Mexico: Meet the Mayans

Mexico has been keeping us busy for over two weeks now and I’ve been trying to figure out how to summarise it. If truth be told, it’s been a bit weak so far on the photographic front; we’ve spent a lot of our time in towns where local people object to being snapped (fair enough) but they really are the most captivating part of being here. People watching in town plazas can be a good way to spend an afternoon.

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And to summarise the states of Michoacan, Oaxaca and Chiapas in writing isn’t easy either, largely because they can’t be generalised. We’ve travelled the best part of 2000 km through quaint, cobbled historic towns, busy cities softened with purple blossom, pine tree laden mountains, parched land spiked with cacti and traversed by cowboys, and we’ve even made it to the beach. At times the altitude has meant it’s been chilly enough for coats and hats out and about or three blankets on the bed, and at others the temperature has been mid-30s demanding compulsory air con.

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To my eyes/tastebuds, food tends to be variations on the theme of some kind of corn product covered in salsa or mole or filled with cheese or chicken. There are local variations but I couldn’t tell you what they are other than I know Oaxaca is famed for its 7 moles. It’s all tasty enough but really hard to remember which item is which so it invariably ends up as a lucky dip. Or unlucky, in the case of my several days of food poisoning acquired from, I think, some dodgy lettuce.

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In some of our destinations, clothing has been completely westernised (though aside from actually on the beach, it’s generally not the done thing to wear shorts which can become a little unbearable in the heat!), whilst other places have  lots of people who still wear their indigenous clothing. Even this varies but, as an example, in the villages surrounding San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas), we saw men wearing black woollen tunics whilst women wore skirts of a similar material held up by broad belts and accompanied by thick multicoloured shawls, their long black hair in two plaits. In contrast, Oaxaca women traditionally wear white, cotton dresses embroidered with colourful floral designs. Something consistent everywhere is men in cowboy hats, not a sombrero in sight!

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Kids in some places wear an array of school uniforms but in others there were alarming numbers of children working on the streets: shining shoes at all hours, selling snacks and cigarettes or plying tourists with woven bracelets, pencils and other local handicrafts. It’s heartbreaking to think that not only are they being deprived of an eduction but they’re also incredibly vulnerable to all kinds of danger alone on the streets at all hours.

One thing that has continued throughout the journey has been the vibrant prevalence of music. Mariachi bands, marimba players, singing guitarists and lone trombonists serenade diners, loud latin music emanates from cafes, car windows, shops and roving musicians board buses and play a few songs for tips and town squares actually use their bandstands. It’s wonderful! Art also abounds in the form of public murals, galleries and statues.

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People are pretty friendly, especially in the face of our efforts to speak Spanish. Dean is doing much better at this than I am but we’re both making progress daily. We don’t ever use English unless someone initiates it which is rare. In context, we can usually understand what people are saying and we can both read enough to understand  menus, signs and to get the gist of museum displays.

One of the most interesting days we’ve had in Mexico was our visit to the ancient Mayan site of Palenque and its museum (where they’ve put lots of the surviving original artefacts to protect them). The Mayans came after the Egyptians, at a similar time to the Romans and long before their closest neighbours, the Incas, all of which we’ve had opportunities to view in the past.

Wikipedia, the Lonely Planet and the site museum all offer different facts and figures but here’s a vague idea of the timeline of events at Palenque as far as I can gather. Construction started around 200-100 BC, flourished from 615-780 AD (particularly during Pakal’s rule) and the city was inhabited until about 800 AD. After this, it was absorbed into the jungle of cedar, mahogany and sapodilla trees and basically lost for the best part of a millennium. In the late 18th century the ruins were rediscovered and for the next century various people came to explore, draw, map and later photograph them. Excavation took place between 1949 and 1952, then again in the ’70s. In the last 20 years or so, archaeologists have done lots more work on the 15 sq km site but still less than 10% of the city has been explored. Historians have pieced together Palenque’s ruling dynasty, politics and rivalries using the hieroglyphic inscriptions found.

Walking around (or in reading this post), there are a couple of things it’s good to bear in mind. Firstly, everything was made without the use of metal tools (they used materials such as obsidian), pack animals or the wheel! And secondly, the structures were all covered in red and blue paint. This reconstruction painting shows what it may have been like:

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Palenque’s jungle backdrop adds an air of mystery to the place although the central section you’re allowed to visit has been impeccably manicured and maintained.

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The Palace
The city was ruled by the ajaw, a hereditary line of men, and a few women, who it was believed were given the responsibility by the gods. The largest building in the city at 97m by 73m, the palace has a 4 storey observation tower, several courtyards, connecting buildings and once contained freshwater baths and saunas. Home to the ajaw, this was also the administrative and political centre of the city and a place for entertainment and ritualistic ceremonies to be held including enthronements and the presentation of captives.

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Close by were commemorative temples of the royal ancestors and the ball court, an H-shaped patch of ground surrounded by sloped walls. Although I forgot to take a picture, it was common to have these in ancient cities. They were considered entrances to the underworld and they were used to solve disputes. The game itself was representative of regeneration of life through death and the ball symbolised the movements of the stars and planets. Losers were beheaded! Here’s a picture of a similar (though much more parched) ball court we saw last week at another site, Monte Alban:

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Temple of the Skull
So-called for the stucco mask in the shape of a rabbit’s skull on the outside, this was a funery chamber found to contain some of the largest jade objects in the city. This is the first building you see as you enter the jungle clearing.

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Temple of Inscriptions
It’s called this because of the text of 620 hieroglphs carved into three panels on the inner walls. The funerary chamber inside, discovered in 1952, was built to house the remains of the most successful and glorified ajaw, K-inich Janaab’ Pakal who ruled from the age of 9 until his death at the grand old age of 80.

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You used to be able to view the tomb in the temple but, for conservation reasons, it was recently removed to a darkened room in the museum. It consisted of a huge carved stone sarcophagus depicting Pakal as K’awiil, god of agriculture being reborn. Alongside Pakal’s death masked remains, was found a bounty of jewellery made from obsidian, jadeite and shell. This was all guarded by nine bas-relief stucco warriors, carved into the walls, representing the Lords of the Night, each responsible for a tier of the underworld. For the purposes of the museum, they’d recreated them in clear perspex to show where they would be but to cleverly allow a view through them to the sarcophagus.

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Temple XIII
The tomb of a noblewoman was found beneath here (middle of the picture below) and she was named the Red Queen due to the pigmentation of the mineral cinnabar that was sprinkled on her. She was certainly rich and high ranking (possibly even Pakal’s wife) as she was buried with expensive funerary offerings, including these, made of imported jade (with a (completely unrelated!) censer used for incense).

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Temples of Crosses Group
These three temples, built on step pyramids, are meant to represent the mythical places the gods were born. The Temple of the Cross (first picture) was to the celestial god, the Foliated Cross to K’awiil, protector of agriculture and the ruling dynasty, and the Sun Temple to K’inich Ajaw Pakal, aka ‘The Shield of the Lord of the Sun Face’ who embodied the sun on its nightly voyage to the underworld.

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This is the Sun Temple, the tallest structure on the site. You can just about see some people on the steps to give you a sense of the size!

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Inside each are carved reliefs showing two figures presenting ritual objects to K’inich Kan B’ahlam at different occasions in his life (left below).

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Here are some well-preserved examples of the bas-reliefs which still have paint on them. They were in the museum so I don’t know which buildings they were originally from.

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Writing
As well as developing a calendar, the Maya created a complex writing system using glyphs representing syllables made from stone or stucco. Names, dates of births, enthronements and deaths, and historical details of rituals, conflicts, alliances and deities were all learnt from the inscriptions found on walls. Scribes had to be nobility so it’s thought that only the elite were literate and the content of the writing gives few clues to the lives of commoners.

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I did read that to combat the agriculturally poor rainforest soil, crops were cultivated on hillside terraces and swampy plains. They ate a varied diet of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, molluscs, avocado, nance, white sapodilla, maize and beans. Wood and limestone were key materials used for construction and tools, and stucco (made using lime) was used to cover floors, walls and for decoration. Commoners (those of non-sacred lineage) could not preform religious ceremonies or become scribes, war chiefs or craftsmen. They survived on their own farming but also had to pay the ajaw in the form of crops, tools, weapons or labour.

It seems that high population density leading to the exploitation of the local resources, and the weakening of the dynasty may have been responsible for the eventual end to Palenque’s inhabitation.

So there you have it, an introduction to the marvellous Mayans! I shall leave you with some photographs of a beautiful hike in the Sierra Norte region, a trip taken thanks to Neil and Pat Horton.

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UNESCO sites visited so far: 20
Photographs taken and kept (Dean): c.2500
Photographs taken and kept (Steph): c. 5000 (oops!)

One thought on “Mexico: Meet the Mayans

  1. Mayan temples fascinating and stunning! So glad you have some music in your life again!!! Must be a joy! Sorry you have been ill… Lettuce of all things!!! The blue skies make me very jealous ( although to be fair, we have seen a surprising number of these recently over here!) keep blogging! Xxx

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