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.

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