September 14th, 2020
After yesterday’s stop in Tulum, we’re on our way inland to explore some of the major sites of Mayan civilization. Before we start climbing stairs tomorrow, I have a couple maps for context and some interesting facts about Mayan civilization.
In this week’s posts, we’re focusing on the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. Mayan civilization reached from here into current-day Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, and was part of Mesoamerica — a larger cultural area that extended from from Mexico to Costa Rica.
Cancun, Tulum, Valladolid and Mérida are the region’s largest cities. The historic sites of Ek Balam, Cobá and Chichen Itza sit in the dense jungle of the area surrounding Valladolid. We’ll stop in Valladolid later this week — a quaint little town with a pretty plaza and a colorful history of embroidered huipil.
I should note, we’re only stopping at three main Mayan sites but there are dozens (if not hundreds) of smaller sites across the landscape of the peninsula. Most sites have been overtaken by vegetation and have yet to be properly mapped or excavated. One could very easily spend months exploring Mayan sites with the help of locals (who often know of them well before they’re “discovered”) and a sharp machete to get through the terrain.
Mayan civilization is primarily divided into the Pre-Classic (2000 BC to 250 AD), Classic (250 to 950 AD) and Post-Classic (950 to 1540 AD) periods. The Post-Classic period ends upon contact with the Spaniards in the early 1500s.
The Mayans were skilled at agriculture, astronomy, mathematics and language (among other things). They grew a diverse number of crops and had a plentiful food source which was surely helpful while building the many roads, walls and towering stone temples of the region. Many of these structures, including Chichen Itza’s Kukulcan Temple, align with the sun and significant dates of the calendar including the solstices and equinoxes. The Mayans also used zero in their numbering and calculations — something only three cultures around the world established independently before zero was more widely adopted around the world. The Mayan calendar is also of note, with a short form and long form, both highly accurate and correlating to the 365-day calendar in use today.
Mayan history was recorded in a sophisticated writing system of logo-grams and syllabic glyphs, most of which have been deciphered from a handful of surviving codices and quite a few remaining inscribed stone stelae around the region. In the 1970s, a small group of scholars engaged in some deep group thinking that finally cracked the code.
And lastly, for all you sports fans (what a great weekend, by the way)… the Mayans played ulama — a game with a rubber ball in a stone court. We’ll visit two of these courts, the largest of which is at Chichen Itza.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the fascinating advancements of Mayan civilization. I hope you find it all as compelling as I do! Tomorrow, we’ll have a look around Ek Balam and the distinguishing features of this site from the Pre-Classic period.
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.