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The Mystical Land of the Ancient Maya

2020 has been quite a year in all honesty. Dreadful, harrowing and grim for the most part but there has been some silver lining for the lovers of archaeology, history and mythology alike.  From finding more than 100 Painted Coffins with Mummies at the Ancient Egyptian Necropolis of Saqqara to discovering the largest and the oldest Maya monument as well as finding ruins of Lost Capital of Ancient Maya Kingdom, archeologists and theorists have definitely had a moment to rejoice. These discoveries have rekindled an already burning interest in the very mysterious yet intriguing Mayan Civilization.

2 million sq miles of lush greens hide centuries old ruins riddled with mysteries underneath them. Land that today forms a part of modern-day Mexico and Central America was once testimony to one of the world’s most sophisticated and mysterious ancient Mesoamerican Civilization. Mayans have left everyone baffled by their highly sophisticated writing systems, knowledge of mathematics and astronomy and architectural finesse. Often a source of amazement to the contemporary mankind, be it due to its Doomsday Prediction or due to some very fancy out of the world sarcophagus designs, Mayan civilization, one of the six cradles of civilization worldwide, is still being unfolded layer by layer.

Latest Discoveries

Maya
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  • With the use of LIDAR Technology, The oldest and largest ceremonial structure in the Maya world has been discovered, which had been hiding in plain sight located in Tabasco, Mexico near the Guatemala border. Known as Aguada Fenix, or “Phoenix Reservoir”, The monument measures almost 4600 feet long at a height of 30-50 feet. The only piece of sculpture thus far unearthed is a two-foot-tall limestone sculpture of a javelina nicknamed “Choco” by the excavators. Radiocarbon dating suggests that Maya people constructed the ritual space between 1000 and 800 B.C. According to University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata, “it seems people weren’t coerced into building this structure but they instead came together to build it communally with a strong central leadership”. 
  • Lost Capital of Ancient Maya Kingdom has been discovered by a team of researchers from Brown University and Brandeis University, in the backyard of a Mexican cattle rancher. According to anthropologist Charles Golden, this site, now known as Lacanja Tzeltal, is believed to be the capital of the Sak Tz’i’ kingdom, located in what is today the state of Chiapas in south-eastern Mexico.

The Beginning of the End – When and Where ?

The Mayan Civilization
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The Mayan Civilization, which had a geographical spread over present day Southern Mexico (Yucatan peninsula &Chiapas), Guatemala, Belize, Western Honduras and El Salvador, can be divided in three phases. During these phases, the most important cities were Bonampek, Calakmul, Palenque, Tikal, Copan, Naranjo. Most successful kings were those who controlled trade routes, particularly the most important city of Teotihuacan (present day Mexico)

  1. Preclassic Period (2000 BC – 250 AD) – This is the era when Mayan Civilization began. Maya occupation at Cuello (modern-day Belize) has been carbon dated to around 2600 BC. This period saw emergence of identifiable Mayan culture across the world. This was the time when sophisticated agricultural systems were developed with Mayans cultivating  the staple crops of maize, beans, squash, and chili pepper as well as trade routes were solidified. The newly discovered site of Aguada Fenix belongs to this period.
  2. Classic Period (250 – 900 AD) – This period marked the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and demonstrated significant intellectual and artistic development. During this phase, cities throughout the Maya region were influenced by the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. In AD 378, Teotihuacan decisively intervened at Tikal and other nearby cities, deposed their rulers, and installed a new Teotihuacan-backed dynasty. This intervention was led by Siyaj Kʼakʼ (“Born of Fire”), who arrived at Tikal in early 378. The king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ichʼaak I, died on the same day, suggesting a violent takeover. The installation of the new dynasty led to a period of political dominance when Tikal became the most powerful city in the central lowlands. During the 9th century AD, the central Maya region suffered major political collapse, marked by the abandonment of cities, the ending of dynasties, and a northward shift in activity. There are several theories speculating the reasons for this collapse – foreign invasion, exhaustion of agricultural systems leading to environmental degradation, fall of Teotihuacan in 600s and demographic decline leading to collapse of the dynasty.
  3. Postclassic Period (900-1500 AD) – After the abandonment of the major Classic period cities; the population was particularly concentrated near permanent water sources. Chichen Itza and its Puuc neighbours declined dramatically in the 11th century, representing the final episode of Classic Period collapse. In 12th C, Mayapan emerged as an important city, which was later abandoned in 1448 due to political, social and environmental turbulence.
  4. The period 1500 onwards witnessed a Spanish takeover of this ancient civilization and this conquest stripped away most of the defining features of Maya civilization. Most of the people were eliminated and all the belongings including 10000s of mayan books were burnt. However, many cities remained shielded from Spanish influence for a long time. The ancient city of Tulum on the Caribbean shore, surrounded by impregnable walls managed to remain protected for 70 years. The Last independent Mayan kingdom – the island city of Tayasal existed Up Until 1697 when kingdom submitted to Spanish conquerors in March 1697, led by the then governor of Yucatan, Martin de Ursua.
  5. Today, approx. 5 million descendants of the Maya still live in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and northern Honduras. Many continue to hold to their traditions, such as speaking their native languages(over 70 Mayan Languages known), wearing traditional clothes and practicing Indigenous forms of the religion. The most famous “Maya” today is probably the Quiché native Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. She is a well-known activist for Native peoples’ rights.

Myths, Mythologies and Facts

Facts about Mayans
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With a civilization as advanced as Mayan, at a time when the world was barely stepping into savage stage of civilization, wild speculations are but natural as well as essential. Anthropologists, archeologists, researchers and theorists have gone to great lengths to give various theories related to Mayans. Whether they are merely crazy ideas or hold some merit is left to the wise discretion of the reader. 

  • The foremost theory is regarding King Pakal the great. He was ajaw of the Mayan city-state of Palenque during 7th C. In Mayan tradition, King is considered both the political supremo as well a semi divine figure. In case of Pakal, the mysteriously carved lid of his sarcophagus has become the subject of pseudo archeological speculations, with some experts on extraterrestrial domains like Eric Von Daniken having compared him to an ancient astronaut. Above picture of Pakal’s Sarcophagus in contrast to an astronaut seated in a space capsule shows remarkable similarity in seating position, as well as the intricate equipment does brew some suspicions I would confess. 
  • The second is regarding the Mayan Calendar and Doomsday Predictions. Mayans have to their credit the creation of a complex interlocking calendar system which dates events in terms of time elapsed since a zero point in the past (4000 BC), known as the Long Count to countdown 5125 years as one great cycle. This calendar is divided into 13 units of 400 years each called Baktuns and at the end of each Baktun, Mayans held elaborate celebrations. However oddly enough, they didn’t celebrate on the 10th Baktun. And soon enough the great disappearance happened. So considering that being the best timekeepers of all times they couldn’t possibly miscalculate the date, the question arises as to whether they intentionally planned their disappearance on the 10th Baktun ? Many believed that they went back to where they came from, that is the outerspace.
  • According to David Wilcook, author of “The Synchronicity Key”, Mayans were archeoastronomers. The seven most important pyramids in the grand plaza form the same geometric pattern as the 7 stars comprising Pleiadas Constellation. There are theories that Pleiadas was probably their place of origin and therefore the effort to align the pyramids with them. Stargazing was definitely a favorite among the Mayans.
  • The Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient city of Teotihuacan built 2000 years ago seems otherworldly due to its age, size and complexity, thus giving way for suspicions on possession of such highly advanced technology which is unthinkable in pre Aztec Mexico.

Achievements

  • The Mayan had their own writing system. Also known as Mayan glyphs, this language was an intricate and complex set of logograms complemented with a set of syllabic glyphs. Dates figured prominently on the large stone monuments constructed by them called Stelae, which recorded birth, genealogy, titles, alliances and achievements of dynasties and featured elaborate carvings.
  • Obsessive astronomers, they saw gods in the sky. They kept accurate tables predicting eclipses, solstice and other celestial events. The main reason for such a detailed observation was the belief that the sun, moon and planets were gods moving back and forth between the heavens, the underworld (Xibalba) and Earth. These celestial events were marked by ceremonies at temples.
  • Mayans were among the first to record history in books. And they were prolific writers: although many of them are now lost, historians believe the Mayans may have written as many as 10,000 books. Mayans used hieroglyphs, similar to the Egyptians, to write. It was one of the most complex systems on Earth.
  • Mayan civilization was very proficient when it came to creating art, architectural wonders and complex mathematical and astronomical systems that were far ahead of the time. The most prominent accomplishments of Mayans are the construction of pyramids, the Mayan calendar, Mayan scripture, stone sculptures, wood carvings, murals on the walls of buildings, calculations of the length of the tropical solar year, and the Mayan vigesimal numeric system.
  • They had a highly sophisticated network of city-states, well organized transportation systems, highly advanced agricultural systems and well developed aqueduct systems to provide spring water to all the inhabitants.

Architectural Marvels

Mayan Kukulkan
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  • Temple of Kukulkan, Chichen ITZA (9-12th C) – As a temple to Mayan Serpent God Kukulkan, it was almost completely hidden in the forest, covered in vegetation when it was first photographed in 1880. It is a pyramid like structure with a square terrace and stairways consisting 91 steps each on each side. Combined together, they make 365 steps, totaling the no of days in a year. Intended or coincidental ? You decide !! During Autumn and Vernal Equinox, one can see a snake like shadow crawling on Pyramid’s balustrade. It moves upwards in March and downwards in September and this illusion goes on for almost 3 hours. This phenomenon attracts thousands of tourists. It’s closed for climbing though.
  • The Balancanche Caves (Cave of sacred jaguar throne) – Jaguars are symbolic of Mayan leaders, not the felines you must be picturing of ! It was first discovered in 1905. In 1954, local tourist guide Jose Humberto Gomez stumbled upon a secret wall and on pursuing, discovered stalactite and stalagmite formations of the Mayan Tree of Life.
  • Cenote IK kil – It’s a sinkhole located in the Yucatan state of Mexico. Mayans used it as a site for rituals. As of present, tourists relish this location for swimming with plenty waterfalls.
  • Nohoch Mul Pyramid – It’s a 137 ft high pyramid with 130 steps to give a remarkable view of Yucatan and Coba, including two lagoons : Macanxoc Lagoon to the east and Coba Lagoon to the west.
  • Ancient City Tulum – It’s the only Mayan city on the shore of Caribbean Sea. It was originally named Zama – City of dawn. The three most popular structures here are: El Castillo, Temple of Frescoes and Temple of Descending God. As mentioned earlier, it survived Spanish invasion for 70 years. It’s a treat for both Mayan history lovers as well as nature lovers. A large number of sinkholes like Maya Blue, Naharon, temple of Doom, Grand cenote etc are located here.
  • Pyramid of Magician, Uxmal – It is the tallest and the most recognizable structure, also known as the Pyramid of Dwarf/Casa el Adivino. According to the legends, magician named Itzamna single handedly created it in just one night. Tourists visiting it can watch a sound and light show in both English and Spanish every evening.
  • Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque – It was built as a tomb for King Pakal, ruler of Palenque in 7th C. In 1949, one of the chambers revealed a secret passage to his tomb filled with ancient treasures and artifacts. In his sarcophagus lies with a Jade Death mask with eyes carved out of obsidian, mother of pearls and shells. The images on his sarcophagus illustrate a central Mayan belief that universe is made of three levels – earth, Underworld and Heavens. Having departed this world, Pakal emerges from underworld and is reborn into eternal life in the heavens. Tourists are not allowed to enter the tomb but can find an exact copy of the Jaded Death Mask in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico.
  • Mayan City of Vaxchilan – Near Palenque, it was one of the most powerful cities. It is known for well-preserved stone ornamentation above the doorways of the main structures known as lintels. These contain hieroglyphic texts, which give insights into the history of the city.
  • Murals of Bonampak – Highlight of this city are the murals of the temple. They depict Mayan rulers, dancing people, musicians, battles and sacrificial rituals. According to Prof. Mary Miller who specializes in Mayan Art, no artifact offers a better glimpse of Mayan times than these.
  • Temple of Great Jaguar, Tikal – Located at the heart of a world heritage site, it is surmounted by the characteristic roof comb that’s distinctive of Mayan culture. In 1962, archeologists discovered the tomb of the king who built it. The body was covered in Jade ornaments and a 4kg Jade necklace. On 21st December 2012 (the much hyped doomsday), which marked the end of Mayan calendar, modern Mayans held a fire ceremony in front of the temple and it saw a participation of over 3000 people.

Documents and Language

  • “Popol Voh”, the sacred book of the Mayans which describes the creation of mankind is the only one to have survived. Though the original text is lost, in 1700, Father Franciso Ximenez translated a copy which has survived. This text also contains the story of Xbalanque and Hunahpu, the hero twins who fought the god of underworld.
  • Around 2.3 million people still speak a language called K’iche’, which is the most widely spoken of nearly 30 Mayan languages that are spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. All these languages descend from Proto-Mayan –  that was supposedly spoken more than 5,000 years ago.
  • The ancient Maya religion is very complex, having over 150 gods who are each clearly defined by their characteristics and purposes. Five of these gods were worshipped very often according to ancient texts, and are thus considered to be the most important ones. The present religion is a mix of ancient Maya ideas, animism and Catholicism.

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