Thursday, November 22, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Conquest, Colonization, & Piracy

The Spanish land in the New World. There is a lot going on in this early painting. Three heavily-armed Spaniards stand arrogantly before natives who bring gifts to these strange new people. In the background, other Spaniards raise a cross, symbolic of the Spiritual Conquest that moved in lockstep with the brutal Military Conquest. In the upper right, other natives flee, perhaps exercising more good sense than the ones who brought gifts which only inflamed Spanish greed.

From the 9th to the 12th centuries AD, Yucatan had been dominated by Chichen Itza. In the 12th century, the city of Mayapan surpassed Chichen Itza and become the leader of a great confederation of Maya states. However, in the 15th century a revolt split the confederation into individual city-states. By the time of the Spanish arrival, the Maya world of the Yucatan Peninsula had become politically fragmented into sixteen chieftaincies, constantly warring among themselves. Two of these, Chactemal and Uaymil, occupied most of the present Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The trading center of B'ak Halal (modern Bacalar) belonged to Uaymil, while the chieftaincy of Chactemal included the modern location of Quintana Roo's capital, Chetumal.


Shipwrecked Spanish sailor Gonzalo Guerrero, with his Maya family. The very first Spaniards who arrived in Yucatan were not the arrogant conquerors shown in the previous painting. They were the crew of a ship sailing from Darien (Panama) to Hispanola (Santo Domingo). Their vessel sank near Jamaica and the survivors drifted in a lifeboat to the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. There, they were captured by Maya warriors. Some of the crew were sacrificed and others died of disease. However, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero survived and were kept as slaves.

After two years, the two were separated when Guerrero was given as a gift to the chief of Chactemal. He assimilated into the Maya culture and took a Maya wife. His three children were the very first Mexican mestizos (mixed Spanish and indigenous). Using his Spanish military skills, he proved himself as a leader of warriors and rose to a high level in Maya society. In 1519, Hernán Cortéz arrived on the island of Cozumel, off the Yucatan coast. There, he found and rescued Jerónimo Aguilar, but could not persuade Guerrero to join his expedition. Guerrero clearly recognized that Cortéz represented the coming of the Conquest and decided that his loyalty was now to his Maya community. For several years he led their forces in fierce resistance to the Spanish invaders. Ultimately,  Guerrero was killed battling them in Honduras.


War dogs attack native prisoners while Spanish gentlemen enjoy the spectacle. The Spanish professed horror at the human sacrifice they encountered in the New World, but they practiced a good deal of it themselves. They brought the Inquisition with them from Spain, which resulted in the burning of quite a number of people at the stake. The Inquisition also utilized numerous other forms of Old World torture, refined over the millennia. The victims were often native priests and shamans who refused Christianity and continued to practice the ancient religions. War captives were also brutally treated for the offense of resisting Spanish domination. Sometimes, however, they were just people rounded up to provide amusing spectacles like the one shown above.

The Spanish found the Maya a much more difficult population to conquer than the Aztecs of central Mexico. The hierarchical political structure of the Aztec Empire enabled the Spanish to quickly seize control. It took Hernán Cortéz only two years, from 1519 to 1521 to defeat the Aztecs and capture Tenochtitlán, their capital. On the other hand, Francisco de Montejo received permission in 1526 to conquer and colonize Yucatan. In contrast to the Spanish experience with the Aztecs, this task took 20 years, and was not completed until 1546. B'ak Halal was one of the last cities captured. According to a sign at Fuerte San Felipe, at Bacalar, "In 1544, on top of the corpses and rubble of B'ak Halal, the Spanish founded the Villa de Salamanca de Bacalar."

The primary difference between the Maya and the Aztec conquests was the decentralized Maya political structure. Each chieftaincy had to be conquered, one at a time. Often, they didn't stay conquered and rebellions had to be suppressed. Tayasal, located in northern Guatemala, was the last Maya kingdom to be captured. However, its conquest took until 1697. That was 171 years after Francisco Montejo began his assault on the Maya of Yucatan and 178 years after Hernán Cortéz marched on the Aztecs.


New World wealth flows to Spain


Spanish galleon of the type used from the 16th to the 18th centuries. These ships were armed with numerous cannon and carried rich cargos. As such, they were both the battleships and supertankers of their day. The first galleon was designed in the 1550s by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and advisor to the king. The raised structures on the bow and stern, called the forecastle and aftercastle, were good for defense but also made the galleon much less nimble than smaller, lighter ships. In the 17th century, the flagship of Spain's Flota de Indias (West Indies fleet) was called the San Martin.

Just as soon as a colony was established, commerce would begin to flow. Silver, gold, and other luxury products were shipped exclusively to either Seville or Cadiz in Spain, so that the king could be sure to receive his Quinta (Royal Fifth) of the treasure. All the products needed by the colonists were carried from Spain to Bacalar and the many other settlements on or near the New World's coasts. The Spanish Crown established strict rules for this commerce. Until the reforms of the 1780s, colonists were forbidden from trading with any other nation, or even with other Spanish colonies. All goods they imported had to be produced in Spain and transported by Spanish ships. As time went on, these rules were difficult to enforce and the result was considerable smuggling.


This octante was one of numerous navigational instruments used on Spanish ships. An octante measured the height of the stars in order to find the longitude of the ship at a given point in time. The arc at the base represents an octavo (1/8) of the circumference of a complete circle, hence the name of the instrument. The octante was the predecessor of the sextant, a navigational instrument still used today. Other navigational aids included a brújula marina (marine compass), reloj de arena (hourglass), astrolabio planisférico (measures the altitude of the sun over the horizon), and nocturlabio (determines the hour at night).


Two other types of Spanish ships used in the Caribbean. The ship of the line (top) was a style of warship developed by Spain in the 17th century. The "line" refers to the battle line formed during naval warfare. Such ships continued in use into the second half of the 19th century. A ship of the line had three decks armed with cannon, making it a formidable instrument of battle. It had a lower aftercastle than a galleon, and no forcastle, so was quicker and more maneuverable.

The brig (bottom) was a fast and very maneuverable ship developed in the second half of the 17th century. It had two masts with large square sails as well as a jib sail on the mainmast. Because it was smaller and quicker than a ship of the line or a galleon, it was better suited to chase the pirates that began to plague the Caribbean as early as the 16th century.


African slavery follows native population crash


A Spaniard whips a hapless native with a cat 'o nine tails. Whipping recalcitrant natives was a popular method of keeping them in line. Even the evangelizing friars utilized this form of punishment, sometimes because an indigenous person failed to show up for mass or some other religious occasion. Spanish abuse and massacres killed off substantial number of natives, but imported European diseases were the main cause of the drastic decline of the indigenous population. These diseases arrived with Cortéz's expedition, as well as with later Spanish immigrants. Wave after wave of epidemics afflicted the natives with diseases for which they had no resistance. Between 1650 and 1750,  in many areas as much as 90% of the indigenous population died.

It was one thing for the Spanish to kill off some natives through massacres or abuse. It was disastrous to lose 90% of the workforce, since the Spanish depended on the native population for nearly all forms of manual labor. Every Spaniard, after all, wanted to consider him/herself part of the gentry and above all that. Burgeoning industries such as mining, textiles, and sugar production were very labor intensive and required a workforce that could survive long hours of work and periodic epidemics. The solution chosen by the Spanish (and later by the English and French) was African slavery.


Slave ships were typically packed tight and many people died during the journey. Even a substantial loss of life during transit would not inhibit great profits at the end. In 1501, the first African slaves in the Americas were brought to the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispanola. This was 118 years before they were imported to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Interestingly, the first African slaves to arrive in mainland North America came in 1519 with the Cortéz expedition. One of them was infected with smallpox, leading to the first great epidemic among the native people. Smallpox caused the death of Cuitláhuac, Emperor Moctezuma's immediate successor, which weakened the Aztec defense against the Spanish invaders.

In 2006, the remains of four African slaves were unearthed at a colonial-era graveyard in Campeche, an early Spanish seaport on the Gulf Coast of Yucatan. The bones are those of young-to-middle aged men and date from about 1550 to the late 1600s. This period matches the time of the indigenous population crash. The Spanish bought their slaves through the Portuguese, who controlled the African slave trade from West African posts they had established in the late 1400s. In addition to working in mining, textiles, and sugar production, African slaves were employed as household servants by wealthy Spaniards living the colonial cities.


Spanish soldiers brand the face of a newly arrived African slave, while others wait their turn. One grinning soldier wields the brand while another stands on the slave's ankle restraints and grips his neck so that he can't avoid the hot iron. Faces were branded so that someone who was a slave could be immediately identified as such.

Since these horrific events occurred many centuries ago, there is sometimes a tendency to view them as just the way things were done in those days. We should not forget that the Nazis, Japanese, and Soviets all employed large-scale slave labor as recently as the mid-20th century. In fact, slavery continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. It is estimated that there are between 21 million and 70 million enslaved people worldwide, depending upon the the definition of slavery and the method of counting them.


The rise of piracy


A small boat packed with pirates maneuvers around a lumbering galleon. Piracy in the New World started early. One of the first documented attacks occurred in 1523, when a French corsario (privateer) named Jean Fleury captured two Spanish galleons packed with Aztec treasure. Hernán Cortéz had overthrown the Aztec Empire only the year before and was sending the booty back to Spain.

Jean Fleury was a privateer, or state-sponsored pirate, who operated out of Dieppe on the coast of Normandy. The treasure he captured was intended for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose domain included Spain. Instead, it ended up in the hands of the French King Francis I, a rival of Charles V. Fleury's haul included gold bullion, enameled gold and jade, emeralds, pearls, works of art such as mosaic masks covered with fine stones, as well as exotic animals. On the same voyage, he also captured a Spanish ship out of Hispanola carrying gold, pearls, sugar and cowhides valued at 20,000 pesos.

Before these spectacular seizures, the other nations of Europe were unaware of the wealth to be had on the mainland of the Americas. Soon, however, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico swarmed with ships sent by the other European powers. Some were privateers, while others were outright pirates. A couple of years after his seizure of Cortéz' treasure ships, Fleury was captured by the Spanish while on another privateering voyage. Despite his legal status as a privateer, Charles V declared him a pirate and hanged him to set an example.


Sloops like this were among the favorite vessels of pirates, particularly in the 18th century. Although much smaller than a galleon, ship of the line, or a brig, the sloop was fast and agile. It could easily catch a slow-moving galleon or other merchant ship. If a more powerful ship suddenly appeared, the pirate sloop could slip away into the maze of reefs and islands along the New World coasts. The bigger pursuer would think twice about following for fear of running aground.

In the 16th century, the main sources of wealth flowing from the New World to the Old were precious minerals such as gold and silver, cotton, and wood from Campeche on the coast of Yucatan. As previously discussed, the lucrative African slave trade flowed in the opposite direction.

A Papal Bull, promulgated in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, had divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. This document excluded the other European powers, who were eager to gain markets and new sources of wealth. For almost a century, their attempts to set up their own colonies were blocked by the Papal Bull, backed up by Spanish military power. In response, the French, English, and Dutch governments licensed privateers to seize what they could of the Spanish largesse.


Pirate weapons of the 17th and 18th centuries. At the top is an 18th century flintlock "blunderbuss". This was a smoothbore weapon that could be loaded with a large lead ball or used as a shotgun for fighting at close quarters. The two 17th century boarding swords (also known as cutlasses) were used when pirates clambered aboard a merchant ship to assault its crew. The long, heavy blades of the cutlasses made them fearsome weapons, while the metal guards surrounding the hilts protected the hands of the men wielding them. The two 17th century pistols are smoothbore flintlocks. The top pistol is of German manufacture while the bottom is English.


Pirates sack and burn Havana. Galleons were not the only targets of pirates and privateers. They also attacked ports like Havana and inland towns like Bacalar, where treasure was gathered for shipment to Spain. Bacalar, although set back a few miles from the Caribbean coast, was repeatedly captured and plundered in a manner similar to what you see above. Sometimes the attacks occurred with the connivance of the local colonists. The Spanish Crown set a policy that towns like Bacalar could not trade with foreigners, or even with other Spanish colonies. In addition, all goods arriving in New World ports had to originate in Spain and be transported by Spanish ships. To get around these onerous rules, colonists engaged in smuggling and some connived with pirates if the price was right.


Plano, or map, of Bacalar in 1746, showing Fuerte San Felipe. Because of incessant pirate attacks, the Spanish Crown began to fortify its colonial ports and towns. Fuerte (Fort) San Felipe was constructed in 1729, after a particularly brutal pirate attack on Bacalar in the late 17th century. The plano shows the fort situated on a bluff overlooking Lago de Balacar. The fort is square, with diamond-shaped bastions on each corner. All approaches to the fort could be covered by the cannons mounted within the bastions. The rectangular structure inside the fort housed troops, store supplies, and served as an administrative center. Fuerte San Felipe is an excellent example of colonial-era Spanish military architecture. In my next posting, I'll give you a detailed look at the fort, as well as outlining some of its interesting history.

This completes my posting on the Conquest, Colonization, and Piracy that marked the colonial era in the Southern Yucatan Peninsula. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that you will please leave any thoughts or comments in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim












Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Bacalar's pre-hispanic heritage


Maya village as it might have appeared when the Spanish arrived in 1543. The individual homes stood on raised platforms, with walls made of upright sticks and roofs of thatched palm fronds. Household work was largely an outside activity, performed on the small terraces surrounding the houses or in other public areas. This included some of the tasks seen above, such as grinding corn or using a back-strap loom to weave cotton or other fibers. 

The original name of Bacalar was B'ak Halal, meaning "Surrounded by Reeds". It was founded in 435 AD by the Itzaes, one of several Maya groups within the Putun culture. The Putun tribes migrated from the Gulf Coast of the modern state of Tabasco into the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. They brought the cultural influences of Central Mexican civilizations like Teotihuacán and passed these influences on to the people they encountered along the way. Around 900 AD, when the Classic-Era Maya civilization collapsed, some of the Itzaes moved further north and founded a great city called Chichén Itzá ("Well of the Itzaes"). The Putunes were seafarers who established trading posts all along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of the Peninsula. B'ak Halal prospered as a center of trade within this network until the Spanish arrival.


The "daily grind" of pre-hispanic Maya life. A woman grinds maiz (corn) on a flat, stone tray called a metate, using a stone roller called a mano. She kneels on a woven reed mat called a petate. Surrounding her metate are various clay pots and woven baskets used for storing and preparing food. 

Behind the woman, a hammock can be seen through the doorway of her house. The first known hammocks were made by the people of Central and South America more than 1000 years ago. However, they didn't arrive in the Yucatan Peninsula until about 1300 AD. The earliest of these sleeping nets were woven from the bark of the Hammack tree, hence the name. When slung between poles or trees, hammocks were ideal for hot weather and enabled the sleeper to avoid dangerous snakes and insects on the ground. Hammocks were first encountered by Europeans when Columbus visited the Caribbean islands in 1492. In 1590, European navies began to use them as sailors' beds because they could easily be stored when not in use, clearing the sleeping area for other purposes.

Village economy

Canoe typical of those used in Lago de Bacalar for trading. Notice the turtle shells arranged in the stern of the trader's boat. These were used as drums or were sometimes carved into jewelry. Other items of trade included jade, shells, feathers, gold, cotton, wax, honey, and salt. Such goods were favored over agricultural products because small, relatively light luxury products were easier to transport and yielded higher profits. 

B'ak Halal's lakeshore site was ideal for trade. Moving goods north or south by canoe was much easier and cheaper than hauling them through the jungle on the backs of porters. Since the southern tip of the lake was only a few kilometers from the Rio Hondo, goods could easily be portaged and then paddled up the river into the interior or downstream into Bahia de Chetumal and the Caribbean. To guide themselves, the traders used maps painted on cotton cloth. The most important medium of exchange was the cacao bean, although other items were sometimes used. In addition to its importance as a trading center, B'ak Halal also produced many of the canoes used by traders and fishermen. 



Everyday life required a variety of tools. On the top row are (from the left) three axes, two manos and a metate. Among those on the bottom are a variety of cutting tools of various sizes. Also present are two round stones. One of these may be for pounding and the other (on the far right with a hole through its center) may be for straightening the shafts of arrows. All the tools show excellent craftsmanship and the stones for several seem to have been chosen for their intrinsic beauty. 



Maya woman using a back-strap loom. Weaving materials included cotton and other local fibers. Wool, however, did not arrive until the Spanish brought European sheep. The weavers produced their cloth for trade as well as for local use. The backstrap loom is a very ancient technology and the Maya were not the only ones who developed it. I recently saw a statue from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing a woman using an almost identical rig. However, there is no evidence of cultural interaction between the New and Old Worlds after the hunter-gatherers passed across the Bering Strait to populate the Americas. Many millennia after those early migrations, looms like this came into use. Like metates and various other ancient technologies, back-strap looms are still used in Mexico. Just last week, in the Mexican village where I live, I photographed an indigenous woman using a back-strap loom to create beautiful textiles for the tourist trade.

Maya homes

A Maya nah. I have seen relief sculptures on temples at the ancient Maya city of Uxmal that look just like this. Similar to back-strap looms, the ancient nah design has persisted into modern times. A visitor to any pueblo in the Yucatan Peninsula will almost certainly encounter currently occupied homes of the same type. The typical nah is built by the owner him/herself from locally obtained materials. While it looks rustic, even primitive, the structure is a model of rationality, economy, and functional design. If the walls are constructed from upright sticks, the style is called chuychée. If the sticks are woven horizontally, it is called kolkolchée. The thatched roof is made from palm fronds and both the sticks and the fronds are readily available in the local forest. The space between the sticks in the walls allows for a free flow of air in the warm, humid climate. The high ceiling allows warm air to rise and escape through the thatched roof.


Detail of a thatched roof. The thatch, called guanoo or xaann, allows warm air and smoke from hearth fires to escape. Rain runs off rapidly, due to the waterproofing properties of the smoke from the wood cooking fires. If properly constructed and maintained, a roof like this will last for up to 30 years. One problem is insect infestations. A group of archeologists who stayed in a traditional village were consternated by the periodic appearance of army ant swarms and sought some way to deter them. However, they soon noticed that the local people welcomed the ants. Swarming over everything as it passed, the ant invasion caused the insects in the houses to flee to avoid being consumed. Once the army ants had marched on, the villagers could move back into their now insect-free homes. And, unlike exterminators in the First World, the ants charged nothing for their services.


Two doors face each other, on the front and back of the house. There are no windows. The typical nah is oval-shaped and measures 8m (26 ft) long and 4m (13 ft) wide. In ancient times, the house was built on a raised, limestone platform so as to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The platform was surfaced with a layer of lime plaster, creating a relatively smooth floor. 


Ceiling of the nah, at one end of the oval. A nah ceiling typically rises 5m (16 ft) from the floor to its peak. This height allows the warm air to rise so that the thatch can pass it through, helping to keep the lower part of the nah cooler during the hot season. The oval shape of the nah is ideal for resisting the hurricane winds that lash the coasts of Yucatan every year.


The structure is secured by four main posts, two on each side of the nah. Notice how the fork of a tree has been used to make the joint when the vertical post meets a horizontal cross-support and a rafter. All parts of the nah are held together by jungle vines and twine made of sisal.


Food and its preparation

Foods consumed by both the ancient and modern Maya. Calabasa (squash) and maiz (corn) are in two of the baskets. I have not been able to identify what appears to be fruit in the third basket. Many Maya still practice traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. This method rids the area of insects while fertilizing the soil with the ash. Next, using a pole with a pointed end, the farmer makes a row of holes in the ground. Into these, he drops kernels of maiz and frijol (bean) seeds. As they grow, the beans gather nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, nourishing the roots of the maiz plant. The maiz stalk, in turn, provides a stable surface on which the frijol plant can climb. Calabasa is planted in between the rows. Growing low to the ground and having broad leaves, the squash inhibits weeds. Thus, three crops can be harvested from one field every season. Each supports the growth of the others and the overall process requires much less effort than if they were grown separately. This method of farming has been used since ancient times and continues in use today. 


Wood bench displaying a variety of gourd containers. Gourds are possibly the oldest form of containers used by humans, pre-dating pottery and even baskets. Unlike the latter two, they grow in the wild and don't have to be woven or shaped from clay. Gourds, once dried and cleaned out, are light and sturdy. Their shapes naturally suggest a variety of uses, such as canteens, dippers, bowls, cooking pots, and storage containers for both liquid and dry foods. 


Slinging a basket from a tripod is a simple way to store things up off the ground. This helps keep insects and other critters out of the contents. The use of tripods was widespread in Mesoamerica. Pottery or furniture supported by tripods is much more stable and balanced than similar objects which have four legs. Anyone who has tried to even-up the legs on a four-legged table will know what I mean.


A comal, or cooking griddle, is supported by three chunks of limestone. When in use, the three stones form the boundary of the fire and a good tripod for the comal. This Mesoamerican cooking device dates back to 700 BC. Although the traditional clay comal has largely been supplanted by the metal version seen above, the function is identical. Maiz was central to the diet of the pre-hispanic Maya, as well as the rest of the settled peoples of Mesoamerica. It was first domesticated in southern Mexico around 6700 BC. The ancient method of preparation is still in use in many Mexican households. The kernels are first dried and then soaked in a limewater solution called nixtamal to break down the cellulose. The softened kernels are then ground into a powder on the metate and mixed with water to make a dough called masa. The dough is shaped into thin, circular cakes by slapping it between the palms of the hands. When cooked on a comal, these become tortillas, central to the diet of Mexicans since early pre-hispanic times. 

This completes my posting on Maya life in ancient times. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please leave your email address so that I can respond. 

Hasta luego, Jim










Monday, October 29, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Lago de Bacalar and the town that bears its name

A long pier extends into Lake Bacalar with palm-roofed palapas at its end. One of our priorities during our adventure to the Southern Yucatan Peninsula was to visit Lago de Bacalar, famous for its crystal-clear water. The lake has been important to people living in the area since pre-hispanic times. Today, it is a popular attraction for young, back-packer types, as well as older folks like us. In this posting, I'll give you a peek at the lake and the small town on its western shore that bears the same name. In later postings, I'll provide some history about the area, including pirate raids and bloody Maya revolts.


Lago de Bacalar winds snake-like through the low, coastal jungle. At several points, it bulges like a python that has swallowed a pig. Mostly, however, the lake is quite narrow along its 42 km (26 mi) length. At its widest, it is only about 2 km (1.24 mi) across. The lake extends from the southwest to the northeast, roughly parallel to the shore of Bahia de Chetumal. The lake's southernmost point is only a few kilometers from Rio Hondo, a river that flows eastward from the interior of the Peninsula to the Bay. This geography meant that Lake Bacalar was an ideal route for ancient traders, since it was always easier to paddle a canoe full of trade goods than carry them on your back. Traders traveling from north to south could portage their goods to Rio Hondo and then paddle into the interior or out to Chetumal Bay and the Caribbean coast.


Another pier, with two palapas, extends out from a lakeside hotel. Lago de Bacalar is famous for the clarity of its deep blue water, enhanced by the white limestone bottom. The freshwater lake is fed by underground rivers that emerge into open pools called cenotes (limestone sinkholes). Because of the porosity of the Peninsula's limestone base, it has almost no lakes or rivers. Lake Bacalar is by far the biggest body of surface water. Its source is the world's largest subterranean cave system, with 450 km (280 mi) of natural tunnels


Map of the town of Bacalar. Route 307 curves through the center from south (left) to north (right). While the town extends west of the highway, most of it lies to the east, between the highway and the lakeshore. As of the 2010 census, Bacalar had 11,084 residents, making it the second largest city in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. Only Chetumal is larger. When the Spanish arrived in 1543, Bacalar was already a city. The Maya called it B'ak Halal, which means "surrounded by reeds". It was the first place the Spanish conquered in the area and, when they did, the Maya name was transformed into "Bacalar".


A kiosco stands in the middle of a well-maintained plaza. Surrounding the plaza are various restaurants and tourist facilities. While most of the town is made up of modern 20th and 21st century buildings, a few colonial structures have survived. The most impressive of these is an 18th century Spanish fort called Fuerte de San Felipe.


A cannon points out toward the lake from a bastion at Fuerte San Felipe. The fort was constructed in 1729 to guard against the pirate attacks that, for centuries, plagued Spain's colonial possessions in the New World. The old colonial city of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula's Gulf Coast, is still surrounded by fortifications similar to the ones at Fuerte San Felipe. Along the shoreline below the fort, you can see some of the town's many hotels and restaurants.


The fort's thick exterior walls are surrounded by a deep moat. Part of the moat can be seen above, just beyond the wall in the foreground. The walls were built with limestone, which is readily available in the area. The crenellations (slotted sections) along the top of the wall would have been used by soldiers to shelter themselves while they pointed their muskets through the openings. After Bacalar was sacked by pirates in the 17th century, the Spanish Crown finally provided the resources to built the fort. In a future posting, I will show more of Fuerte San Felipe's fortifications, as well as relics of the piracy that plagued the area.


The palapas at the end of the piers are relatively simple structures. Set on rough pilings driven into the lakebed and roofed by thatched palm fronds, the structures offer shade from the intense sun of the warmer months. Since the structure is completely surrounded by water, it remains fairly cool, even on a hot day. If an occupant gets over-warm, s/he has only to hop into the water for a refreshing dip. In the cooler months of winter, when we visited, it can get pretty windy in the Peninsula's coastal areas. In that case, the palapa's walls offer some protection.


Lily pads along the lakeshore. Lake Bacalar is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. It also contains a large quantity of stromatolites, which are sheet-like sedimentary rocks that have the appearance of cauliflower. They were formed by single-cell photosynthesizing microbes called cyanobacteria, the oldest life form on earth. Such fossilized formations are very rare in the world.


Tourists frolic in the lake's sparkling water while a sailboat cruises in the distance. The folks in sailboats were probably thrilled by the wind, even if it did kick up the water a bit. Despite the water's choppiness that day, it didn't seem to deter tourists from enjoying a swim.

View of Fuerte San Felipe from the end of one of the piers. The Spanish built the fort so it would dominate approaches to the town from the water. Quite a number of boats were available for tours of the lake and we thought about hiring a launch. However, with the water so rough, we decided to spend our limited time exploring the fort's excellent museum and strolling the shoreline.


There are quite a number of lakefront restaurants. There are many places to dine and they kind of blend into one another. We decided to just wander around until someplace caught our fancy.


Entrance to the restaurant we picked for lunch. Unfortunately, I didn't note the name of the place, but it is on the southern end of the town's lakefront and easy to find. You have a choice of the covered patio, the garden, or a table right on the water. As you can see, there is enough seating that you really don't need a reservation. The menu choices are primarily Mexican dishes, with a good selection of seafood.


Tables by the water offer grand views of the lake. However, the wind was pretty strong at this point, so we picked a more sheltered spot in the restaurant's garden. Because we wanted to visit the Maya ruins of Chacchoben, a few miles north of the lake, we didn't spend more than a few hours at Bacalar. The town would be worth a return visit, perhaps even for an overnight stay. Bacalar is an easy drive from Chetumal and you pass through some lovely country along the way.

This completes my first posting on Bacalar and its beautiful lake. In the next one, I'll tell you a bit about the area's dramatic history. If you'd like to ask a question or leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, please provide your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Oxtankah's Plaza de Tortugas, the Astronomer's Pyramid, and the Early Colonial Open Chapel

The North Platform of Structure I in Plaza de Tortugas (Turtle Plaza). This platform should not be confused with Structure I of the Plaza de Abejas. The one above was part of a palace laid out on a north-to-south axis. In the photo, you are looking southth along its top toward the Central Edifice, beyond which is another long narrow platform. Together, these structures form the eastern side of the Plaza de Tortugas. The Turtle Plaza is situated between the Plaza de Abejas and Plaza de Columnas (shown in the last two postings). The Structure I palace faces west toward the un-excavated structures of Plaza Tortugas.


The Central Edifice of Structure I rises slightly above the platforms on either side. The two platforms extend to the north and south like wings. All of these may have once had structures on their tops made of perishable materials. Oddly, the broad staircase has a narrow set of stairs built into it on the right. The narrow stairs may have had some special, ceremonial function or this may simply be a product of different construction phases. Other than their names, I have been unable to find any information about Structure 1 or the Plaza de Tortugas. There were no on-site informational markers and Structure 1 doesn't even appear on most site maps, even those in the detailed archeological reports I Googled up.


The South Platform of Structure I forms its right wing. The Central Edifice can be seen in the upper right corner of the photo. Why there is so little mention of Structure I is a mystery to me. It has been well-excavated and can't be missed on the trail between the two main ceremonial plazas. I have described it as a palace, because it somewhat resembles the palaces in the two main plazas. However, it could have had religious or administrative purposes as well. It also occurred to me that the long, low staircases would have provided excellent audience seating for religious processions between the Plazas of Abejas and Columnas.


One of the local residents is also a mystery. I scoured hundreds iguana photos on Google Images and could find none that resembled this handsome guy. He was sunning himself in front of Structure I when I encountered him. I would greatly appreciate an i.d. from any lizard experts out there. Notice the bright orange end of its tail. Iguanas and some other lizards are able to detach part of their tails when they are threatened. The detached part writhes and wriggles to distract the predator while the iguana escapes.


Structure XI: The Astronomer's Pyramid


Structure XI, the Astronomer's Pyramid, is a mix of architectural phases. The earliest phase is the broad, circular base, seen in the foreground. This may have had an astronomical function, hence the name. The top section, built at a later time, is a square, five-stepped pyramid. The narrow staircase in the center of the photo is the main entrance to the square pyramid.


View of Structure XI from the right. The Astronomer's Pyramid is part of small group of buildings called the Plaza de Kanjobal. The other structures of the plaza are un-excavated mounds of rubble.


Side view of the stepped levels of the circular base. Virtually all of the pyramids in Mesoamerica are "stepped" meaning that their base is the broadest part, with each level above being somewhat smaller, kind of like a wedding cake. The ramón trees in the foreground are ubiquitous at Oxtankah. Their roots have broken up many of the walls and steps of the various structures here.


Limestone chultun located near the Astronomer's Pyramid. There are very few above-ground sources of fresh water in Yucatan. In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes (limestone sink holes) provide the primary source. However, in the Southern Peninsula, they are scarce. The ancient Maya solved this problems by cutting bottle-shaped chambers, called chultunes, down into the limestone. Drainage channels were then cut to the chultunes so that rainwater runoff from buildings and plazas could be collected and stored.

The Early Franciscan Open Chapel

The enclosed areas of Open Chapels are relatively small. Capillas Abiertas (Open Chapels) became distinctive features of Mexican Catholic architecture during the early 16th century Spiritual Conquest of Nueva España (Mexico). They were used by Franciscan friars as they evangelized indigenous populations. The mass conversions conducted during this period meant that there were often thousands of people who attended services. Building churches that would fit them all was beyond the resources of the friars. Most of Mexico's great cathedrals and basilicas were still a century into the future. In addition, the indigenous people were accustomed to attending pagan rituals conducted in the open air in front of their temples.

The friars' solution was to gather the indigenous people they were evangelizing into a large, un-roofed area, called an atrium. Facing the atrium would be a simple, open-faced chapel. The area behind the arch, called the presbytery, was roofed, but the archway itself was kept open so people could see the rituals that were being conducted. To the left of the presbytery is a sacristy where priestly vestments and other religious articles were kept. The room on the right, accessed from the front of the chapel, may have been used for administrative purposes or as temporary quarters for the itinerant friars.



 The presbytery and altar. At the back of the presbytery is a raised area containing the altar. Oxtankah's Capilla Abierta was built in 1544, shortly after the conquest of the region around Chetumal Bay. It is quite similar to the one we saw at Dzibilchaltún, a pre-hispanic Maya ruin near Mérida in northern Yucatan. The Spanish often constructed their churches and chapels in areas that indigenous people had been venerating for centuries. Oxtankah had long been a sacred precinct to the local Maya, even during the period of its abandonment between 600-900 AD. Thus, it is not surprising that this Capilla Abierta was built only a stone's throw from the Plaza Abejas.

This concludes my series on the ancient Maya city of Oxtankah. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim