When I hear the thunder rumble only several kilometers away, the trees in the jungle tremble as if to warn us that Quetzalcoatl himself was due for his return.
Today we travel to Coba, an ancient Mayan city guarded by a torturous jungle. We make our way down a 2-kilometer dirt path, drenched in humidity, in search of a ruined city. Our trek is not a long one, but the history we need to understand in order to fully appreciate the significance of this journey, is.
The Mayan civilization dates back as far as August 11, 3114 B.C., the first date listed in the Mayan calendar. This is the same calendar that ends on December 21, 2012. Note that I said that the calendar ends, not that the world ends. Most people have the false impression that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world, but this isn’t necessarily their fault. The media like to skew facts for the sake of sensational news, and the movie 2012 did nothing to distill this misconception.
The Mayan calendar is pictured below. More often than not, people mistake the Aztec calendar (2nd photo down) for the Mayan calendar, which is completely different. The Mayas were a different civilization altogether and should not be lost in the conglomerate of other ancient Mesoamerican cultures for many reasons. For starters, their calendar is the most accurate ancient calendar in the world. Our current calendar, the Gregorian calendar, was implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. As you know, it is inaccurate by a fourth of a day each year. So every four years, we add an extra day to February. This is called a Leap Year. On the other hand, the Mayan calendar is only inaccurate by 17 seconds every year. Consummate observers of the stars, the Maya were able to predict when astrological cycles began and ended long before anyone else invented instruments to do the same thing.
Just like the world doesn’t end after your kitchen calendar ends on December 31 each year, the same goes for the Mayan calendar. Another cycle simply would have started. Whereas we can simply buy a calendar to start the next year on January 1, 70% of all Mayan documents were destroyed over the years. When Franciscan monks arrived in the late 15th century, they did all they could to spread the Christian faith to the indigenous people of the Americas — even if it meant destroying everything that seemed contrary to Christianity. The priests burned books and destroyed the only records of thousands of years of Mayan history. For a civilization whose elites and royals were scholars, astronomers, architects — seekers of knowledge — this was devastating. Maya script, the only pre-Columbian written language, contains snakelike characters, which, as we know, evokes images of evil, Satan, and sin in the context of Christianity. The reason for this is that snakes are prevalent in this particular region. In fact, the city of Cancun derives its name from two Mayan words: “can” for snake and “cun” for nest. The Mayans desperately hid books by burying them in the earth, but the organic paper documents decayed and became indistinguishable.
Fortunately (and mysteriously), three books survived. They had been sent to Europe as gifts during colonial times. The three books now remain in New York, Dresden, and Spain. Think about it: what we now know about the Mayans is based on only 30% of thousands of documents that once existed. This is a lamentable part of Mayan history, but the scarcity of our resources has made us that much more eager to understand, preserve, and appreciate what does remain.
Coba, where I am headed today, is one of the handful of Mayan ruins left standing. It is also the only site where you are able to climb to the top of the main pyramid. Due to safety restrictions, the pyramids at other sites have been closed off to climbers.
Atop the pyramid, I feel as if I am looking down at an ancient land. The jungle around the pyramid is disabused by modern buildings, roads, or constructions. All I can see is green brush, through which nearby temples and pyramids protrude. I have traveled thousands of years backward in time, and I am privy to a view that only high priests and human sacrifices have experienced. It is breathtaking. At this moment, I can’t fathom the idea of the destruction of a place so inherently beautiful.
Did the Mayans disappear? Many cities like Coba were abandoned or deserted due to famine, wars, and disease. However, the Mayans themselves didn’t simply evaporate into thin air. Most traveled to other tribes from other civilizations and blended into new societies. Direct descendants of the Mayan people still exist today, especially in this part of Mexico. Mayan villages thrive off of the tourist industry, where visitors buy handicrafts, local food, and other goods. Various dialects of the Mayan native language have also survived and can be overheard today in many places.
The history of the Mayan civilization is long and bittersweet. While at the height of their civilization, they had a better understanding of astronomy, mathematics, and writing than the rest of the pre-Columbian world, their golden age drew to a steady close.
The Mayans believed that life is cyclical. Perhaps their fate was simply part of a cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. We currently live in a world that science fiction writers could only imagine. In an instant, we can communicate with someone on the other side of the globe. We have developed cures for diseases that once killed thousands without explanation. We have sent individuals far into space and deep into the ocean. After spending a day walking through Mayan history, I can’t help but wonder: what if this is our golden age? Perhaps our fate is tied to the same cycle.
…And the only way we’ll find out is waiting until December 21, 2012. 🙂 Until next post.