Mérida: “Archaeology is a science but not like physics or chemistry, it’s based on interpretation.” Wise words from Pepe, our guide to the ruined Mayan cities of Uxmal and Kabah, and a truth that’s often forgotten in the rush to recreate the past. The words for ‘story’ and ‘history’ are the same in many languages.
The problem is, when confronted by a pile of stones and very little information, it is human nature to fill in the gaps and incredibly frustrating (for me, at least) to be told “we simply don’t know”. But that is the truth about much of the 3500 years of Mayan civilisation that left enormous pyramids, writings (much of which was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors), languages that continue to thrive and, of course, a people, who live from the Yucatán peninsula, across Chiapas, through Guatemala and Belize.
Uxmal, at the western end of Yucatán near the border of Campeche, is the site of a large city that once housed an estimated 30,000 people, which is quite an achievement considering it is one of the few Mayan cities to be built far from a water source. The city planners constructed plenty of large underground rainfed reservoirs, which were lined with concrete, produced by mixing lime, water and a local plant-based polymer from a tree that’s similar to the rubber tree. Mayan concrete was used everywhere in the city’s construction, allowing the well-cut stone bricks to be held together in elaborate designs without the need for plaster.
This city is younger than Tikal, dating from around 100-900 AD, and this and the fact that the buildings have carved designs (rather than painted stucco) means that a lot more of the Mayan artistry survives. What does survive, lovely as it is, leaves much to the imagination and conjecture of archaeologists who glean their information from contemporary writings and the few clues left behind.
We find plenty of religious symbolism, including the diamond-back rattlesnake, the rain god Chac, monsters and demons, phallic displays, owls, quetzal birds and turtles. We also find depictions of rulers (including the famous dwarf king), warriors with prominent penis displaying signs of ritual blood-letting, and evidence of invasion by another tribe.
The Mayans are just one of MesoAmerica’s tribes – perhaps the best known, the Aztecs, invaded lands all the way down the west coast from Mexico to Nicaragua (Nicaragua and Guatemala are both named from the Aztec language). Between the two were the Toltecs and it was this northern tribe that invaded the region. Among the ruins of nearby Kabah, we find stone carvings depicting Toltec warrior-rulers, with their characteristic facial scarring, standing dominant over a naked, defeated Mayan.
We head north through dry subtropical forest and the occasional plantation of vegetables or agave, a cactus that produces tequila and mescal liquor, and which may prove a neglected biofuel source. Scientists at the nearby Yucatan Center for Scientific Research last month published a series of papers that claim the semi-arid crop produces far greater biomass per hectare than other crops from sugarcane to eucalypt, requires far less water and absorbs far more CO2. The wonder crop could be used everywhere from Africa to Asia to the Americas in drought-ridden places where food crops could not survive, the researchers say.
An hour’s drive away, lies the colonial city of Mérida. It’s the Yucatán’s capital and was literally built from the ruins of an earlier Mayan city (T’ho). The cathedral and other grand buildings in the historic centre are constructed in carved stones from T’ho’s five pyramids, which give the city a venerable air that seems to predate its 1542 Spanish founding – Mérida is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the Americas.
We stroll around its clean orderly streets (there aren’t even any stray dogs here ), eat Mayan specialities such as Poc-Chuc (boiled pork) and my favourite, Sopa de Lima (lime-based chicken soup).
Our visit coincides with a festival to mark the city’s founding, so we watch parades of local dances and music influenced by everywhere from Spain to Cuba.
The streets are full of old-style VW Beetles and in the plazas we see young people playing with small bejewelled beetles about the size of a cockroach. The locals are effortlessly friendly and polite, perhaps because there are so few tourists here, and the city seems to move at a steady efficient pace with none of the rush and squalor of some other Central American metropolises.
It’s all very calm and relaxing, except my camera’s broken so I can’t take any of my own pictures! Luckily, we still have Nick’s lovely photos.