Saturday, June 30, 2007

Exploring Mayan ruins in Yucatan

I finished reading Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vol. 1 by John L. Stephens (1843). Reading this account of early exploration of Mayan ruins brought me back to my travels last summer to Tikal, a Mayan ruin located in the lowlands of Guatemala.

Here are two plates reproduced in the book, showing drawings done on the spot during the expedition by Mr. Catherwood. Catherwood drew artifacts that had survived about 1,000 years of being lost and abandoned to the jungle elements. Other drawings show the architecture of the Mayan pyramids and cities.
The Mayan ruins were a mystery in the 1840s, despite the development of large centers of population and culture in the Yucatan dating back hundreds of years. Here is a passage I enjoyed for its observations about culture, race, and the nature of discovery, in which the writer marvels at the discovery of a sizable ancient city which he called Kabah whose presence had previously never been documented:
"...I can do little more more than state the naked fact of their existence. The cloud which hangs over their history is much darker than that resting over the ruins of Uxmal. I can only say of them that they lie on the common lands of the village of Nohcacab. Perhaps they have been known to the Indians from time immemorial; but, as the padrecito told us, until the opening of the camino real to Bolonchen they were utterly unknown to the white inhabitants. This road passed through the ancient city, and discovered the great buildings, overgrown, and in some places towering above the tops of the trees. The discovery, however, created not the slightest sensation; the intelligence of it had never reached the capital; and though, ever since the discovery, the great edifices were visible to all who passed along the road, not a white man in the village had ever turned aside to look at them, except the padrecito, who, on the first day of our visit, rode in, but without dismounting, in order to make a report to us. The Indians say of them, as of all the other ruins, that they are the works of the antiguos; but the traditionary character of the city is that of a great place, superior to the other Xlap-pahk* scattered over the country, coequal and coexistent with Uxmal; and there is a tradition of a great paved way, made of pure white stone, called in the Maya language Sacbe, leading from Kabah to Uxmal, on which the lords of those places sent messengers to and fro, bearing letters written on the leaves and bark of trees."
*Xlap-pahk means paredes viejas or "old walls."

Using Google Earth, you can search for Uxmal or Kabah, Mexico, and easily find these sites. A number of photos of the ruins are embedded in Google Earth via Panoramio. (If you don't have Google Earth you can still see the Panoramio photos; click here for Uxmal ruins; Kabah ruins.)

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