Early the next morning, we hopped on an ADO bus to head to Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan Ruins. It was a three hour drive but it provided some great views of the open jungle and villages along the way. My ride was also made substantially better when the Spanish version of High School Musical came on. Apparently, Disney redid the original with a slightly different story line and changed the names of the characters, but echoed the original. It was hilarious!
But, this post isn’t about silly Disney channel movies, it’s about the Mayan people, their ruins, and their incredible mathematical and astronomical knowledge. The entire Mayan region stretches through the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, as well as into Honduras and Guatemala. They were a short people, with a very particular idea of beauty, and would go to great lengths to achieve that beauty. Newborns would have their head elongated between two boards, and teeth were filed down or implanted them with precious stones. In addition, tattoos, piercings, and scarring were considered attractive.
Among many other achievements, the Mayan people were ahead of their time in writing, mathematics and astronomy. They were the first ancient civilization to create their own writing; a mix of letters and pictographs. In math, their discoveries rivaled that of contemporary Europe and were the “inventors” of zero. Lastly, they created the Mayan calendar, and were trackers of the stars and planets. Many of their buildings were created off their knowledge of the heavens, which I shall explain more about later.
Upon arrival, we quickly walked ourselves to the main pyramid. As we were taking in the majestic ruins, Kyle’s parents decided to hire a guide to give us a tour. It was a wise decision as we got a great one and learned so much more than we did during our first visit, last year. We discovered that not only is the pyramid incredibly built, but it also contains the ruins of a smaller pyramid inside, as well as a plethora of secret tunnels. This particular pyramid has 91 steps on each of the four sides, thus adding up to 364 steps. Then, there is a final step up to the temple on top, equaling 365 steps; also knows as the number of days in the solar year.
I think the most intriguing thing about this pyramid is the dance it has with the sun during the spring and fall equinoxes. One side of the pyramid has two long serpents creeping down the sides of the stairs. As the sun rises and sets on those days, and because of the way and angle the pyramid was built, the sides of the serpents are gradually lighted up from the top to the bottom, leading a spectator to only see the serpent. It is incredible that such an event was obvious to such an early civilization, and their calculations so precise, that the feathered serpent event still occurs each year.
Adjacent to the pyramid, there is a grand ball park. It is here that the Mayans played a game that involved bouncing a rubber ball off their hips, elbows, and knees. The point of the game was to pass the ball through the hoop located to on the sides of the ball park walls. In that same park are places for spectators to watch, the Temple of the Jaguars, and the Temple of the South. The architecture of the park was built in a way that people from opposite sides of the court could easily hold a conversation.
It seems like that would be a fantastic pastime, but it did have a darker side. Our guide told us that the athletes who played the game trained for around 7 years, but would only play one game. In addition, the captain of the winning team would have the “honor” of being sacrificed to the gods through being beheaded.
The captains of the team weren’t the only ones to loose their heads. The Mayans were fixated on the idea of human sacrifice. It was an honor for nobility to be sacrificed, as that meant they would become like them. But there were others that were sacrificed without that same honor. The nearby Tzompantli (translated “wall of skulls) depicts approximately 900 skulls, each carving representing one person to be dishonorably beheaded.
There were many reasons for these beheadings. If one tried to illegally run away from the city, they would be sacrificed and their head placed on a stake to ward off any others who would try to get out. The young and beautiful were sacrificed to stop natural disasters like hurricanes. And, although warring was a rare occurrence, prisoners of war would be sacrificed. Interestingly, the mathematicians and astronomers of the community were never sacrificed, because the wisdom that would be lost.
At this point in our tour, I realized how fitting it was that we were there on Halloween (also the first Day of the Dead). Most of what we were learning was based on people dying, skulls, and other eery ancient traditions. And, though it may seem graphic, I did find it very intriguing. Especially when I learned how heart sacrifice was done. Taking place in the Temple of the Warriors, a young man or woman would be brought to the alter. It is there and incision was made over the left side of the chest and a second perpendicular incision across the bottom of the ribcage. Then, a priest would reach into the body, pull out the heart and place it on the chalice held by the statue of Chacmool.
Timing was of the essence for this sacrifice. Our guide said that it was done in the early hours of the morning before, just as the sun was rising. If the heart was not in the chalice by the time the sun rose, the heart would not be accepted by the gods, and the sacrifice would be in vain. Along with that timing, the heart would beat for only 14 seconds after being removed from the body, and must be in the chalice while still beating. This added element made the synchronization of the sun rising and sacrifice to be extremely difficult. Despite that, the ancient tradition still took place.
A short walk from the main ruins area lays a cenote; a natural and fresh-water sink hole. This was a sacred place for the Mayans, and another place for sacrifice. On one end of the cenote is a steam bath ruin. This is where people were purified before being tossed into the cenote. The offerings would have something heavy tied to their feet, be decorated with jewels and other precious things, and then dropped into the waters to sink to their death. Our guide also informed us that warriors who could no longer fight would sneak away and on their own sacrifice themselves in the waters.
For a culture obsessed with death, they also had a vivacious attitude toward discovery and innovation. Their knowledge of the heavens was far more advanced than any other contemporary civilization. They were amazing artists and architects; creating masterpieces of symmetry and proportion. They were able to create a city that although uninhabited and overgrown with jungle vegetation, still lasted for thousands and thousands of years. It is incredible to think about.
Of course, I can’t leave out the people that were surrounding us during our tour of the ruins. The archeological site was swarmed with people trying to sell their wares. We did haggle for a few items, but mostly enjoyed looking at the vast array of things that were “almost free” and had a “special price today”, according to many shop keepers.
By the time we got back, it was late and we were exhausted. The sun had been hot, and the air as full of moisture as it could hold, which drained us of both sweat and energy. We knew that the next day would hold another full schedule. So, instead of trying to see more of the area around our hotel, we opted to sink into our soft beds. As I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t help but smile. We had just spent the day learning about an incredible piece of history. A culture fixated on death? Slightly eery? Yes, but it isn’t often that an ancient culture can help you celebrate something that you are missing back home. Happy Halloween!
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