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Dave and Jan's travels, day 240:
Mayan ruins

14th January
Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná. Add those to Tikal and Tulum and you can see that your fearless reporters have put in a lot of time and effort to bring you this Which? guide to Maya ruins. We're not finished yet, either, with Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilán still to come (bet you can't wait).

One question all this immediately raises is, just how many Maya cities were there anyway? For various reasons, we now own five (count them) guidebooks to this region, which means we are supplied with at least two answers to just about any question that you care to mention. The archaeologists' best guess is that around 8,000,000 Mayans lived in an area now split between Mexico and Guatemala, with outposts in modern Belize and Honduras. Which is a hell of a lot more people than the land supports today. They also built all the above listed cities, as well as dozens more that haven't yet been excavated. The thinking is that the largest (such as Tikal, Chichén and Uxmal amongst those excavated) had populations rising to 50,000 or more. This was a very substantial civilisation in its day.

Much is made in the guidebooks of the astonishing sophistication of the Maya. 384 years' detailed observations of Venus' movements. Monumental pyramids aligned precisely to pull clever shadow tricks at the equinoxes. Beautiful scuplture. Well, sure, but from where I'm sitting, there are a few gaps. No metalwork (who needs an iron age?), no wheel, and really pretty feeble architecture. These people never invented the true arch, they just piled stones up each sticking a little over the side and leant two such leaning towers against each other to create a 'v' shaped arch. So their idea of a big room was anything more than 5 feet wide. And the only way to get a two story building was to make the first story largely rubble. It can't be denied though, that they were one of the world's finest group of rubble stackers.

In fact, the whole thing is highly reminiscent of the ancient Egyptians. A small "elite" of people under the impression that they are slightly godlike, kept in some style by a gigantic proletariat slogging their guts out all day every day in return for the compensations of religion and the occasional glimpse of how the other half lives on a feast day.

Anyway, enough ranting, on to the ruins. Chichén Itzá first, because we saw it first, and besides, it's got the single most spectacular building, a giant pyramid. One sign of the insecure egos of Mayan rulers was a habit they had on ascending to the throne of demanding instant buildings to celebrate themselves, ideally bigger and better than anything that had come before. Rather than keep building ever more gigantic pyramids, the local builders hit on the idea of simply building a slightly bigger one around a convenient pre-existing example. This had the added benefit of obliterating the tributes to the previous ruler. The Chichén Itzá pyramid, known as 'El Castillo', is the result of five such layers. But it is a startling and beautifully proportioned building. It is also cunningly designed to embody various aspects of the Maya calendar, which is a pretty odd thing that is worth a little investigation. Also worthy of note are some of the astronomical feats of the Maya, some embodied in the architecture of the building at Chichén known as the Observatory.

Other highlights at Chichén include a giant natural cenote, that is a big whole in the limestone in which rainwater collects. These were pretty critical to a civilisation of 8,000,000 people living in a limestone plateau without many rivers and with a lengthy dry season. There's also a temple of 1,000 columns (remember, no arches, so that equals a room about the size of a largish cathedral which would normally be held up with perhaps twenty columns). Each column is, though, exquisitely and individually carved with the likeness of a warrior.

Uxmal next. This has another fine pyramid, amid another city's worth of fascinating and sensitively restored buildings. One of the finest is known as the "Nunnery", so christened by some Spaniard or other who was reminded of home. The Maya, as far as we know, never had nuns or anything like them. The Nunnery is a large quadrangle enclosed by four buildings that were built at different times and yet blend harmoniously together. Each has a second story that bears intricately carved friezes. One particularly recurrent image on these and the other buildings to follow is that of the Chac, the raingod, a chap of great importance in this land of unreliable precipitation. He is instantly recognisable, due to his square face, fierce eyes, and enormous nose reminiscent of an elephant's trunk. Oh, and another clue is the Mayan habit of putting not one but a couple of hundred copies of his face on each available wall.

The other four sites - Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná - make up what is known locally as the "Ruta Puuc". They're smaller sites, all along the same short country road, in the area known as the Puuc Hills. This is slightly mysterious, given the resolutely unhilly nature of the terrain, but there you are. I guess when you live on a giant plateau then you have to make the most of every undulation.

Each site has it's own special feature. Kabah has its "Codz poop" (that's palace of the masks to you), Sayil a Palacio, Xlapak another Palacio (in fact, Xlapak actually only has the one building with a recognisable wall), and Labná a particularly fine v-arch. Each site belongs firmly to the same architectural style, which features long (80 metres or more) two story buildings, decorative friezes of lattice work with Chac heads and serpents on the upper story, plain dummy columns on the lower story framing doors, and the usual v-shaped arches. Even now in ruins it exudes a certain elegance, and when new and brightly painted must have been stunning.

The Ruta Puuc was not as visually shocking as Chichén or Tikal, but the lack of visitors - at most sites we shared the visit with maybe 2 or 3 other people - made for a memorable and atmospheric day drifting from one site to the next. We also shared the sites with a lot of very big lizards, who seem to enjoy sunning themselves on the rocks.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Castillo and Temple of the columns, Chichén Itzá

Chac god face and Skull wall, Chichén Itzá

Palace, Uxmal

Palace of the masks, Kabah

Palace, Sayil

Arch, Labná