Saturday, February 22, 2014

end of days

There were seven of them.  Mainly women.

A tourist family stooped over in the Maya crouch of reverence physically required to enter through one of the arched gates of Tulum.

When each of them emerged into the light, two sights awaited them.  To the right, an ancient Maya house.  To the left, the Caribbean. 

To a person, they took a quick glance at the ruin and immediately whipped their heads to the left with exclamations of "el mar."  A series of selfies with the sea in the background ensued.

That family was Mexican.  But the other tourists reacted the same way.  Building?  Meh.  Sea?  Kewl.

Yesterday my buddy Isa Gringo commented: " I will be interested in what you have to say about the ruins of Tulum.  Spectacular location, boring site."  I am surprised he did not mention the hordes of tourists pouring through the city gates like so many conquistadors.

As it turns out, the tourists did not bother me that much.  (After all, I am one.)  But I fully agree with Isla Gringo on one point -- the location is spectacular.

Tulum sits high on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean.  During its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a trading post between the inland Maya and the rest of Meso-America. 

Goods of all sorts flowed through the city.  And, because these Maya were the Ferengi of their time, a little tax and profit would be applied to each transaction.

It was never very large -- with a population of less than 2,000.  But it has one honor amongst the Maya city-states. 

When the Spanish arrived, Uxmal was gone.  Chichén Itzá was gone.  But little Tulum was still chugging along when the first Spaniard spotted it in 1518.  And it survived almost 70 years of incursion by the conquistadors.  But it too fell.

From an archaeological point of view, it is very important.  It is the only city where the invaders actually saw a Maya city in operation.

And here is where I part company with my buddy Isla Gringo.  I did not find it boring.  In a certain sense, it is my favorite of the archaeological sites we visited on this trip.

You may recall I have a prejudice in favor of small sites.  I find it far easier to relate to the human scale of small cities.  It is easier to see how people lived their lives.

Tulum is a perfect setting for that.  Its temples are readily accessible without the monumental dehumanizing of the larger city-states.  The place has the feel of some Mycenaean sites.  But that is probably just the effect of the sea.

There are even a few clever architectural details.  Such as this face.  A motif we have seen at other sites.

But nothing like the more intricate mosaics we discovered at Uxmal.

At Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, stone was the basic building material.  By the time the Maya power structure was flickering out in Tulum, stucco had become a common construction medium.

Cheaper.  More pliable.  Less time-consuming.  It is almost as if the builders perceived the end of their culture.

It is hard to imagine this plaster god being honored in the same way Chac was honored in stone.

Tulum is a bridge between the last vestiges of a Maya world, that was once lost to us, and the European world that changed Mexico's destiny.  In that sense, it is a sad place -- a reminder to that all great nations eventually fade.  (As an American, it is easy for me to see my country reflected in Tulum's decline and fall.)

But Tulum is still here teaching us other lessons.  Maybe that Mexican family had it right, after all.  Cities and nations may fade, but the sea where the traders of Tulm sailed is still there.  And the descendants of the Maya continue to trade with distant parts of our world.

Maybe it is the continuance of days, instead of the end.

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