Jan 17, 2017

Celestial Events, Great Acoustics and Grimaces

The less routine, the more life.

Amos Bronson Alcott
Grand Acropolis or the Palace of the Five Stories 
Notice roof comb at top.  Said to contain 27 rooms. 
The higher up you were in society, the higher up you lived…
You better be fit!
I’m not sure anyone can visit this area of Mexico without being intrigued by ancient Mayan ruins and centuries-old forts, cemeteries, convents, monasteries, and cathedrals. They seem to be around just about every corner explored.  

First glimpse through the trees.  Patio of the Ambassadors.
Notice the small arch on the right, thought to be the first of its kind. 
On the left is the platform of the knives where many flint knives were found.

Museums and anything of a historical nature play a large role in what attract tourists here.  Of course, nature also has a lot to offer but seems to take a backseat to history even though history is ultimately sculpted by it.  So much is unknown about this area, much left to be discovered but much to be appreciated. 
Nohochná - The Big House.  Thought to have been used for administrative tasks. 
The stairs so wide and deep probably served as benches for spectators during special events.

Better view.  To the left a large field leading to the Grand Acropolis
The first ruins we visited were of Edzná and, of the 25 square kilometers (9.6 square miles) this ancient city covers, only a very small portion has been revealed and made available to the public, our estimate is that what is exposed is probably only 1-1.5 square kilometer(s).  It would take years and years to unearth the rest of it.  We saw perhaps the equivalent of about 15-18 structures yet archaeologists estimate there are 200 or more!

Edzná is somewhat an unknown cousin of the famous Chichén Itzá to the north, in the Yucatán, therefore not as crowded and more accessible.  We were alone when we started rooting around this amazing site.  Slowly more tourists started showing up but we mostly enjoyed the place to ourselves. 
Big house in background on right, Platform of Knives on left. 
Room with arch, used before the discovery of columns.

There are a few school of thoughts as the origin or meaning of the word Edzná. 
  • Some say it means the ‘Home of the Echo’.  Testing that theory, it echoes quite well in the main area facing the Grand Acropolis, it indeed has great acoustics.  Some reports that clapping hands in front of the Temple of the Moon (to the right of the Grand Acropolis) sounds like birds’ flapping of wings.
  • Some say it means ‘Home of the Grimaces’, as there are modelled stucco faces portraying the Sun deity Kinich Ahau at each end of the Temple of Masks, one to the east or the rising sun, one to the west or the setting sun.  Being that people with deformities were regarded as special, this deity looks a little askew, more like a grimace than a normal visage.
  • Some say it means ‘Home of the Itzáes’, hence showing a possible relationship to the people of Itzá who built Chichén Itzá.  They probably went on to found Chichén Itzá, one of the most powerful cities in the entire history of northern Yucatán. (the preferred version)…
Young Sun, East
Old Sun, West - very hard to differentiate between the two

This Pre-Colombian settlement was established between 600 and 300 BCE.  It was built layer by layer probably over 1,000 years.  The key to its success was its location in a fertile valley and the construction of a huge system of canals and reservoirs, both above and underground.  Although this area receives a fair amount of rain, it is packed in only 3-4 months of the year, the rest of the time being quite dry.  The aqueducts stretched for many kilometers, the longest being 12km long, from the ceremonial center to the Champotón river.  Most of these canals were discovered much later by flying way overhead and noticing very straight lines radiating from Edzná.

Temple of the Moon, beautifully symmetric
After more extensive studies, it was found that Edzná represents the oldest major Maya city and the main astronomical center, creating most likely the first lunar observatory in the New World (Mesoamerica).  Whereas the attention was previously given to Calakmul and Chichén Itzá, eyes are now turning to Edzná as the foremost historical Mayan attraction of this area.

We follow clay pathways gently winding through tropical trees and as they thin out, the ruins come into view, it is quite awe inspiring.  How can we imagine the long-gone civilization that sang, played, loved, lived, worked, or worshipped here? 
Grand Acropolis from NW Temple

To the left of acropolis, elegant curve drops thought to be decorative,
forming waterfalls during rainy season

Hieroglyphs in the bottom steps of the Grand Acropolis
The wind is playing in the dry grass surrounding the many buildings but the key sound surprising us is the constant rustle of fidgety iguanas; small and large hiding in holes as we get near them.  They had just come out to warm up in the sunshine and our presence is changing these plans.  They are everywhere, on tree trunks, in branches, in the grass, on rocks, on roots, but always near a hole where they can quickly disappear.  I can’t think how much food is needed just to keep that many of them alive in such a compact area.
Temazcal - Steam Baths across from the Grand Acropolis. 
The steps to the right lead to a yard across from The Big House

Even as a ruin, this is a splendid city of tall pyramids, large temples, platforms, public courtyard, government offices, observatories, a ball court, an acropolis, canals, reservoirs, and evidence of a road system.  Unlike other ruins dispersed and lost in the jungle overgrowth, Edzná feels like an authentic city.

The temples served as the structures dedicated to communication with the divine, the observatories to communication with natural cycles, and the ball-courts, among other roles, to resolving internecine rivalries between city-states.
Interestingly, unlike many other cultures, Maya architecture makes no real distinction between religious and non-religious buildings.  They are positioned to take advantage of solar and other celestial events or sight lines.  Noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated elements of Maya architecture into his buildings.
One of the platforms left of Mike was used to make sun calculations.  
Behind him are the steam baths.
1,000 years later they finally came up with columns. 
Patio of the Ambassadors.
Objectifying the legitimacy of the city-state required the construction of monuments, and the construction of monuments demanded resources: the quarrying of stone, harvesting of water, the deforestation.  Some say it led to the demise of the Mayan, some say the Mayans left of their own accord for greener pastures.  By today’s estimates, there are still about 6-7 million Mayans in the Yucatán area of Mexico.

We could bore you with many more pictures from different angles but these places are meant to be experienced.  One needs to walk these grounds to truly feel the grandeur and magic they convey.  We feel very lucky to have such opportunities.

And now a few interesting facts about the Mayan Society:

Traits that were found widespread in nobility were unnatural physical characteristics:

  • At a very young age, boards were pressed to babies’ foreheads to create a flattened surface. 
  • Objects were often dangled in front of newborns’ eyes until their eyes were completely and permanently crossed. 
  • Noblemen had noses built up with putty, giving them a beaked shape.
  • Mayan children were named according to the day they were born.  Every day of the year had a specific name for both boys and girls and parents were expected to follow the practice.
  • Adults filed their teeth to make them pointy and created holes that they filled with jade or pyrite. 
Speaking of calendars, the Mayans did not invent the calendar but developed it further:
  • Mayans do not have just one calendar and none of their calendars predicted the world would end in 2012.  They have three calendars that work in cycles. 
  • The Haab (Civil calendar), has a 365-day cycle just like the modern Gregorian calendar.  It never identifies the year.
  • The Tzolkin (Sacred Round or divine calendar), like the Haab, only identifies days, not years.  It includes 20 periods of 13 days (260 days), it is used to determine time of religious and ceremonial events.
  • The Long Count (Universal Cycle calendar), cycles roughly every 2,880,000 days (7885 years) and was said to reset in 2012, leading to doomsday prophecies but just like we ‘reset’ each January 1st, nothing special happened then.
  • The calendar round cycle takes approximately 52 years to complete.
  • According to the ancient Maya, the world was created on August 11, 3114 BCE, which is the date their calendar counts from.
Mayan medicine was quite advanced:
  • They sutured wounds with human hair.
  • They filled teeth .
  • Performed surgeries using obsidian blades.
  • Reduced fractures by using casts.
  • They made prosthesis from jade and turquoise.
  • They use herbal medicine extensively, knowing and using a repertoire of about 1,500 plants.
  • Saunas and sweat baths played a huge role in their culture.  They believed it help them relieve impurities.  Massages were often used along with heat.
Twenty symbols for days
On the subject of numbers and letters:
  • Outside of the Babylonian systems, the Mayans were possibly the first civilization to explicitly use the number 0 as a place holder. Indian mathematicians later became the first to use it as a mathematical value in computations.
  • The Mayans had one of the most advanced writing systems of any ancient civilization and wrote on almost anything they could find, including their buildings. They used hieroglyphs.  It was so complex, it only began successfully being decoded in the 1950’s.
This impressive civilization existed for more than 2,000 years.  The last Maya state existed until 1697.
Like the Aztecs, Mayans never used iron or steel. Their weapons were made of obsidian, or volcanic rock.
The Mayan art work is still considered to be one of the most sophisticated and appreciated forms of art in history. However, their best art work is believed to come in the form of architecture. Mayan architecture is absolutely spectacular.
Both men and women tattooed their bodies with complex designs.  making them one of the earliest ancient cultures to practice the art of “tattooing”.
Maya blue has been seen at several architectural locations from the ancient Mayan civilization. It is one of the highlights of the ancient Mayan civilization but its composition is still unknown.
Nobody knows how the Mayan Empire declined. Long before the Spanish came many of the great cities had already been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Scholars have hypothesized reasons ranging from drought and famine to overpopulation and climate change to overuse of timber leading to deforestation.
The ruins and pyramids you always see in pictures are most likely those of Chichén Itzá, one of the largest Mayan cities. It has just recently been bought by the government from a private owner.


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