Tour du Monde
THE SACRED WORLD OF THE MAYA22.06.2010 / 16:55
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Text by Alex Marashian Photos by Yannick Dekeyser and Rainer Hosch
THE SACRED WORLD OF THE MAYA
The indigenous people of the Yucatán are descendants of what was — at its peak, some 1,400 years ago — arguably the most advanced civilization of the pre-Columbian Americas. The Maya created their own fully developed written language, the only one of its kind in the so-called New World. Their art, architecture and religion continue both to fascinate and challenge modern-day scholars. And their astronomical system was greater than or equal to that of any other world civilization observing with the naked eye.
Not an empire so much as a network of interdependent, often warring, city states, the Maya world spread out over large areas of what are now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador. The Yucatán Peninsula remained a stronghold of Mayan culture and influence long after the passing of the so-called Classical Period (AD 250 - 925), and no trip to region would be complete without a visit to one or more of the many archaeological sites opening windows onto the Mayan past.
Our own archaeological tour begins with the ruins of the ancient fortress town of Tulum, about 10 minutes’ drive from the modern-day pueblo of the same name. Tulum means ‘wall’ in Mayan, and the walls on three sides of the site belie its strategic importance for trade and defense. On the fourth side is the sea, and the Mayans must be given credit for choosing some the most spectacular seaside real estate in the world. As it happens, the location is not merely breathtakingly beautiful but highly functional, positioned as it is directly in front of a break in the reefs, allowing easy access to trading boats.
The cliff rising over the beach afforded protection and was the ideal position for a pyramid watchtower, “el Castillo” as the Spaniards called it, the tallest structure in all Tulum. The sight of El Castillo towering over the white sands and turquoise waters below is so impressive you might be tempted to overestimate the importance of Tulum. In the end, it is a relatively minor ruin in a major setting. To get a better sense of the architecture and culture of the ancient Mayans, we move on to the more historically important ruins at Coba, some 45 minute’s drive inland from Tulum.
Coba’s setting deep in the jungle is a large part of its allure. At its pinnacle, the tail end of the Late Classical period (800 - 1000), the settlement is believed to have covered 50 square kilometers and housed some 40,000 Mayans. The vast majority of the ruins — indeed the vast majority of all ancient Maya cities — are still covered by jungle and have yet to be excavated. The few sections, known as groups, that have been unearthed since work began in the early 1970s are spread so far apart that bicycles are needed to get from one to the other, and despite the sweltering heat, it’s remarkable good fun peddling through the jungle among the ruins.
Obscure though it remains, the ancient Mayan world comes alive much more vividly at Coba than at Tulum. Highlights for us included the well-preserved ball courts — one from the Classical period, one from the post-Classical — at which not the losers but the winners were sacrificed to the gods (a great honor and means to reincarnation), and the pyramid temple of Nohuch Mul. At 42m, Nohuch Mul is the second highest Mayan building on the on Yucatán Peninsula and a hike to the top is well worth the effort. The view is of green jungle as far as the eye can see, and one can’t help but marvel at the awesome achievements of the Maya in such punishing climate and conditions.
As we leave Coba, the Maya are much on our minds. It’s easy to think of them in the past tense, especially after a visit to an archaeological ruin. But the fact is that the Maya, their language (eight dialects of it) and their culture (or at least some part of it) live on today, despite the unconscionable oppression they suffered, first at the hands of the Spanish colonizers, then of the Mexican state. Though the state no longer the problem, at least not directly, the threat to Mayan culture continues nowadays in the form of the tourism industry, which increasingly saps towns and villages of their young people, who tend to end up in the most menial of jobs in tourist traps like Cancun and, more recently, Playa del Carmen.
Shortly after returning to Tulum and the charming Coquí Coquí, we hear, through our growing network of expat contacts, of a British artist named Danny Harrington who is working on a project of epic proportions about the Maya — and one which deals with many of the issues we’ve been discussing. Danny agrees to meet us at a beach a few kilometers away, where our photo team is winding up a day of shooting, and we head out. Handsome, tan and armed with one hell of a machete, Danny has been living on the beach at Tulum with his wife and two daughters for about six years. The girls actually speak a bit of Maya, having picked up it from their school friends, and Danny himself is on a mission to learn at least a little. It’s all part of his project, titled “Walk the Walk.”
If the Maya are getting a bit of play in the media of late, it’s all thanks to their calendar. The winter solstice (December 21) of the year 2012 is supposed to mark the end of the “great cycle” of 13 b’ak’tuns — periods of 144,000 days each — that began on the Maya’s mythical day of creation. Some people, not least the blockbuster movie direction Roland Emmerich, have taken the close of this cycle to portend the end of the world. Others have seen it as the moment of a global shift and the world’s entry into a New Age.
For the Maya themselves, December 21, 2012, is clearly a date of significance, the beginning of a “great change”, as it is sometimes put. Many Mayans, says Danny, believe “that something’s going to happen” on the date. And if that something turns out to be disaster, the one place to be is right here on the Yucatan Peninsula. For the ancient Mayas, the town of Xocen, which still exists today, was the “center of the world.” According to myth, everything within a 120 mile radius of Xocen, including, by a hair’s breadth, Tulum, will be safe when the calendar cycle comes to an end.
Danny’s project uses Xocen and the “great change” as a point of departure. Literally. On August 12, 2010, Danny, his friend and collaborator, Olivier Pascalin, and a group of Mayans and non-Mayans alike will set off from Xocen down an ancient Mayan sacbe — a sacred, raised road, once paved with white limestone — that heads straight to Coba. The road itself, part of the vast network of sacbes connecting Mayan sites as far away as Costa Rica, has been lost to the jungle. But Danny and his machete-wielding team intend to uncover it. “It’s back the the jungle” says Danny of the adventure ahead. The heat will be brutal, the mosquitos merciless, the vegetation dense and dank, but that’s part of the point. The trip will be a form of purification — at many levels.
Danny sees the project as a re-opening “for the present-day Mayas” of a path once used for “communication, illumination and knowledge,” its history cut short 500 years ago by “the invaders.” He estimates that he and his team will be able to hack through five kilometers per day, making this a journey of about three weeks. In my brief encounters with the jungle at Coba and the relatively tame mosquitos on the coast, I find it hard to imagine keeping up such a pace. But I’ll be rooting for Danny and his fellow travelers. And for those who happen to be in the south of France in the coming weeks, you can get a foretaste of “Walking the Walk” at the AP’Art festival of contemporary art in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, which runs from 8 to 13 July. For that event, Danny will, in his words, “pre-create” a video installation that captures the spirit and sense of the journey itself.