Thursday, April 25, 2013

6 -Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

In 1843, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the ruins of Chichen Itza near the end of their monumental travels to Central American and the Yucatan.  Here is their account of what they found followed by a contemporary account of the ruins provided by Mike and Nancy Czerwinski.
John Lloyd Stephens

“On the afternoon of the eleventh of March [1843] we … set out for Chichen.  Ever since we left home we had our eyes upon this place. … At four o’clock we left Piste, and very soon we saw rising high above the plain the Castillo of Chichen.  In half an hour we were among the ruins of this ancient city, with all the  great buildings in full view, casting prodigious shadows over the plain and presenting a spectacle which, even after all that we had seen, once more excited in us emotions of wonder.  The camino real [royal road] ran through the midst of them, and the field was so open that, without dismounting, we rode close in to some of the principal edifices.  The ruins are nine leagues [27 miles] from Villadolid, the camino real to which passes directly through the field.

Drawing of Chichen Itza
by Frederick Catherwood, 1843

“… The next morning, under the guidance of an Indian of the hacienda, we prepared for preliminary survey. … From the door of our hut some of the principal buildings were in sight.  We went first to those on the opposite of the camino real.  The path led through the cattle yard of the hacienda, from which we passed out at one end by a range of bars into the field of ruins, partially wooded, but the greater part open and intersected by cattle paths.  … These were, indeed, magnificent.   All the principal buildings were within a comparatively small compass; in fact, they were in such proximity, and the facilities for moving among them were so great, that by on o’clock we had visited every building, examined every spartment, and arranged the whole plan and order of work.”

Nancy and Mike
"Chicken Its" (Chichen Itza)
– by Mike and Nancy Czerwinski

Mike and Nancy Czerwinski visited Chichen Itza in July, 1978.  Mike likes to call it “Chicken Its”.  Here is their impression of the ruins.

Back then, you had to have a guide to see the ruins.  We joined a bus tour that took us deep into the jungle.  It was so hot, so dreadfully hot, we had never been so hot and we lived in Houston, Texas. 

Pyramid at Chichen Itza

When we entered the ruins, we came in between the ball park and the great pyramid.  Temples and undug  parts were in the back.  Mike climbed up the pyramid, but only part way because he didn’t like heights and the steps were tiny (6 inches deep and 6 inches high) and crumbling.  Nancy stayed at the base of the pyramid because she didn’t want to go up where people had been sacrificed.  There were  91 steps on each side (representing 364 days) with the top representing leap year.  At the base of the steps were the heads of serpents carved into stone.  It was very soft rock that was easy to carve, like sandstone.  The guide told us that on the solstice, or maybe it was the Equinox, the light moves its way up the sides of the steps to the top like a serpent.  They probably sacrificed someone back then on that day -- all they did was sacrifice people.

Ball Field at Chichen Itza

The ball park was sunken and had a ring mounted about twenty feet up on a wall.  The ball players had to put a ball through the ring to win.  The guide told us the winning team was sacrificed and ascended into heaven.  The losers didn’t get to go to heaven.  It reminds us of the Islamic religion that grants heaven to the suicide bombers.  The game the Mayans played was like the game played in Florida called Jai Lai. 

For a violent place, it was very peaceful to walk through.  On one of the walls, the guide pointed out a glyph that he said was an alien in his space ship.  We don’t know if he was serious, but it did look like that.  We saw a red hand print that our guide said was painted, but looked like blood, and everyone wanted to touch it.  The Mayans weren’t impressive, they were very short and the doors were all very short.  You wouldn’t believe they built the pyramids and temples.

The cenote was in the back of the compound and that was where they sacrificed people also.  The guide said they weighed them down with gold, and divers recently brought up gold objects from the bottom.  Then they would drink the water from it!

The structures have to be cleared every day because the jungle keeps trying to retake it. The guide showed us a low mound where the jungle was growing over it.  They had just started to clear it and suspected it was deep rather than tall. Opposite from the cenote, we walked into the jungle for a ways and the observatory was on one side and monastery on the other.  There was also a present day village not far away. 

We ate at Valla Dolid which is fairly close.  The archaeologists had a hotel just for them close by in the jungle and the guide said that if we had had time we could’ve stopped for a sandwich and talked to them.

We also went to Tulum on the ocean which reportedly had a Toltec influence.  It was so hot we went wading in the crystal clear water.  Those ruins were an observatory and were pretty deteriorated.

All in all, the ruins were interesting but we wouldn’t want to go back.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

5 - Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 5: Accomodations at Copan, 1839 and Now

Terramaya Hotel
Accomodations at Copan have changed dramatically since John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the ruins in 1839.  Here is an excerpt describing one of the many nice Hotels in the area now, the Terramaya, “Absolutely charming, small boutique hotel. Rooms are spacious and updated/modern while retaining that hacienda charm. Breakfast served on the terrace every morning was delicious with fresh fruit, granola, and a hot plate that varies every morning from scrambled eggs to pancakes to huevos rancheros. The hour long massage in the garden was well worth the $40. … the upstairs rooms facing the back had a nice balcony with a hamock.”

In 1839, however, the ruins were privately owned and part of a large ranch.  Compare Stephen’s account of his accomodations, “… Don Gregario arrived.  He was about fifty, had large black whiskers, and a beard of several day’s growth.  It was easy to see that he was a domestic tyrant.  The glance which he threw at us before dismounting seemed to say to us, “Who are you?" I told him that we had come into that neighbourhood to visit the ruins of Copan, and his manner said, ‘What’s that to me?’ but he answered that they were on the other side of the river.  I asked him whether we could procure a guide, and again he said that the only man who knew anything about them lived on the other side of the river. 
As yet we did not make sufficient allowance for the distracted state of the country;…  but relying on the reputation of the country for hospitality, I was rather slow in coming to the disagreeable conclusion that we were not welcome.  I ordered the muleteer to saddle the mules; but the rascal refused to saddle his beasts again that day.

“Don Gregario was the great man of Copan; the richest man, and the petty tyrant; and it would be most unfortunate to have a rupture with him, or even to let it be known at the village that we were not well received at his house.  Mr. Catherwood took a seat on the piazza.  The don sat on a chair, with our detestable muleteer by his side, and a half-concealed smile of derision on his face, talking of “idols,” and looking at me.  By this time eight or ten men, sons, servants, and laborers had come in from their day’s work.  The women turned away their heads; and the men, taking their cue from the don, looked so insulting, that I told Mr. Catherwood we would tumble our luggage into the road, and curse him for an inhospitable churl; but Mr. Catherwood warned me against it, urging that, if we had an open quarrel with him, after all our trouble we would be prevented seeing the ruins.

“After supper all prepared for sleep.  The don’s house had two sides, an inside and an out.  The don and his family occupied the former, and we the latter; but we had not even this to ourselves.  All along the wall were frames made of sticks about an inch thick, tied together with bark strings, over which the workmen spread an untanned oxhide for a bed.  There were three hammocks besides ours, and I had so little room for mine that my body described an inverted parabola, with my heels as high as my head.

“In the morning Don Gregario was in the same humour.  We made our toilet under the shed with as much respect as possible to the presence of the female members of the family, who were constantly passing.  We had made up our minds to hold on and see the ruins; and fortunately, early in the morning, one of the crusty don’s sons brought over from the village Jose, the guide of whom we stood in need.”

The guide led Stephens and Catherwood to the ruins.  Clearly, Stephens was not disappointed.  Here is his account of his first glimpse of a Mayan ruin, “We came to the bank of a river, and saw directly opposite a stone wall, perhaps a hundred feet high, with a furze growing out of the top, running north and south along the river, in some places fallen, but in other entire.  It had more the character of a structure than any we had ever seen ascribed to the aborigines of America, and formed part of the wall of Copan, an ancient city on whose history books throw but little light.”

Have you seen a Mayan ruin?  Share your impressions.
Link to Part 4

Thursday, April 11, 2013

4 - Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 4: Copan

Stela (Monument) at Copan
by Frederick Catherwood

“The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages,” wrote John Lloyd Stephens’ when he first found the stelae at Copan. 

When Stephens and his artist friend, Frederick Catherwood, travelled to Central American the first time, they sailed all the way around the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize so that they could begin their exploration of lost cities at Copan, which was one of only three archaeological sites in 1839.  He continued:

“… [our guide] conducted us through the thick forest, among half-buried fragments, to fourteen monuments of the same character and appearance, some with more elegant designs, and some in workmanship equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians; one displaced from its pedestal by enormous roots; another locked in the close embrace of branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth; another hurled to the ground, and bound down by huge vines and creepers; and one standing, with its altar before it, in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the wood, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people."
Topled Monument
by Frederick Catherwood

In addition to the beautiful and exquisitely carved “monuments”, they found great pyramids.  Again, Stephens’ description:
Pyramid and Stela at Copan
by Frederick Catherwood

“We returned to the base of the pyramidal structure, and ascended by regular stone steps, in some places forced apart by bushes and saplings, and in others thrown down by the growth of large trees, while some remained entire.  They were ornamented with sculptured figures and rows of death’s heads.  Climbing over the ruined top, we reached a terrace overgrown with trees, and, crossing it, descended by stone steps into an area so covered with trees that at first we could not make out its form, but which, on clearing the way with the machete, we ascertained to be a square, and with steps on all the sides almost as perfect as those of the roman amphitheatre.  The steps were ornamented with sculpture, and on the south side, about half way up, forced out of its place by roots, was a colossal head, evidently a portrait.  We ascended these steps, and reached a broad terrace a hundred feet high, overlooking the river, and supported by the wall which we had seen from the opposite bank.

“We sat down on the very edge of the wall, and strove in vain to penetrate the mystery by which we were surrounded.  Who were the people that built this city?  In the ruined cities of Egypt, even in the long-lost Petra, the stranger knows the story of the people whose vestiges are around him.  America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones.  We asked the Indians who made them, and their dull answer was “Quien sabe?” “Who knows?”.

Have you been to Copan?  Please share your story.

View videos of the series

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

-- Courtney Miller




Thursday, April 4, 2013

3 Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 3: The House of the Dwarf

John Lloyd Stephens
John Lloyd Stephens, the New York attorney who made his fortune selling books chronicling his extensive travels around the world in the early 1800’s, was so successful, I think, because he was interested in everything and that made him an interesting read.  While exploring the ruins of the Mayan city Uxmal that had been decaying and vacant in the jungles of Yucatan for a thousand plus years, he was fascinated by how fearful the natives were of the city and its buildings, especially at night.  Like a good researcher, he questioned one of the natives about a large building the natives referred to as “House of the Dwarf” and came up with this explanation:

“The Indians regard these ruins with superstitious reverence.  They will not go near them at night, and they have the old story that immense treasure is hidden among them.  Each of the buildings has its name given to it by the Indians.  This is called the Casa del Anano, or House of the Dwarf, and it is consecrated by a wild legend, which, as I sat in the doorway, I received from the lips of an Indian, as follows:
Uxmal from a distance by Frederick Catherwood
“There was an old woman who lived in a hut on the very spot now occupied by the structure on which this building is perched who went mourning that she had no children. In her distress she one
day took an egg, covered it with a cloth, and laid it away carefully in one corner of the hut.  Every day she went to look at it, until one morning she found the egg hatched, and a criatura, or baby, born.  The old woman was delighted, and called it her son, provided it with a nurse, took good care of it, so that in one year it walked and talked like a man; and then it stopped growing.  The old woman was more delighted than ever, and said he would be a great lord or king.  One day she told him to go to the house of the gobernador and challenge him to a trial of strength.  The dwarf tried to beg off, but the old woman insisted, and he went.  The guard admitted him, and he flung his challenge at the gobernador.  The latter smiled, and told him to lift a stone of three arrobas or seventy-five pounds, which the little fellow cried and returned to his mother, who sent him back to say that if the governador lifted it first, he would afterward.  The gobernador lifted it, and the dwarf immediately did the same.  The gobernador then tried him with other feats of strength, and dwarf regularly did whatever was done by the gobernador.  At length, indignant at being matched by a dwarf, the gobernador told him that, unless he made a house in one night, higher than any in the place, he would kill him.  The poor dwarf again returned crying to his mother, who bade him not to be disheartened, and the next morning he awoke and found himself in this lofty building.  The gobernador, seeing it from the door of his palace, was astonished, and sent for the dwarf, and told him to collect two bundles of cogoiol, a wood of very hard species, with one of which he, the gobernador, would beat the dwarf over the head, and afterward the dwarf should beat him with the other.  The dwarf again returned crying to his mother; but the latter told him not to be afraid, and put on the crown of his head a tortillita de trigo, a small thin cake of wheat flower.
House of the Dwarf [Pyramid of the Magician]
“The trial was made in the presence of all the great men in the city.  The gobernador broke the whole of his bundle over the dwarf’s head without hurting the little fellow in the least.  He then tried to avoid the trial on his own head, but he had given his word in the presence of his officers, and was obliged to submit.  The second blow of the dwarf broke his skull in pieces, and all the spectators hailed the victor as their new gobernador.  The old woman then died; but at the Indian village of Mani, seventeen leagues distance, there is a deep well, from which opens a cave that leads underground an immense distance to Merida.  In this cave, on the bank of a stream, under the shade of large tree, sits an old woman with a serpent by her side, who sells water in small quantities, not for money, but only for a criatura to give the serpent to eat; and this old woman is the mother of the dwarf.”
All cultures have their colorful myths and legends often based upon at least some remnant of fact.  They are a way of interpreting and explaining things that need explaining but may not lend themselves to an obvious explanation.  The “House of the Dwarf”, known today more commonly as “Pyramid of the Magician”, separates itself from other ruins with its soft, rounded corners and majestic, almost pure, architecture.  It just had to have been built by someone extraordinary.
Link to Part 2
Have you been to one of the Mayan Ruins?  Share your story.