as much as 7000 pounds.
Watching the andas make their slow way down the street, it is easy to slip into the barge analogy. I said they float. They don't. They sway in an attempt to shift the burdens on the shoulders of the curcurachas. The andas bob up and down, and sway side to side.
Only when it is near can you make out the diorama on top. Jesus in the garden. Jesus flogged. Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. All more than life size.
The Messiah andas was followed by another bearing a stiffly-posed Mary. She was carried on the shoulders of women dressed in black.
I thought this might be another of the church's segregation policies. But when I saw the same procession in the center of Antigua, the women were shouldering Jesus and the men had taken over the Mary litter.
And the alfombras? They are consumed as the curcurachas and the women propel their respective andas down the street. After all, they were constructed as an offering to the procession.
I enjoyed the procession, but I certainly was not overwhelmed by it. In the daytime, that is.
Around 10 PM, the procession was heading toward its final destination when it passed in front of our hotel. What had been large in the daylight took on a dramatic air.
The stations of the cross carried by the Roman soldiers were lit as lanterns for the procession. And the Messiah andas was lit up like -- well, the second coming.
The whole thing is worth seeing once in your life. But if you are coming during Holy Week for next year, you had best book a room right now. To keep with our theme, there will be no room at the inn.
This is not an event where you can just barge in.