Back home now, my time in Mexico continues to resonate in the chambers of my heart. Three separate but connected chords spiral through my experience there, the ancient Mayan past, the Spanish Colonial past and the present day mix of Mexican and Mayan culture.
The voices of the ancient Mayans speak today through their mysterious ruins and through the soft voices of their descendants. While visiting the ruins one can hire a guide or use a guide book, which both speak with authority about the meaning of the structures and symbols carved in the rocks. But the Mayans I met say that the knowledge of their ancestors is lost and no one really knows the meaning of their buildings and glyphs.
Uxmal, the first Mayan city I visited, dates from before the 10th century AD. It is estimated that at its height in 900 A.D., the area surrounding Uxmal, (“oosh-mahl”, meaning “thrice-built”) was home to 25,000 Maya. It is a beautiful expression of Puuc architecture.
Puuc, “hilly country” in Mayan, is the name given to the only hilly area in the Yucatan. The same term refers to the predominant style of ancient architecture found here. Puuc decoration, in abundance at Uxmal, is characterized by elaborate horizontal stonework on upper levels.
Uxmal’s importance waned after Toltec invaders took over the Yucatán peninsula (around 1000AD) and established their capital at Chichén Itza. The site was abandoned shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, around 1450.
These buildings have a power that’s hard to explain. The past speaks here but the messages is unclear.
The first and tallest structure you see is called The Magician’s Pyramid (115 ft). My guide book said it wasn’t much to look at, but I found it pretty impressive. Also called the Pyramid of the Dwarf, both names come from a legend about a magical dwarf who was hatched from an egg, raised by a witch and built the pyramid in one day. In reality it took much longer to build this structure. The Pyramid of the Magician shows evidence of five smaller pyramids inside the current structure and was built from the 6th through the 10th centuries.
It’s rounded sides, height, and steepness make this pyramid unique among Mayan structures. What could have gone on here? As visitors are not allowed to climb or enter the structure, one’s experience is a bit limited. But still, I find myself drawn to it and with effort force myself to move on.
Next is “The Nun’s Quadrangle”, obviously named by the Spanish. Did the Mayan’s have nuns? From what I’ve been told by Mayans I’ve talked to in Merida, central to their philosophy is the balance of body and spirit. That doesn’t seem to imply a denial of the body like we’re seen if Christian philosophy. They also believe that life is both positive and negative and we must strive for a balance.
This large complex has many representations of the rain god Chac. with his large, elephant-like nose. Probably because of its elevation, the Puuc area doesn’t have the proliferation of underground cenotes and water-filled caves like the rest of the Yucatan peninsula does. Thus Chac is even more important here than in other Mayan sites, as rain was crucial to the success of their crops. Representations of Chac are found all through out the complex.
Also in abundance are representations of the common folks’ thatched roof houses (still in use by many today), double-headed serpents, which often represented the ecliptic of the sun, and symbolic representations of the planet Venus. Venus was very important to the Mayan astronomical system and the Venus cycles figured into the counting of their calendar.
I had a very interesting conversation with a Mayan man, owner of a tourist shop, about the Mayan world view. According to him, the Mayans believe that there are twelve lines of people who are descendants of what are now called the twelve Gods and Goddesses. But he emphasized that these twelve Gods and Goddesses are manifestations of the One Source from which we all come.
He then went on to explain that the Maya have three calendars, Astrological, Agricultural and the Calendar of the Ages. These three calendars meet at the end of the ages. But in his opinion there is confusion over the translation of dates into the Gregorian calendar system and this meeting could be in another thirty years or so. And of course it doesn’t signify the end of the world – it signifies a transformation of consciousness. He emphasized that this transformation doesn’t happen in an instant, it slowly unfolds through time. He also believes that the Mayan civilization is much older than what we currently believe it to be.
I certainly had a strong sense of something very foreign and very ancient while at Uxmal. On my way from the Nun’s Quadrangle to the Governor’s Palace I was awe struck by a tree, shimmering in the bright sunlight, growing out of the very rocks of the ancient city. Not being your typical hurry, hurry tourist, I sat and drew this tree. I love taking photos, but something about drawing connects me even more strongly to what I’m experiencing. I felt the power of this ancient truth – civilizations rise and fall but nature always endures.
Another spot drew my eye to draw. The Turtle House, named for the frieze of turtles adorning the top of the building, is small and yet elegant and harmonious. I walked around it , discovering a door which opened in to other doors, finally meeting a door on the opposite side. Framed by this door, one sees through to a portion of the Nun’s Quadrangle and the blue blue sky.
Again I had to sit and draw. Then back in my studio this image wanted to get onto the canvas and change up a bit.
Next on the list was the Governor’s Palace. This is a very impressive, three level structure which archeologist believe functioned as an administrative center for the region. It probably had astrological significance too, as scholars of archaeoastronomy have recently discovered that the central doorway, which is larger than the others, is in perfect alignment with Venus.
Finally I was completely enchanted by the building called Dovecote which features lace like roof combs. This is not a common architectural feature in Puuc temples. A dovecote is a structure created to house pigeons or doves and is generally a Western European tradition.
Why did these Maya people build this structure in this way? Did they keep pigeons and doves also or was it simply decorative? Could European traditions have made their way to the New World before the conquerors arrived and if so how and when?
Wandering the stones of Uxmal, I feel strongly the truth that the ancient world shelters secrets we’ve yet to decipher. And perhaps these secrets hold the key to knowledge which can help our modern world regain the balance it sorely need.