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Under a Mayan Spell

Awesome monuments evoke a lost world of bloody rituals, rich culture

November 15, 1998|DALE M. BROWN | Brown, who lives in Alexandria, Va., was editor of Time Life's Lost Civilizations book series

CHICHEN ITZA, Mexico — The sound-and-light show in the ruins of this ancient Mayan city was about to begin when the plaza lights suddenly dimmed and the stars came out--and I do mean out. I have looked into the night sky in countless corners of the world, and I have never seen as many stars as over Chichen Itza.

Directly in front of us, against the glimmering backdrop of the Yucatan sky, hulked the jagged silhouette of the great stepped pyramid, the 80-foot-high ceremonial edifice that the Spanish called El Castillo, "the castle." (The Spanish, who conquered Yucatan in 1542, named many Mayan buildings without knowing their original functions.) In that dazzling, starry moment, we could just discern the edge of one of four staircases that ascend each side to the squat, rectangular temple at the pyramid's peak. There the Maya conducted blood sacrifices, often using captives from enemy city-states. Sometimes the beating heart was ripped from the victim's chest. The thought of that was chilling.

My wife, Liet, and I were part of a group touring Mayan sites last January. It was led by Robert Lindley Vann, an archeologist and architectural historian at the University of Maryland with whom we had traveled in Turkey a few years before. We liked his easygoing manner and his enthusiasm. We were particularly lucky this time to find ourselves in the company of his wife, Lollie, also an archeologist. The group of 24 included some of Vann's architect friends and colleagues, who proved amiable, knowledgeable travel companions, interested in people as well as buildings. And like us, they were satisfied with humble but clean accommodations that Vann chose in order to put us within striking distance of the best ruins.

Our focus for the two weeks was entirely on the Maya, the richly cultured civilization that flourished in today's southern Mexico and much of Central America from the 7th century BC through the 9th century. The journey, in three air-conditioned vans, began at Cancun, the high-rise resort on the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean coast. We were happy not to linger there but to head immediately for the countryside where the Maya remain a living presence, many still inhabiting small thatched houses almost exactly like those of their ancestors.

We made our first stop at a cave,

Xkeken, one of the thousands that riddle the soft limestone underlying the Yucatan. The Maya regarded such caves as entrances to Xibalba, "the Place of Awe"--the Mayan hell. This one, which lay just outside the colonial city of Valladolid, dripped with stalactites and long, hairy roots that hung down to a mirror-smooth pool under the ceiling, where a hole like an eye admitted a greenish light. It was easy to see how such an eerie place could have inspired fear in the Maya.

Perhaps it was only fitting, then, that we had our initial experience of Chichen Itza at night--when, according to Mayan belief, the sun was held temporarily captive in Xibalba. With considerable drama, the sound-and-light show underscored the supremacy of the Maya as mathematicians, as well as astronomers and architects. I was fascinated to learn that they had oriented El Castillo to the sun so precisely that at the spring equinox and the autumn solstice, the sun strikes the northwest edge of the pyramid and causes a serrated shadow that suggests a diamondback snake slowly gliding down the balustrade. Apparently the Maya regarded this phenomenon as a manifestation of their god, Kukulcan, the feathered serpent.

No one can fail to be impressed by Chichen Itza, the most fully restored of the ancient Mayan cities. In the company of a Mayan guide, our group roamed there for much of the next morning, too absorbed by the architecture to take much notice of the heat. But if you want to experience it the way the Mayan nobles and priests did, you must steel yourself and climb to the temple atop El Castillo--up all 91 steps, laid at such an extreme angle you will be grateful for the chain strung from the top to the bottom as a kind of loose handgrip. The sight of the wobbly chain was enough to discourage Liet from joining me and the others who dared make the climb. Even I with my long legs had a hard time negotiating the steps, which were much higher and narrower than I had gauged from below.

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