Saturday, May 26, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 10: The Maya Cosmos

Incense burner shaped in the image of a Maya god. Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History (see also Part 9 of this series) contains an excellent section on Maya religion, including this burner for copal incense. The Maya worshiped a pantheon of at least two dozen major gods, and many other minor ones. Most of the gods ruled over multiple areas of life, and often these areas overlapped with other gods. In addition, a god might be known by several different names. All this tends to make Maya religion exceedingly complex. In general, Maya gods were benevolent, charitable, and accessible, unlike the severe and threatening gods of Central Mexico. The Maya gods could, however, punish those who didn't worship them with respect and the proper rituals. Unfortunately, not all of the artifacts depicting gods were labeled with their names. This handsome fellow may (or may not) be Ah Kin, god of the sun, or Ah Puch, god of death, or even Itzamna, the father of the gods.

Itzamna, the "father of the gods". This image was definitely identified as Itzamna (the Godfather, to you Mario Puso fans). He is both a hero and a god, making him a rather enigmatic figure. Itzamna ruled the heavens, controlling day and night. As such, he is related to the sun, the moon, rain, agriculture, maiz (corn), medicine, divination, and the celestial bodies of the Pleiades and Venus. He is also considered the god of knowledge and is credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing, the calendar, and the writing of the codices (religious texts and histories). He is usually represented, as in this statue, as old, lean-faced, with sunken cheeks, and toothless. Any of us would look like this, with all those responsibilities!

Hun Nal Yeh, the god of maiz and forests. Also known as Yum Kaax, he is unlike many of the other gods in his appearance. Most of the others, like Itzamna, are represented as old, haggard, and sometimes with monstrous features. Hun Nal Yeh, by contrast, appears as youthful, smooth-faced, and vigorous. Maiz, or corn, was the staff of life for the ancient Maya. They believed that humans were created from maiz by the Hero Twins, a pair of figures who were somewhat less than gods and somewhat more than human. Hun Nal Yeh also ruled the forests surrounding the Maya that produced most of the other foods and materials necessary for daily life. Overall, he represented abundance and prosperity. Hun Nal Yen was therefore an extremely important god, even though below Itzamna in the pecking order.

Another unnamed, but no doubt important, member of the pantheon. This statue is part of another large censer. In addition to an extravagant head dress, he is shown with a long, animal-like snout with his tongue hanging out like a panting dog. With his left hand, he holds out a small cup or pot, a gesture often seen in these god figures. The vessels often hold materials related to the area of life over which the god rules. His appearance and posture somewhat resemble Ah Puch, the god of death, also known as Yum Kimil, and Kisin. The titles of Ah Puch included Prince of Darkness and Lord of Drought. Oddly, he was seen as a timid sort, even though he was also related to sacrifice and war. The Maya saw the cosmos as 13 superimposed heavens, from the sky down to the earth. Below the earth were 9 additional levels, the lowest of which was Mitnal, over which Ah Puch ruled.

Sacred decorations

A human figure emerges from the open jaws of a snake (Uxmal between 800 AD -950 AD). This sculpture was once mounted high on a wall at Uxmal, one of the greatest of Yucatan's ancient cities. Uxmal was the most important city in the Puuc area south of Mérida, and remained important even after the Mexicanized Maya invaded and conquered it in the Post Classic era. Representations of human figures emerging from snakes' mouths are also found at Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, another of the curious similarities archaeologists have found between the these two geographically separated civilizations. When I first saw carvings like this, and the ones at Tollan, I thought the snake was devouring the human. Later, I learned that these are a symbols of rebirth. For the Maya death was not final, but merely one stage in a continuous cycle, represented by the disappearance and reappearance of Venus, the Morning Star.

An Atlantean, doing its bit to hold up the world. The figure probably was one of four holding up  corners of a stone altar, which represented the world. Atlanteans are yet another cultural crossover found both at Tollan and at Chichen Itza. In the Maya context, the figures were called Bacab and represented the four immensely strong gods who held up the four corners of the world, with each corner being one of the cardinal directions.

Stone censer, probably from Chichen Itza. One way of showing devotion to the gods was the burning of copal, a fragrant tree resin. Copal is actually a derivative of the Nahuatl word copalli, meaning "incense". The Maya call it pom, and continue to burn it as part of rituals that have ancient roots. The sculptured head of this censer has the look of the rigid, militarized society that emerged after the takeover by the Itzas.

Maya warfare

Stone head of a helmeted warrior (Chichen Itza between 850 AD-1100 AD). Up until the 1970s, many archaeologists believed the Maya to be peaceful stargazers and mystics. Then, experts like Linda Schele began to decode the Maya hieroglyphics, and a new picture emerged. It turned out that the last two descriptions were true, but they they were definitely not peaceful. Long before the Mexicanized Maya invasion of the 10th Century AD, the Maya city states in Yucatan, Chiapas, and Central America had fiercely warred among themselves. Sometimes the cause was dynastic, sometimes it was a struggle over trade routes or precious resources like jade deposits, and sometimes it may have been a quest for captives to sacrifice to the gods.

An ancient warrior crouches, ready for combat.  Clutching a spear in his right hand and a round shield in his left, he wears a helmet on his head and a ferocious, narrow-eyed expression. Armor would have been made of wood, leather, or quilted cotton. Warfare was an elite occupation in which the general population probably did not participate, except in case of the overthrow of a ruler. Armies were not large, probably in the range of 500-1000 men on a side, organized and led by a figure known as the Halach Uinic. Since there was a close relationship between religion and warfare, campaigns were often timed around celestial events such as the cycles of Venus.

A selection of Maya weapons. These include spear and arrow points, large blades for hand weapons, and smaller blades for daggers. On the upper right is the stone head of a club or hand axe. In general, our information about ancient battle tactics is unclear, but surprise attacks sometimes occurred like the one in which the ruler of the subordinate state of Quiriguá ambushed, captured, and sacrificed his overlord, the ruler of Copan. In a pitched battle, two armies would approach each other close enough to launch long-range missiles. To give extra distance and force, warriors often used the atlatl, or spear-thrower. Bows and arrows also were used, but not widely. When the distance weapons were exhausted, the armies would close for hand-to-hand combat, using their obsidian and chert bladed weapons. At this point, any discipline probably broke down and the battle would have become a melee between individuals. Since everyone knew the fate of captives was torture and sacrifice, the fighting would have been fierce.

The Ball Game

Nobles watch the ball players from the the walls of the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza. In overall size, this was the largest court in all of Mesoamerica, exceeded in length only by the court at the Guachimontanes in Western Mexico. The ball game served both religious and political purposes, and in many ways simulated combat. On a religious level, the struggle in the ball court reenacted that of the Hero Twins against the Lords of Xilbalba (the Underworld). In addition, the game was sometimes used as an alternative to war to settle disputes between city states. In the drawing above, you can see the Temple of Kulkulkan in the upper left background. On top of the wall to its right is the Temple of the Jaguars. Set into the far wall about 7 meters (21 ft) above the players is a stone ring which casts a long diagonal shadow across the wall.

Stone ring from the Ball Court of Oxkintok, dated 713 AD. Like Maya military tactics, the precise rules of the ball game are unclear. One way of scoring was apparently to pass the ball through the ring. This would have been exceedingly difficult since it was set so high on the wall, and the players could move the heavy rubber ball only with their hips, chests, and heads. One theory is that the object of the game, other than scoring through the ring, was somewhat like badminton, i.e. to keep the ball off the ground and in play. From the carvings on the walls at Chichen Itza, it is clear that some of the players were sacrificed after the game. Whether those accorded this dubious honor were the losers or the winners is the subject of an on-going dispute. Although the Maya built the greatest of all the ball courts, and played the game nearly everywhere in their world, they did not invent it. The ball game appears to have originated with the Olmecs who built the earliest known court in approximately 1400 BC. Today, indigenous people in the northern state of Sinaloa still play a version of the ball game called ullama (without human sacrifice, however).

Cenote offerings

Offerings thrown into cenotes ranged from small jade pieces to the occasional human being. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes formed when water filtering down to underground rivers weakens the limestone above. When it collapses, a circular or oval pit filled with water is formed. Cenotes are found along the stress lines in Yucatan's limestone shelf formed by the impact of the great meteor which hit the Yucatan coast 65 million years ago, killing off the earth's dinosaurs. Cenotes, along with the springs found in caves, formed the primary source of water for many of the pre-hispanic cities of northern Yucatan. Accordingly, water and caves strongly influenced Maya religious practices. They believed Chaac, the god of rain, lived in cenotes. The caves were viewed as entrances to Xibalba.

Carved jade cenote offering. The Maya saw jade as being of divine origin and much more important than gold. It was used both for religious objects and for personal decoration. Jade is a very hard material and therefore difficult to carve, especially with little more than stone or bone tools. Regardless, Maya craftsmen created countless exquisitely detailed pieces, as can be seen on the fragment above. The kinds of jade jewelry created included ear plugs, pendants, necklaces, masks, pectorals wristbands, bracelets, and even jade chips to insert into people's teeth.

Many jade necklaces were also found in the cenote. As a divine material, jade was associated with fertility, and the green shoots of new corn. Bodies of the dead, particularly royal figures and the nobility, were often adorned with jade jewelry. Pakal, the Great King of Palenque, was buried in his pyramid tomb wearing a beautifully constructed jade death mask. Dead kings wore such masks so that the Lords of Xibalba would accord him the proper respect. Jade beads were often placed in the mouths of the dead as a kind of spiritual food. Other objects offered up to cenotes, included copper and gold bells, masks, cups, figurines, and the human being. As the 20th Century dawned, American archaeologist Edward Thompson dredged the Chichen Itza cenote and recovered many of the objects already mentioned, but also the bones of men, women, and children.

The Cult of Death

Bust of a war captive from the Owl's Temple, Chichen Itza. By the expression on his face, this fellow is extremely unhappy with his situation. However, the real tipoff may be his crossed arms. This is a posture often found on images of captives, when they aren't shown with hands bound behind them. Given the jade bracelet on his right wrist, and his necklace, he was probably a noble captured in battle. The fate of such captives was rarely good, since high-status captives were nearly always sacrificed, sometimes after extensive torture. While it is true that human sacrifice in the Maya Classic Era world was never on the assembly-line basis found among the Aztecs of the Post-Classic world, it was far from rare. This became particularly true after the Itzas and other Mexicanized Mayas arrived on the scene. These Gulf Coast Maya tribes had wholeheartedly adopted the Toltec death cult and all of its images, as well as the sophisticated Toltec military organization and tactics which enabled their rapid conquest of Yucatan.

Chac Mool found at Chichen Itza. The concept of Chac Mools like the one above may have originated with the Toltecs, and many have been found at Tollan, their capital. Both there and at Chichen Itza, they are closely associated with warrior temples and human sacrifice. A Chac Mool nearly always has certain features. The figure lies on its back, knees bent, while leaning on its elbows. The head, always wearing a distinctive hat and large square ear projections, is turned and gazes off into the distance. The hands meet at the stomach and hold a bowl or plate, possibly to receive the still warm and bleeding heart of the freshly sacrificed captive.

Stone skulls from a tzompantli, or skull rack. Tzompantli are prominent features of both Chichen Itza and Tollan. In both ancient cities, great platforms stand on which skull racks once rose high. In both cities, these platforms are immediately adjacent to large ball courts, and not far from shrines to the eagle and jaguar military cults. The stone skulls above were merely symbols of the real thing. Both the Itzas and the Toltecs mounted recently decapitated and skinned heads on long racks containing hundreds of previously placed skulls. There were row upon row of skulls, and the rows were stacked many layers high. Tzompantlis did not originate with either the Toltecs or Itzas, however. Archaeologists have found evidence of skull racks in Oaxaca State dating as far back as 1500 BC, the beginning of the Olmec era. The purpose of the skull racks seems to have been intimidation of foreign or domestic enemies. Had I lived in that era, they certainly would gotten my attention.

This completes Part 10 of my NW Yucatan series. I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse of the complex religious practice of the Maya, which interwove religious, military, and political themes. If you would like to make a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. I always welcome feedback.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, May 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 9: Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History

The gaping mouth of a large plumed serpent confronts museum visitors near the entrance. The first visit Carole and I made to the Paseo de Montejo (see previous posting) was to visit the Museum of Anthropology and History, located in the Palacio Cantón. The plumed serpent is a recurrent symbol in Mesoamerica, and is very old, possibly originating with the Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC), known as the "Mother of Cultures". The source of the stone sculpture above was not identified, but it probably comes from Post Classic era (900 AD - 1500 AD). During this period, the "Mexicanized Maya" invaded and conquered the Yucatan. One of these groups was the Itza tribe, which came from the Maya enclaves on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, eventually founding Chichen Itza (Well of the Itza) in Yucatan. The Itza were thoroughly imbued with the military tactics and organization of Central Mexico's Toltec culture, including their fierce culture of death.  Many architectural elements of Chichen Itza closely resemble the architecture of Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, located in the modern city of Tula in Hidalgo State.

Palacio Cantón, site of the Museum of Anthropology and History

Palacio Cantón was finished in 1911, just as the Revolution was beginning. Its owner was General Francisco Cantón, a wealthy owner of haciendas and railroads and a political supporter of dictator Porfirio Diaz. It is one of the best examples of the magnificent palacios that hacienda owners built along Paseo de Montejo. The Revolution and its aftermath swept away the genteel culture of wealthy sisal producers like General Cantón. In 1966, the Palacio Cantón was converted into a museum to house an outstanding collection of Maya artifacts and to help promote knowledge and understanding about the ancient culture.

How the Maya made a living

Unusual limestone sculpture showing two hunters with a slain deer. The limestone sculpture is carved in a ring with three dimensional figures. Hunting was an important source of protein for the Maya. The great jungles of Yucatan were and are full of animals, including deer, jaguar, armadillo, coatimundi, and many birds and smaller animals. Animals such as deer could be used not only for food but for leather products such as sandals and belts and to bind stone and wood together into tools and weapons. Leather goods could be used locally, or for trade. In addition to hunting, the Maya raised domesticated animals such as dogs, birds, and bees. The dogs were used for hunting, and sometimes for food. Turkeys were the primary avian animal domesticated for food. Other birds, such as parrots, were raised for their feathers. The Maya raised bees in hives made from hollow wooden logs. The resulting honey and wax were used not only for domestic consumption but for trade. Ah Mucen Cab was the god of honey.

Tools and building materials. The Maya crafted stone axes and other tools from materials such as obsidian, flint, granite, limestone, quartzite, and basalt. Above, a typical Maya hand axe is shown along with other tools. Materials used in construction include limestone (both for building blocks and ground up for plaster), wood, leaves and palm fronds, and yucca fibre. Until very late in their history, the Maya had no access to metal tools, so they used harder stone like  basalt to work softer materials such as limestone. It is remarkable to me that the Maya could raise fabulous temples, pyramids, and palaces using such limited tools. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had access to metal tools, as well as draft animals and the wheel. Maya accomplishments are all the more impressive for the lack of all these.

Cutting tools could be used for peaceful or warlike activities. Above are arrowheads and knife blades along with some unidentified tools at the bottom. Cutting tools were made from materials that could easily be flaked into sharp edges such as flint and chert. Use of obsidian was more rare because it had to be imported and was therefore expensive. Archaeologists have demonstrated that flaked tools can be created in short order if the proper materials are at hand. Access to such raw materials assisted the rise of important city-states and was often the cause of warfare. Because they were so highly valued, as well as relatively small and light, finished cutting tools were traded throughout the Maya area, and also with the rest of Mesoamerica. Ek Chuab was the patron god of traders and merchants, who were often members of the upper class. The traders, known as P'polom, often burned copal incense to ask for their patron god's protection while on the road. However, the traders also carried arms to defend themselves and their goods should Ek Chuab prove inattentive. While doing business in a town, they could stay at public houses provided for that purpose. A mural at the ancient city of Cacaxtla, north of Puebla, shows a merchant/trader standing next to his backpack full of goods.

Many other materials were also used. These included bone and shell for awls, needles, hooks, and arrow or spear heads. Various fibres were used to weave belts and fish nets. Bone and shell were also used for decorative purposes. Recent discoveries in the Petén region of Guatemala, just south of the Yucatan, indicate that Classic-era elites, up to and including the family of the king, were involved in the production of bone implements. Archaeologists had previously assumed that such activities would have been delegated to artisans employed by the elites. However, the evidence seems clear that the nobility themselves were directly and intimately involved, with noble women doing the initial preparation work and their men putting on the finishing touches.

Cotton was used extensively. Above are some of the tools used for spinning cotton fibre into thread. From woven cotton cloth, the Maya made robes and cloaks and a variety of other garments. These were often embroidered and beautifully decorated with feathers incorporated into the weave. The little clay statue standing guard over the tools wears a cloak and skirt typical of what might be created from thread like this. The best of the garments were created for the nobility, or for trade, and sometimes for the tribute demanded by powerful city states from their weaker neighbors. I was particularly interested by the spinning device shown above because I had seen a nearly identical tool in northern Puebla State. A Nahuatl woman I met there was using the same 1500 year old technology to create garments for her family. Ixchel was the goddess of weaving, and it was an activity often carried out by elite groups. Unfortunately, very little of the beautiful cloth we see in ancient wall paintings or sculptures survived centuries of the moist Yucatan climate.

In the Post-Classic period, tools and other objects made of copper began to appear. Above are a selection of axe heads. At the top of the photo are small copper bells. In addition to use as clothing decorations, bells like these were also used as a medium of exchange since the Maya had no metal coins. The manufacture of copper tools and other objects was still in its infancy and the copper would have been relatively soft and unable to hold an edge as well as obsidian. Had the Spanish not arrived when they did, the Maya may eventually have discovered the advantages of adding tin to copper to make bronze, a much harder material. One fact that may have inhibited this development was that copper was not produced locally, but had to be imported from Western Mesoamerica. Since the transport of copper ore was not feasible, due to the lack of draft animals, traders could only bring finished objects like those shown above.

Household containers

Maya pottery was used for a variety of purposes. These included food storage and preparation, eating, ceremonial activities, and grave goods. The potters used a variety of different clays and techniques to produce different colors and tones. For painted images, they used many natural materials. Lime, from Yucatan's abundant limestone,  produced white paint when mixed with resins. The famous "Maya Blue" was produced using indigo mixed with a mineral called attapulguita. From the logwood tree, they produced black, purple, dark grey, bluish and greenish tones. Limonite (an oxide found in caves) was used to produce yellow. Some red coloring came from crushing cochineal insects found on the nopal cactus. An even more vivid red came from cinnabar, which had to be imported to the Yucatan Peninsula through the trade networks.

A warrior stands ready for combat on this pottery piece. Until I looked closely at the ferociously grinning monster on the side of the vase, I didn't realize that it was actually the head dress of a warrior, whose face can be seen peering from the monster's mouth. The muscular shoulder and arm convey great physical power. On his chest he appears to be wearing an interlocking garment, possibly some form of ancient Maya armor. I am always impressed by the skill of Maya artists.

A carved stone bowl shows a fierce struggle. Two figures on the side of the bowl appear to be struggling over the body of a third. The figure on the right has human features, but the one on the left has the beak of a bird. The one they are struggling over looks a bit like the space alien from the movie "E.T." Unlike the rigid compositions of other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Toltecs, the Maya are noted for their portrayals of fluid movement and natural postures.

The anthropomorphic figure of a bird-man makes up this pot's decoration. the bird's feathers, wings, and legs are etched into the sides of the pot, while a human face with a rather sinister grin gazes upward. Maya artists created many works with anthropomorphic (human-animal) or zoomorphic (mixture of different animals) features.

Portrayals of human figures

A statue of an elite Maya woman stands near a zoomorphic pot. The woman, whose hair is done up in a bun on the back of her head, wears large earrings and a long strand of beads. The earrings and beads would probably have been made of jade in real life. She is dressed in a loose, full-length robe or dress that hangs to the ground. I found this a bit odd, given the warm climate. In her hands, she carries a spindle, wound with spun cotton. The elaborateness of her costume marks her as a member of the elite. From the side of the pot to the right, the face of a rabbit extends, its nose almost twitching with life.

Statue of a ruler, from the Court of 1000 Columns, Chichen Itza. Here you can see the rigid posture which shows the influence of the Toltecs of Central Mexico. The statue came from the structure called the Court of the 1000 columns, across the plaza from the famous Castillo (Temple of Kulkulcan). Striking similarities between Chichen Itza and the Toltec capital of Tollan are apparent, but the reason for this is a matter of considerable dispute.

Head of a nobleman from the ancient city of Kabah. The city of Kabah lies to the south of Mérida, in the Puuc region, an area with a large number of beautiful Classic Era Maya ruins including the famous city of Uxmal. The figure above wears an elaborate head dress with a large emblem on the front showing the face of a warrior peering from between the jaws of a creature. The face of the stern-looking nobleman carries ritual scars and what appears to be a "handlebar" mustache. The long strands extending down from the head dress may be part of the apparel, or may possibly represent long hair.

Ping pong, anyone? There were a couple of these arms on display from two different statues. In both cases, they held what appeared be ancient ping pong paddles. More likely, the object was a fan, useful in the hot muggy climate.

Personal adornment

An artist's conception of a Maya nobleman. He stands pointing at the viewer, a bit like the old "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters from World Wars I & II. His hair is done up so that it sprouts from tubes. He wears jade earrings and a large jade necklace with a pendant, as well as thick jade bracelets. While his upper body is naked except for jewelry, wrapped around his lower torso is a sarong-like, cotton garment held up by an embroidered belt. From the belt on the front of his sarong hangs a long, elaborately embroidered piece of fabric.  On his feet are leather sandals.

Below a plaster mask is displayed a collection of jade, coral, and bone jewelry. Earrings can be seen to the left and right of the mask. Below is a complicated jade and coral necklace and intricately-carved pendant not unlike the one in the artist's picture. Surrounding the necklace is a collection of small objects that may be buttons or other clothing decorations.

Coral and jade necklace. The long necklace is comprised of small pieces of red and white coral strung together. At the ends of the string are large round beads of jade. Something like this would only have been worn by a person of high status.

A bone button shows off Maya skill at carving jewelry. This button is not much more than 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in diameter. Some Maya craftsman spent a lot of time and effort to achieve this intricate carving. It is startling to think he very likely managed this with no metal tools.

Feathers were an important component of a well-dressed Maya's wardrobe. Above are displayed feathers from a variety of different birds. The Yucatan is home to a huge variety of birdlife, providing great scope to the sartorial aspirations of Maya of both sexes. Feathers were also important items for trade. Those of the macaw, a large multicolored parrot, have been found in the Anasazi ruins of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. In return, the Anasazi sent down turquoise for jewelry. The chemical composition of the turquoise has allowed scientists to identify the exact place of origin of  particular pieces of jewelry. The distances the feathers and turquoise traveled in their opposite directions are breathtaking. For example, from Tucson, Arizona to Mérida, Yucatan, the distance is 2463.1kilometers (1530.5 miles). Keep in mind, also, that the ancient Maya region extended as far south as Honduras and El Salvador.

Music and dancing

Gettin' down in the old days. This bas relief shows a couple of Maya energetically dancing. Once the Maya glyph ak'ot (dance) was finally deciphered, it became apparent that dancing was extremely important in Maya society. All levels of society participated, from the king and his court down to the lowliest commoners. It is believed that dancing was enhanced by the use of hallucinogenic drugs so that the person performing could be transformed into their wayob, or soul mate. The wayob were depicted through the masks and costumes the dancers wore. The purposes of dancing could include celebrating victories in war, the creation of sacred space, or achieving the release of the souls of the dead from the rulers of Xibalba (the underworld). While much of the dancing was for Maya ceremonies and religious rituals, I suspect that they also had a good time with it.

Dancers were accompanied by musicians such as these flutists. The plate above shows two musicians who appear to be blowing long flutes while they dance. Other instruments typically used included whistles and conch trumpets, as well as drums of various kinds. The slim, lithe flutists above are depicted in black, possibly from body paint, with animal figures attached to their hips and elaborate head dresses. The ends of the flutes are surrounded by circles with lines extending out from them, possibly indicating sound.

Representations of animals

Bas relief of a jaguar procession. This sculpture came from Chichen Itza and is nearly identical to another found on a wall behind the Temple of the Warriors at the Toltec capital of Tollan. Jaguars are the largest predator in the jungles of Mexico and Central America and are only exceeded in size by African lions and Indian tigers. They are very powerful and hunt at night, which to the Maya indicated a connection with the underworld of Xibalba. Jaguars had been important symbols in Mesoamerica since the Olmec times. The Jaguar and Eagle military orders were very important both at Tollan and Chichen Itza, and in both places are depicted eating human hearts.

An anthropomorphic frog serves as a small container. This little fellow is adorned with a necklace, bracelets and anklets. Frog images were important to the Maya because the amphibians are closely associated with water, and will suddenly appear when the rains come and their mating cycle is triggered. Every society based on agriculture pays great attention to the rain cycle, but Yucatan's ancient Maya were especially conscious of its importance. There are no above-ground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula. The limestone just under the soil is very porous and rainwater passes quickly through to underground lakes and rivers. In ancient times, these could only be accessed through caves and cenotes (sinkholes) found in certain areas. Lacking these, the Maya of the Puuc region developed ingenious water collection channels and constructed large underground storage chambers called chaltúnes. They also used whatever supernatural resources they had, including the frog totems.

Limestone head of a plumed serpent, located outside the museum. Yucatan abounds with snakes. So far, 71 species have been identified, 12 of them venomous. During our visit to the ruins in the Puuc region, our guide cautioned us to be very careful as we moved around, and told us that nobody in his right mind walks around much at night there. Snakes, therefore, are obviously important to the Maya, and have been since far back into pre-hispanic times. It should be no surprise that the Maya readily adopted the plumed serpent, known to the civilizations of Central Mesoamerica as Quetzalcoatl, as a major god, renaming him Kulkulkan. In fact, the Maya already worshiped a war god named Waxaklahun Ubah Kan (War Serpent), so the transition was probably not difficult to make.

This completes Part 9 of my NW Yucatan series. In Part 10, we will continue at the museum with artifacts demonstrating other aspects of the ancient Maya culture. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, May 4, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 8: Mérida's Millionaires' Row, also known as Paseo de Montejo, & Hotel Dolores Alba

Paseo Montejo is lined with opulent mansions built by sisal hacienda owners. The private home above is one of the two structures known as the Casas Gemelas (twin houses) near the lower end of the broad, tree-shaded avenue called Paseo Montejo. This avenue can be found in the northern section of Mérida's Centro Historico. Toward the end of the 19th Century, sisal (hennequen fibre), was bringing vast wealth to the owners of the haciendas that grew it. Sisal was used to make twine, an essential product for the newly invented McCormick grain-harvesting combines that were rapidly changing US wheat-farming from family operations to agri-business. The demand for the fibre was enormous. Extremely low wages, and even the use of slave labor, enabled nearly all the profits to stay in the pockets of the hacienda owners. Little was left for those who actually performed the work. Many hacendados preferred not to live at their haciendas, far from the cultural attractions of Mérida. Instead, they built eye-popping pleasure palaces along Paseo Montejo, like the Casas Gemelas. For a Google map of the area, click here.

We toured Paseo Montejo in this carriage, a popular form of transport in Centro Historico. You can find a whole taxi-rank of these carriages near the northeast corner of the Plaza Grande, across the street from the Catedral de San Ildefonso. As we climbed aboard, all the other carriage drivers in the line cheered boisterously. This may have been because we were the first customers of the evening, or perhaps there was an inside joke to which we were not a party. The ride was comfortable and the driver amiable, and our horse pulled us down the street at a stately trot. However, we were a bit unnerved by the buses, taxis, and cars careening wildly around us. Mérida traffic is not for the faint of heart, or the unwary.

Yucatan's conquerors were a father and son, both named Francisco de Montejo. The pair were conquistadors who seized Yucatan for Spain in the 1540s. The son, usually known by his nickname el Mozo (the Boy), built Mérida on the foundations of the existing Maya city of T'ho. This statue is located in the middle of the glorieta (traffic circle) at the southern end of Paseo Montejo where Calle 47 crosses. Inspired by the great avenues of 19th Century Paris, the wealthy sisal producers sought to create an avenue "worthy of the City of Mérida". The Paseo begins just outside the old gates that were once the northern limits of the city and has a total length of 5,483 meters (3.4 mi.). Its northern end becomes the route to the port of Progresso, 40 km (25 mi.) away. Construction lasted from 1886 to 1905.  While many of the mansions along the Paseo are now occupied by banks, insurance companies, and museums, some are still privately owned.

Another view of the Casas Gemelas. The one on the right is the house seen in the first photo of this posting. The two mansions were built in French Renaissance style by a European architect named M. Umbdenstock. The construction was supervised by a local engineer named Manuel Cantón Ramos.

Detail from one of the Casas Gemelas. The original plans for the Casa Gemelas were brought over from France in the early 20th Century by Ernesto and Camilo Cámara Zavala. Although the houses were designed to be twin structures, it didn't quite work out that way. The one above was initially bought by Sr. Fernando Barbachano who lavished it with all the "bells and whistles" of his day. The completion of the other twin was delayed for many years, until its current owner Sr. Mario Molina Méndez finally finished it.

Detail from the other twin. A lion wearing a head dress growls from a roof corner, while an ornate vase sits below it on the pillar of a balcony. When I encounter former mansions like this, they are usually public buildings or being used to house large private institutions. I searched in vain for a sign to tell me what organizations or businesses are currently housed in the Casas Gemelas. I was surprised to learn from our carriage driver that this vast, ornate edifice is actually someone's private home.

Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museum of Anthropology and History. This magnificent structure was originally owned by General Francisco Cantón Rosado, from whom it got its name. General Cantón won fame and fortune by suppressing the Maya during the revolt known as the Caste War. A conservative politician and a strong supporter of dictator Porfirio Diaz, the General grew wealthy through acquiring haciendas and railroads. General Cantón served as Governor of Yucatan from 1898 to 1902. The Palacio Cantón was built between 1904 and 1911 in the style known as Mannerist Baroque by Manuel Cantón Ramos, the same engineer who supervised the construction of the Casas Gemelas. I assume from his name that he was related to the general. In Mexico, people like to keep things in the family. In the next posting, we'll visit this museum to see the ancient Maya treasures it contains. There are numerous other spectacular mansions to be seen along Paseo Montejo. Unfortunately, shooting photos from a carriage in the process of dodging annihilation by zooming buses does not lend itself to carefully composed pictures. I suggest a walking tour for those wishing to photograph these amazing edifices.

Monumento a la Patria

Monumento a la Patria sits at the center of Paseo Montejo's third glorieta.  Above, our carriage driver carefully studies this harrowing intersection, watching for an opening. Monumento a la Patria (Monument the the Fatherland) was created by Romulo Rozo who, ironically, was not Mexican but Colombian. However, he spent his last 33 years in Yucatan, dying in 1964. His remains are buried at the foot of the monument. Mérida makes the proud claim that this is the first great monument to nationality in Mexico.

Central to the monument is a mestizo figure, symbolizing the nation. The 14 meter high (45.93 ft.) statue faces due south along the Paseo. The carved, stone figure wears a jade pendant decorated with a snail, and a coat covered with plumed serpents. Both of these hark back to the Itza people, who built the great pre-hispanic city of Chichen Itza. Numerous other symbols representing the pre-hispanic past are also carved on this colossus. A wall on either side of the figure curves part way around the circle and is carved with faces and scenes from Mexico's history through the early 20th Century. As you can see, the late afternoon light was fading, so I could not photograph many of the fascinating details.

The back (north) side of the Monumento a la Patria. In the center of the north side is another statue containing important national symbols. An eagle, its wings aflutter, sits on a nopal cactus while it struggles to consume a snake. This is the symbol of Mexico, found in the center of the national flag. The image refers to an ancient Mexica (Aztec) legend. According to the legend, the tribe originated in a place called Aztlán and journeyed south for many years. During this journey, tribal leaders received a vision of an eagle on a cactus eating a snake and interpreted this as a sign of where they should settle. In the 14th Century AD, the Mexica reached the great lake in the middle of the Valley of Mexico where they visited a small island. There, they encountered the eagle and the snake, just as in their vision. On that spot, the Mexica founded their capital, Tenochtitlán, which became Mexico City after the Conquest.

End of the line. After touring the Paseo, our driver returned us to the Plaza Grande and waved goodby. In the background, the Bishop's Palace called the Ateneo Peninsular shines brilliantly in the floodlights that light up this and other white limestone buildings around the plaza. The glowing buildings exemplify Mérida's nickname: The White City.

Hotel Dolores Alba

Courtyard dining room of the Hotel Dolores Alba. While in Mérida, Carole and I and our friends Denis and Julika stayed at Hotel Dolores Alba Mérida, originally a colonial mansion. The hotel is located on Calle 63, about 3 1/2 blocks west of the Plaza Grande. There is a sister hotel called Dolores Alba Chichen located just outside the park where the ruins of Chichen Itza are located. The 100 rooms distributed on 4 floors are moderately priced.

Our room overlooked the pool in the second courtyard. The second courtyard, located behind the first, is reached by a short corridor. In addition to the pool, this area contained gardens and palm trees. These added to its shady coolness, very welcome on hot afternoons. We encountered very few people from the US at our hotel or elsewhere in Mérida, although there were plenty of Europeans and a sprinkling of Canadians. It appears that the relentless scare stories in the US news media have so cowed potential American tourists that few can work up the courage to visit Mérida, one of the safest cities in Mexico.

A quiet nook near the main hotel courtyard. The floors were beautifully tiled and the comfortable wicker rocking chairs were seldom empty as seen here. The walls surrounding the courtyard were filled with works by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the great muralist Diego Rivera. There were many things we liked about this hotel including the large, comfortable guest rooms. Complementary services included in-room safes, as well as excellent breakfast buffets served in the dining room courtyard. Above all, we liked the friendly and extremely helpful desk staff. They were English-speaking and very responsive to our needs. They helped set up taxis and tours and assisted in smoothing out problems. However, there were a few things that set my teeth a bit on edge. Even local calls from phones in the rooms were charged and the toll was hefty. Unlike many hotels, there was no access to complimentary computers for checking email, etc. In fact, a great number of services provided free of charge by other hotels we have visited were subject to charge here. These things could certainly add up, after a while. However, with those caveats in mind, we would definitely recommend the Hotel Dolores Alba Mérida.

Frida, as she saw herself. Frida Kahlo, known in the art world simply as "Frida", is often overshadowed by her more famous husband. However, she was a great artist in her own right. Many of her paintings were self-portraits, and her work was intensely personal. Her thick eyebrows, meeting over her nose, were a signature feature, as well as the colorful indigenous costumes she often wore. As a teenager, Frida was involved in a streetcar accident in which she was impaled by a metal rod. This caused extensive internal injuries from which she never fully recovered. Frida spent her life in great pain and it colored her view of the world, making her very conscious of the suffering of others. Both she and Diego Rivera were members of the Mexican Communist Party in the 1930s. They hosted Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in their home when he was exiled by Stalin. It is believed that Frida may have even had an affair with Trotsky. Above, she portrays herself in a bleak sandy desert, with a crumbling, Roman-style column as a spine. The flesh all over her head and body is punctured by innumerable nails, representing the constant pain she endured. Many of her other paintings were more cheerful, but I see this as one of the most revealing.

This completes Part 8 of my Merida series. Over the next couple of weeks I'll walk you through the treasures of the Museum of Anthropology and History, housed in the Palacio Cantón. I always welcome feedback, and if you'd like to provide some, please either used the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim