Thursday, February 20, 2014

snakes -- why did it have to be snakes?

History is a cruel mistress.

Nations rise.  And, just as Newton taught us, they inevitably fall.  One day you're cock of the walk; the next day, you're a feather duster.

You know how difficult it is to get "Guantanamera" out of your head after being assaulted by a street musician whose voice and guitar are strangers to a common key?  Well, that is the same difficulty I experience when touring Maya ruins.

What happened to cause the builders of these monuments to abandon their work?  The fact that there probably will never be an answer does not make the question any less persistent.

When I moved to Mexico, one of the major factors in choosing a place to live was "archaeological sites within driving distance"  (moving to mexico -- the questions).

Melaque scored about a zero.  After all, I am older than the oldest building in town.

Not so the Yucatán peninsula.  Ancient Maya cities are as common here as
arcane analogies in my writing.

On Tuesday, it was Uxmal; yesterday it was Chichén Itzá.  Both are monumental in scale.  But they have always been quite different cities.  Uxmal was built to be harmonious. 
Chichén Itzá was a commercial center.

On each of my visits, I have reacted quite differently to each site.
Or indifferently in the case of
Chichén Itzá.

Uxmal is the older of the two.  Even though it was founded in 500 AD, its major buildings were not constructed until a hundred year period between 850 to 950 AD -- about the time England was starting to form as a nation.

It must have been a strangely beautiful city in its day.  Like all archaeological reconstructions, there was probably no time that all of the buildings we now see existed simultaneously.  But what we have is evidence enough that this was an urban gem.

The crown jewel of the site is a massive temple at the site entrance -- whimsically named by the Spanish as the Pyramid of the Magician.  It is actually 5 temples in one.

When the Maya updated their structures, they would often build the new temple over the old.  In the case of this temple, each of the five buildings are exposed and functional.  All of them to Chac - the Maya rain god, whose face is the facade of temple IV.  The priest would appear to emerge from Chac's mouth with the word of the day.

The architecture of the surrounding buildings echo and complement the themes of the central temple.  What Michael Knox Beran would call "public beauty."

To the Maya, as to most people, there was no distinction between their social, personal, and religious lives.  Each informed the other.

What they observed around them became part of who they were.  Such as their reverence for the rattlesnake.  A symbol of life and fertility.  Stylized snakes decorate the facades of several buildings.  As you can see at the top of this post.

Or the classic lines of this building that is believed to be part of a school complex.  Simultaneously simple, but ornate.  An ancient Athenian would feel comfortable with its form.

The great pyramid at Uxmal has almost no decoration.  In fact, the functional part of the building is solely its heavily reconstructed (and extremely steep) stairs.

But the view of the site from the top of the pyramid is worth the exertion.

What we now see was the city where the elite lived.  The small class of aristocrats who created and kept the customs of what we call Maya civilization.

And then it all came to an end around 1100 AD -- just a few years after the Norman invasion of England.  The entire population abandoned the city.  For a reason still unknown.

Uxmal slipped into obscurity until its "re-discovery" and recreation during the last 150 years.

And that would naturally lead us to
Chichén Itzá.  But I have kept you in class long enough today.

Tomorrow, we will take a stroll through a city less beautiful that Uxmel.  But far grander in its own way.

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