The Mayan Ruins

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The Mayan Ruins


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


After spending a week enjoying the hedonistic life of Cancun's beaches with their activities, we were excited as we boarded the bus for historic Tulum - some 80 miles away. I hardly slept the night before, so involved were my thoughts in travelling back a thousand years to a world of Mayan splendour. My life-long yearning to explore the ruins of Mexico's earliest civilization was today to become a reality.

This was to be my first trip through the Yucatan peppered with about 1,000 sites of ancient Mayan cities - the richest archaeological region in the Western Hemisphere. Most of these remain the domain of the evergreen jungle, but a handful like Coba, Tulum and Chichen Itza have been, to some extent, excavated and made accessible to tourists, by auto or organized tours from the seacoast resorts. Fairly good roads connect these three sites to Cancun and one can visit them in comfort or, by bus, if a traveller is adventurous.

Our 'people bus' was crowded but comfortable as we moved through the Yucatan jungle - the homeland of the renowned Mayans. One of the world's most original and enigmatic peoples, they created the greatest of Mexico's indigenous civilizations, until overwhelmed by a series of Indian conquerors and finally erased by the Spaniards. However, they have survived until our times, maintaining their language and way of life, more than any other of the country's Indian population.

The Mayans' age of splendour was from about AD 200 to 900 when their civilization reached its zenith. During this period they built hundreds of cities in the lands which today include Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the five southern Mexican states. Called the 'Greeks of the New World', the Mayans lived in city states rather than in one large empire.

On the whole, they were a peaceful people. Even though, at times, warring against each other and practising human sacrifice, they worked at developing the art of science and their artistic and scientific achievements were spectacular. With every archaeological discovery, the expanse of their achievement appears more wondrous.

The creators of one of the greatest of the ancient civilizations, they developed a very complex writing system of near 500 symbols. Their engineers constructed grand highways, excellent drainage canals and majestic temples which still inspire awe. They had an intricate knowledge of astronomy and medicine, much more advanced than the Europeans had in that era. They even carved the theory of evolution in stone, 1,000 years before Darwin.

The Mayans' grasp of mathematics was astounding. They discovered the zero at the time of Alexander the Great and developed a sophisticated numerical system long before the Europeans.

Their observatories for star-gazing and their understanding of the mysteries of the planets and stars were incredible. They could make astronomic calculations at least 90 million years into the past and accurately predict eclipses of the sun and movements of the moon. Their scholars perfected a solar calendar, more precise than the contemporary Julian calendar - as accurate as any currently in use.

They could have achieved much more, but we will never know. The Spaniards in the early 16th century destroyed their libraries of rare manuscripts which the Mayans had preserved from their days of grandeur. Believing that their historical codices (painted books) carried messages heretical to Christianity, they were burned by the Church as the work of the Devil.

In the 10th century, the Toltecs, a central Mexican tribe, conquered these advanced people and, subsequently, absorbed the religion of their subjects. They developed the highly civilized Nahua culture, then passed it on to the Aztecs who produced the last great Indian civilization in the Western Hemisphere. Practising a cruel form of religion, the Aztecs introduced human offering on a large scale. Their god of war, Quetzalcoatl, had an insatiable lust for human blood which could only be quenched by the sacrifice of large numbers of slaves and prisoners of war. …

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