Thursday, December 02, 2010

gone to ruin(s)


I grew up with Indian names -- and with Indians.

Clackamas.  Willamette.  Coos.

It always amused me when friends out east would visit and stumble over the pronunciations.  The names were simply part of my culture.

Somewhere the Karma pot is bubbling over with laughter -- because I am getting my comeuppance with the pronunciation of Indian names -- Mayan  names, to be exact.

Dzibilchaltún.  Uxmal.  Kabah.  Sayil.  Labná.  Xlapak.  Chichén Itzá.

Each a Mayan ruin.  Once, proud cities.  Now, piles of rocks with reconstructions of uneven effect.  And my tongue stumbles over the syllables as much as my feet did over strewn rocks.

I had intended to combine all of the sites in one essay.  But that simply was not going to work.  Each place was too interesting to relegate it to "and then we saw another pile of rubble."

So, here is what I would like to do.  I will write a series of four essays on the sites in the same order Islagringo and I saw them.

  • Dzibilchaltún -- on the road between Mérida and Progreso
  • Uxmal -- home to what some Madison Avenue-type dubbed "The Magician's Pyramid"
  • Kabah; Sayil; Labná; Xlapak -- four "minor" sites on la ruta puuc

  • Chichén Itzá -- truly the big enchilada with its Cecil B. DeMille El Castillo

But a little context may help.  I know that some of you have no interest in Mayan history.  But these few basics will help us to put each of the sites into a bigger picture.

Mexico had several great civilizations prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s.

The greatest in the Yucatán was the Mayan.

The city-states that constituted the Mayan civilization were based around cities with monumental stone buildings administering a farm culture.  But it was far more than that. 

The Mayans developed remarkable mathematical and astronomical skills -- including incredibly accurate calendars.  (And we all know the urban myth associated with that calendar.)

By the time of the Mayan Classic period (200-900 AD), the Mayans were building cities in the southern Yucatán that still awe archaeologists with their pyramids, administrative buildings, and palaces.

New Age types have long touted the Mayans as the Athenians of Mexico.  As opposed to those nasty Spartanesque Aztecs.  Mistakenly believing the Athenians were pacific.  They weren't.  Neither were the Mayans

Those allegedly idealistic city-states never coalesced into an empire, but each one was built at the expense of its neighbors.  And their religious ceremonies were filled with the same blood lust. 

Those awe-inspiring pyramids were built not so much to buy the love of their god, but to purchase his forbearance with someone else's sacrifice.  They were no worse than their neighbors, but they were no better.

It all started tumbling down in the southern Yucatán in the 800s.  No one knows why for sure.  But something went drastically wrong between the city-states and their environment. 

One of the chief causes was a lack of food to support the cities.  But whether the root cause was bad stewardship or drought, no one knows for certain.  But the jungle soon reclaimed those magnificent monuments to the folly that man controls his destiny.

But that was not the end of the Mayans.  The city-building shifted north in the Yucatán during the Post-Classic period (1100-1550 AD).  Many of them were still operating (as mere shadows of their earlier greatness) when the Spanish arrived.

Lacking an emperor, the Mayans were not as quickly conquered as the Aztecs.  It took almost a century to subject the full Yucatán.

The Spanish then undertook the destruction of the civilization it found -- including an attempt to eradicate the language.

They failed, at least with the language.  It is still spoken.  One of the touching aspects of the current ruins is that the explanatory signs are written primarily in Mayan.

Even the jungle could not hide the secret of the Mayan ruins.  During the past two hundred years, archaeologists have uncovered the secrets in the jungle.  And only a small percentage has been recovered.

So, sit back.  Over the next four days, we will take a look at the once-great Mayan city-states -- or, at least, a sampling of them.


Al said...

Speaking of "root causes" of agricultural problems: yesterday, with the annual corrections Grand Jury, toured the jail yesterday. They showed us where the farm used to be, and announced there will soon be a new one. Alas, no Mr. Fuji to tend it.

Michael Dickson said...

I once flew low over Palenque in an ultralight. It was interesting to spot buildings in the jungle that had not been "revealed" yet.

Unknown said...

The Mayans were here in Northern Honduras in Copan before they went north to Yucatan. Same ruins, same blood religion and apparently same end: they starved themselves out through bad ag practices. Good history lesson, Steve.

Anonymous said...

The Mayans unfortunately did not have their own New Deal with an agricultural department to work on improved farming practices: crop rotation, contour plowing,letting land lie fallow.


NWexican said...

Clackamas is an indian word? I thought it was a mall...

Nita said...

I have spent time in the places you mentioned and others. The Spanish might have conquered the Mayas but their descendants are still there. Did you get to see the Jaguar Throne at Chichen Itza? I'm looking forward to your essays!

Steve Cotton said...

Al -- Ah. Some of my own history,

Felipe -- A couple of the sites we stopped at are still somewhat engulfed by the jungle. I would love to fly over and get a Chac's eye view of these places.

Laurie -- There is no doubt that the Mayans somehow had a very rocky relationship with their environment. Wherever they lived.

ANM -- I would say they did not have an overly-active government, either. But there were those human sacrifices. Sounds pretty contemporary to me.

NWexican -- And "mall" isn't? Another ancient people's word -- just like "casino."

Nita -- I did see the throne. Coming from the Pacific coast of Mexico, it is interesting to see the physical difference between our Indian poulation and the Mayans -- and the Aztec remnants in the highlands. Of course, just like in The States, tribes (of various Indians and Europeans) have been thoroughly mixed. Just don't say that to the bejewelled Mexican woman sitting next to you at a dinner party. I made that faux pas.