Friday, February 17, 2012

Mayan Ruins and Lessons

Palenque was our fifth archeological site on this trip.

Our first one was small but jungly Ek Balam, with its superbly restored carvings on the main pyramid, followed by Chichen Itza the next day.

Chichen Itza is so well-known, we all feel like out of all the ruins we have to see it, but it is by no means the best archeological site. The craftsmanship here is not as good as other sites and so much of the site is roped off. The biggest bummer, though, are the tour buses filled with yahoos from Cancun's Zona Hoteleria. The ball court is supposed to have dynamite acoustics but all you can hear is "and then, she was, like, no way..." "so, I was, like, OMG!" Do people from other countries yak on about completely mundane matters, too? Perhaps they do and I am just lucky enough not to understand them.
The roots of tic-tac-toe?

Kinich Kakmo was a pyramid in the town of Izamal. From the street, you see a long flight of giant steps. (All of the ancient Mayan structures have giant steps. Were the ancient Mayans much bigger than present day Mayans?) After struggling up this flight, you come to a level spot and there in front of you is...another giant flight of steps to the REAL top of the pyramid. It was fun to watch the expressions of the people who had huffed and puffed their way to the top of the first steps only to find another set in front of them.

Unlike the others, the craftsmanship of the structures at Uxmal, further south, was astonishingly advanced. Stones were cut perfectly, eliminating the need for much mortar. Because it's not as crowded, nor does it have the yahoo population, there's more of a sense of mystery. You feel it particularly in the southern end -- it was probably a place of magic during its days -- with the House of the Mother of the Dwarf of Uxmal, as well as the phallic carvings.

Iggy stands guard

And now, Palenque, set in the lush jungles of Chiapas. It is huge. Lots of structures, some identifiable bas reliefs (many other sites have carvings too, but often times, they are so worn, you could not possibly imagine what they were supposed to depict) and even a cascading waterfall!
Palenque's "Queen's Bath." Now, who wouldn't want a bath like this?!

What is most fascinating to me is how you can see the rise and fall of a civilization through these ruins. Uxmal, which I thought had the highest quality craftsmanship, was built during the mid-point of the Mayan Civilization. I still don't know how they lost the know-how, but latter cities don't compare. We all think of progress as a given, to a certain extent. We think our age is better than that of 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago. We look at all the glorious achievements of mankind and think we'll continue to move forward, forever. Yet seeing the remains of cities hundreds of years apart, I realized that that is not always the case. Society deteriorates. Civilizations crumble.

The decline of the Mayans seems to have come from several factors. Their slash-and-burn farming techniques and clear cutting weakened the productivity of the land and changed weather patterns, bringing about hundreds of years of drought. The lack of adequate food was a cause of constant warfare, malnutrition and disease. If there were Mayans who warned of "global drying" there were probably many more in positions of great power who poo-poo'd them. Until it was too late, no matter how much blood was spilt for Chak Mool, their rain god.

This is the Mayan lesson we should be heeding. Be better custodians of our planet. If not, then we, too, are doomed.
Ukiyoe-esque relief of a Mayan King

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