Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bloggo Mayan Ruins II: Tulum

Buenos dias! I'd use Dottore Gianni's native Italiano - buon giorno! but after all, I write of a trip to a land where Spanish is spoken, much to the good doctor's frequent Italian-esque irritation. I assume that if you're reading this (and I hope you are, in great numbers), you have probably read or at least skimmed my other three posts on our (Dottore Gianni's and my) 5-day adventure in Mexico, this past January.

The good doctor at the Tulum ruins
On the day after my visit to Chichen Itza, early in the morning, well before dawn cracked, if you will, I boarded another bus run by Amigo Travel, and off I went on another organized day tour to Tulum, another city built by the Maya, but for a different purpose and in a decidedly different location. Again I took advantage of the shortest tour offered to Tulum, the "beat the crowds, arrive early, and tour the site with an archeologist" tour.

Sidebar on logistics: This journey took as long and seemed longer than the trip to Chichen Itza, even though that site it a good 2-hour drive inland and Tulum is only about an hour's drive down the coast. I write this so that you know the drill: tourists are picked up on different buses, which then stop at a central meeting point to divide the tourists and board them onto other buses depending on the particular site they will see that day. At one point in this slow trek our bus stopped and waited in Playa del Carmen, about halfway on our journey to Tulum for THIRTY-FIVE minutes (I timed it), with no announcement from the guide as to why or wherefore. I had been picked up at about 5:30 am and we arrived at Tulum at 9 am. Unfortunately the logistics of this tour company (and many others, in many other countries) make for a very long time spent riding or waiting in buses, in this case more than double the time we had at the site itself. I would never tell you not to go on an organized tour, as the information you get from the guide is invaluable, but you should be aware of the timing. And that's the end of the aside.

Tulum, the sign
So! After the lengthy and tedious trek, we arrived at the site of Tulum just before 9 am, opening time, the first bus there. One of the benefits of the "arrive early" tour is that we were almost alone at the site - wonderful. Only one problem, one that has occurred to/affected me just once before (in 1999 on a tour of the great opera house in Vienna). I was the sole "English-only" (meaning that I alone did not speak Spanish) person on a bus which had at least 20 other people aboard. The guide announced this to the entire group as we were about to disembark, and I immediately became embarrassed (Dottore Gianni was simply mortified!), because, for me alone the guide would have to do the tour in two languages, at which she was very adept, but still...for the rest of the people on the bus and mostly for myself, the cause of the problem!

Then the miracle occurred! While she announced this only as the bus parked at the site, she must have known it well before, as when we began walking to the ruins she introduced me to my own private guide! In Vienna all I got was a sheet of paper with a very brief synopsis in English. 

My own, private, and excellent Mayan guide

And what a guide! A middle-aged fellow who had degrees in both archeology and anthropology, one of the most knowledgeable guides I have ever had, anywhere - and Dottore G and I have been on MANY organized tours. 

One of several trees my guide showed me, possibly
like the "tree of life"?
He took charge of me immediately in a very friendly manner, and began guiding even before we got to the site proper. He showed me several different kinds of trees, one of which resembled the "tree of life" that was central to Mayan beliefs, two more which he said
Another candidate for the tree of
life - apologies, I don't
 always grow next to the other - one of them is poisonous, one of them the antidote to the poison (wow!). He showed me two iguanas, which apparently are everywhere, but which camouflage themselves so that if he had not stopped and shown them I'd never have noticed them. Then we walked up a little hillock and I got my first view of Tulum. Built in the late 13th century, during the Post-Classic Period, it is unusual in that it is walled, and even more unusual in that it is the only Mayan site that is situated on cliffs nearly 40 feet high, directly on the coast. The wall, some of which remains today, covers the three sides of the enclosure on land, and the  cliffs over the Caribbean make a good fourth "wall" (not to be confused with the theatrical meaning of that term. What, you don't know about "fourth walls" in theatres? Too bad. I do, but I don't have time or interest in explaining it here. Look it up if you like). Tsk, tsk, scolds Dottore Gianni...mildly.

A good bit of the site, including on left, the Temple of the Fresoes, to its right in the distance the Temple of the Diving God, and to the right of that, El Castillo
Why on the coast? Because its purpose, its business, was trade, primarily in jade and turquoise, but also in salt and textiles, and for a time (13th to 15th century) it was a very prosperous place. Even after the Spanish conquest it stayed active for 70 years, highly unusual. 
The beautiful coast just to the right of the Temple (as I face the sea) - an area where swimming is allowed, as you can see.
What remains today are the fairly substantial remains of El Castillo, at the highest point on the cliffs, 

El Castillo
the Temple of the Frescoes (shown above in the pic before last, named because, guess what my friends? There are frescoes in it!) and the Temple of the God of the Wind, which my guide said "sings" during high winds, as the wind whistles through its windows.

The Temple of the God of the Wind to the left of the more distant El Castillo
In the photo above I am looking southeast. The northern edge of the site is just behind me:

The northern edge of Tulum, where the old wall meets the cliffs
The Temple of the Descending or "Diving" god (see the pic just below) is akin to Venus worship. So the entry on Tulum in Wikipedia states, but explains no more about the similarity than that.

The pic is somewhat back-lit, but to the left of El Castillo is the Temple of the Diving God
And the old Palace, about which our guide told me nothing - no guide is perfect, I suppose.

As written just above, the Old Palace
I have said to people who asked me since my return which of the two Mayan sites I preferred. They are both wonderful of course, but my reply has consistently been, I am impressed with Chichen Itza; I LOVE Tulum. 

What's not to love? I'm at the left of the castle, looking towards the Temple of the God of the Winds

This section of the beach at the north of the site is forbidden to  humans,
as sea turtles leave their eggs here
After my guide left me, I wandered on my own for a while, 
Some of the other buildings I strolled around on my own.
then made my way back to the entrance, where I was to meet the rest of the group at the bus about noon. I had a little time to kill, so I stopped for some bar nibbles and a very tasty local beer at this inviting looking bar.

The bar

The brew - why drink Corona, which you can easily get in the US, when there's a tasty local lager to choose instead?
And that brew, my friends, makes a satisfying end to my tale of Tulum! Also the end of my posts on my also satisfying trip to Mexico. Vaya con dios!

Note: I wrote very little about the Maya people here, but there is an informative paragraph or two in my previous post, on Chichen Itza. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bloggo Mayan Ruins I - Chichen Itza

Many many moons ago, at latest in the early 70s, more likely even earlier, in the mid-60s, before I knew Dottore Gianni (!), I became very interested in pre-Columbian art. It may have been inspired by a class I took or by a visit to the National Gallery of Art, my favorite place in Washington DC. At that time I was living near DC, in suburban Maryland.

The interest waned, as many many interests do, but was reinvigorated a few years ago, shortly after I retired (May 2012). Dottore Gianni whispered constantly in my ear (or so it seemed) - "Mexico...visit Mexico...see the Mayan ruins...and visit in January, when it is your birthday and when it's warm there, not so much back here in the USSR - excuse me, USA."

In fact I had first thought to make the trek in January 2014, but decided against. I researched the trip again the following January and the January after that, but for some reason never took the trip. As you can guess, and if you've read my last two posts you know, that I finally flew to Cancun in January of this year, 2017, the month and year of my 70th birthday.

I landed the day before my birthday and was whisked out to the "hotel zone"- a sort of twilight zone for me, and while located in Mexico, not really OF it. In fact I'm embarrassed to tell you how little of Mexico I actually saw, so I won't. The following day (the big day - birthday number 70) I spent at the hotel but also explored the Great Maya Reef, about which I wrote in my last post.

The day after my birthday I arose well before the crack of dawn and was picked up at my hotel by Amigo Tours. After a few other pick-ups and a rendezvous at a 7-11 style store, where other buses converged and people who were going to Tulum got on one bus, those of us headed to Chichen Itza on another, not quite as comfortable as the first, but not bad. And off we went for the two hour drive to one of the most visited of Maya ruins. 

We were the first bus to arrive, just as the place opened, and with the exception of a few independent travelers, had the site pretty much to ourselves. 

Long-ish Aside: I should note that I had booked the "Beat the crowds, see the site with an archeologist" tour, which did as promised, though I am dubious that our guide actually had a degree in archeology. The site began to fill up about halfway through our visit, but we had beat the crowd for the most part, and left the site at noon. I was dropped back at my hotel at about 2:30 pm. I am an early riser anyway, and I liked the idea of getting back in time for a late lunch, rather than taking one of several "all-day" options of touring Chichen Itza, advertised as lasting 11 hours, and getting back maybe in time for summer, but too exhausted to eat it. The trade-off includes having to get up and out early, and that the tour is fairly bare-bones. On other tours the visitors have the opportunity to see a "cenote" - a deep pool in the middle of the jungle, eat a Mayan lunch, and visit Valladolid, the town nearest the site and while somewhat touristy a good bit more authentic than pretending to be in Mexico when you're really in the hotel zone. But, while it got very hot for us on the site - yes, even in mid-January - I cannot imagine it in the heat of the afternoon sun. So if this post inspires you to take in some Mayan sites, now you know some of the mechanics. End of Aside.

So! You're probably wondering about and wanting to learn a little about the Maya. Yes? No? Doesn't matter, you are going to get a brief lesson. "Dottore" does connote a medical doctor, but one of philosophy, that is a PhD. Mine is in history (theatre history, but  historian is a historian is a...) and we historians love to tell tales.

The Maya is one of the best-known of many tribes in Mesoamerica (I call it Central America, but my source does not), that area between North and South America. The Aztec people you have almost certainly heard of, possibly also the Olmec and Toltec - and there are several more - but the Maya were a very advanced culture in pre-Columbian America. They built complicated pyramids, had a strong understanding of mathematics and astronomy and created an amazingly accurate calendar as well as an alphabet - so some at least of the Maya were literate, and the smartest of them must have been geniuses to have come up with all of the above! 

In fact they are thought to be the first culture in the new world to have created a fully developed, written language. Many books were written by them and were housed in libraries; that is until the Spanish conquered and Roman Catholic clergy began to convert the Maya to the TRUE faith (tongue firmly in cheek). The most notorious of these is Archbishop Landa, who conducted gruesome Inquisitions and burned as many of their books as he could get his Christian hands on. Ironically from Landa we have much primary evidence of the Maya, as Landa carefully chronicled what he saw of them, but it is filled with Christian prejudice, so suspect in terms of its accuracy.  And we'd have had much much more had the books been spared. But thanks to the good bishop there are only three Mayan codices or texts available today, and none of them is in former Mayan territory. Instead, one sits in a library in Madrid, another in Dresden and the third in Paris. Thanks for nothing, Archbishop Landa. 

Much like the ancient Greeks, the Maya culture was a confederation of city states, sometimes at peace with each other, sometimes not. The earliest traces of the people date from 3500 BC, but most of the buildings we see today came into being during what researchers call the "Classic Period" from approximately 200 AD to 900 AD. After this there was an almost inexplicable decline, followed by a post-classical period, followed by the invasion of the Americas by the Spanish, who were in the business of empire building and seemed unable to find time or space for indigenous peoples. As every schoolboy knows, or should know, this conquest led to the disappearance of the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other powers.

A map of the entire site (we visited only a small, but probably the most important
section of it) and our Mayan guide, Frank.
The Maya, however, live on. The tour guides for my visits to Chichen Itza and Tulum (see my next post) are Mayan, and many of those who work in the hotel zone are as well. And while most have assimilated, some of them still live by choice in a more traditional mode. The Maya may have been conquered, but were far from annihilated. 

That wasn't so torturous, was it? From here in my post I'll try to remember a bit of what our guide told us about the sacred area of the site and the buildings on it that I was introduced to during my morning at Chichen Itza. 

El Castillo
The most famous of the structures is called El Castillo, but it's more a temple than a castle. In fact it also goes by the name The Temple of Kulkulcan. It was built probably beginning in the last years of the Classic Period and was completed no later than 1200 AD. Photos (particularly the good doctor's) don't do it justice. The building is fraught with symbolism, the number of steps (365 - 91 on each of the four sides, plus the top platform) containing meaning re their remarkable calendar, and the number of tiers on each side of the steps are also symbolic. 
The main entry to the temple
Their mathematical/geometrical skills were little short of phenomenal, for at the spring and autumn equinoxes, National Geographic claims that a shadow falls on the temple in the shape of a serpent (the god Kulkukan, known by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl) and that at sunset on those two days each year the "serpent" seems to slither down the temple (as shade takes over from sunlight), joining the two serpents pictured above, on either side of the steps. 

The Temple of Warriors
Not far from the temple another monumental building stands - the Temple of the Warriors. While not as tall as El Castillo, it is dramatic in that each of the columns on the ground level represents a warrior. And on the warriors go:

Taken from just right of the center of the Temple, more "warriors" seem to stand at attention.

Another extraordinary bit of math and skill in building makes this place special at the equinoxes too. The curved sculpture at the center top of the temple is set exactly at the path of the sun, so that a glow occurs, as if the sculpture is holding the sun, the light - only on those two days of the year.

Between the two columns at the center at the Temple of Warriors, the curved "crib, which seems to hold the sun at the equinox
By the way, the columns are not completely abstract, as carved into each is a warrior:

If you look closely you may be able to see the carved "warrior"

Across a wide field from the Temple of Warriors, and well past the centrally located Temple of Kulkulkan, is a ceremonial ball court, the largest in the Americas (554 feet long by231 feet wide). A ceremonial ball court??? Yes, this court houses a ball game that is much more than a mere event. The game is central to the beliefs of the Maya. 

The ceremonial ball field, from one end of it

Two teams compete to hit a rubber ball, without using hands or feet, through a hoop high up on the wall of the court. I cannot imagine how they managed. The game ended when one team scored, after which the captain of one of the teams was sacrificed. Most sources I've read say that the victim was the captain of the defeated team, but our guide said that scholars are uncertain. The sacrificial victim/offering may have been the captain of the winning side - sending the best to the gods.

Above the group that is looking up you can see the black circle/hoop
through which the ball must be thrown

The royals sat in a special elevated spot, high up along the same wall, just out of sight to the right of the photo above: 

"It's very good to be the king"
In both photos of the field you can see a temple at one end - there is a temple at the other as well, and apparently on a windless day the acoustics were such that the royals could speak at normal volume and be heard chatting to each other from one temple to the other. Our guide had a pretty tough time proving it, but then it was a windy day.

I took this photo close to the from of the second temple. Unfortunately, my photo of that temple
was blurred, so you'll have to take it from me that there were two!

On smaller structures around the complex can be seen complicated glyphs telling tales of warriors, gods and so on. A person experienced in Maya culture, like our guide, can "read" these. I wish I were more experienced but I'm not - and nor is Dottore Gianni - so we'll simply show a few of the rather beautiful images:

One of many glyphs around the area. You'll need to look closely, but just to the left of center is what
appears to be a warrior )not the spears) and on either side of him creatures that seem the Maya version of the sphinx.

This glyph near the ball park MAY depict the captain of a team being be-headed - the tall figure at center may be holding an ax of sorts, and note below and to the right what looks to be a severed head.
On another wall, a serpent head next to the steps, and on the right, more glyphs
The main Temple of Kulkulkan was designated a World Heritage site in 1988, and more recently it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World - I can understand why!

The Temple again, with the entrance on the right side - note that the steps on some sides are
better preserved than on others.
a few sources if you'd like to get into the subject more deeply:

The Maya: the Story of a People, by Njord Kane - I read it as a Kindle book - tedious, but not uninteresting in spots - google Chichen Itza                        
a shorter read than the book, and better written than it or the longish Wikipedia article and others of its ilk