Seven Years in Siberia

My Grandfather’s Obituary in the Cleveland Papers

The story of the Czechoslovak Legion was one of amazing heroism and almost unbelievable feats. I had always heard that my father’s father was a member of this fighting force and was captured and served time in Siberia. Today, going through some old papers, I received confirmation from his obituary in a Cleveland newspaper.

In World War I, the Czechoslovak Legion fought on the side of the forces arrayed against Germany, in hopes that after the war, their efforts would result in a free Czechoslovakia. The unit to which Emil Paris Sr belonged did its fighting in Russia. When the Bolshevik Revolution occurred late in 1917, they fought for the Whites against the Red Army. As the Germans invaded the Ukraine, they found escape through Europe blocked and elected to fight their way across Siberia along the line of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, from where they would find ships back to Europe.

Men from the Czechoslovak Legion in Vladivostok

Emil didn’t quite make it. He was captured by the Red Army and interned in Siberia for seven years, before he was released. During that time, my father Alex, my Uncle Emil Jr, and my Aunt Margit were on their own in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia in the middle of the postwar famine, just trying to survive.

I have a few memories of my grandfather and his wife before he died some time before my brother’s birth in 1951. I remember his funeral, and I remember visiting him before Irma died in 1947. During that visit, I was given a toy boat. It must have been one of my earliest memories. I was two years old at the time.

Czech Stamp Honoring a Battle Won by the Legion

My grandfather might have been heroic, but he was famed for being a mean man who once sued his son, my father, over a five dollar debt.

I am one of the three grandchildren referred to in the obituary, the others being Emil Jr’s children Emil and Peggy. My brother was to join that company in April 1951.

The Copán Ruling Dynasty

 

Altar L with God/Kings of Copán

When I first began traveling in Maya lands, the Maya did not appear to have a history. Now that so many of their glyphs have been translated, we see that—particularly in the Classic Period between AD 600 and and some point in the 9th century AD, most of the major archeological sites not only had a history, but a rich one as well.

The first event recorded at Copán in Honduras was in 321 BC on Altar I. There was a founder of a dynasty called K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ who ruled between 416 and 437 AD. Then there were two unnamed rulers before K’altuun Hix dedicated a carved step inside the Papagaya Structure around 480 AD. There were two more unnamed rulers before Balam Nehn (524-532 AD) and Wil Ohl K’inich (532-551 AD).  After an unnamed Ruler 9, we have a filled-chronology that takes us all the way to 822 AD:

  • Moon Jaguar (553-578)
  • K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (578-628)
  • Smoke Imix (628-695)
  • Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, better known as 18 Rabbit (695-738)
  • K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil, better known as Smoke Monkey (738-749)
  • K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil better known as Smoke Shell (749-763)
  • Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, better known as Yax Pac (763-820)
  • Ukit Took’ (began reign in 822 AD)

It was Ukit Took’, the last known ruler of Copán, who dedicated Altar L, shown above, identifying his predecessors. There are no known dates at Copán after 822 AD.

What happened in 822? The kingship failed for various reasons, as it did around then through most of the adjacent area, for environmental reasons (probably drought), overpopulation, and a change in the form of governance.

As alien as the dynastic names above may seem, the chronology is surer than that of many European dynasties of the period. The calendar was sacred to the Maya, so they were sure to note the exact date that events occurred—and that didn’t even happen in most European countries of the Dark Ages.

 

A Short, Unhappy Life

What King Tut Looked Like at the Age of 18, When He Died

King Tutankhamen had a short and probably not very happy life. He became pharaoh at the tender age of nine, but he was bedeviled by illnesses that caused him considerable pain and shortened his life. Tut’s father was his uncle and his mother was his father’s sister. Apparently, incest was not expressly forbidden for the pharaohs and their families.

Notice the club foot: King Tut was accompanied with a number of canes on his afterlife journey. By the end, he also had a compound leg fracture, malaria, Köhler Disease, and possibly also sickle cell anemia, Marfan syndrome, mental retardation, adiposogenital dystrophe (note the feminine hips in the above reconstruction),  Kleinfelter syndrome, androgen insensitivity syndrome, aromatase excess syndrome, in conjunction with sagittal craniosynostosis syndrome, Antley-Bixler syndrome, and temporal lobe epilepsy. Oh, and he also had buck teeth and a cleft palate.

In other words, the mighty pharaoh was an unholy mess. There are signs that his burial was conducted in haste, as the paint on the walls of his tomb did not dry properly.

 

Maya vs Aztecs

Aztec Warriors in Battle

Yesterday evening, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about the fierceness of the Aztecs as compared to the Mayans. Unfortunately, it was during an intermission at a Christmas concert which was about to start up again before we came to any resolution. So I decided to marshal my arguments here in print.

Two Archeologists Weigh In

Some years back, I attended a symposium at UCLA including two eminent Mesoamerican archeologists, Michael D. Coe and Nigel Davies. At one point in the discussion, they mused whether they would rather be prisoners of the Aztecs or the Mayas. Both quickly agreed that they would fare better with the Aztecs. After all, they fearfully accepted Cortes and his conquistadores despite the fact that they outnumbered his forces by thousands to one. Also, the Aztecs were an empire: If the emperor (Moctezuma) said the Spanish were welcome, then the welcome mat was unrolled for them everywhere in the empire.

The Maya, on the other hand, lived in decentralized city states which, in the Postclassic period, were ruled by merchants and nobles. If Tiho (present-day Merida) accepted the Spanish—which they most certainly did not—there were other Maya city states nearby such as Mayapán, Cobá, and Calakmul which may or may not. The Maya were never unified. Even today, there are some twenty-eight Mayan dialects among the eight million Maya living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Who Was Stronger?

Cortes didn’t take long to conquer the Aztecs, only about a year or two. After that, the Aztec culture went into a precipitous decline. Today, there are few speakers of the Nahuatl language around, and few Aztec religious rituals practiced by those Nahuatl speakers.

The Maya were eventually conquered by the Spanish, but only after almost two hundred years of warfare. In 1697, Martín de Ursúa y Arismendi attacked the last Maya sate, Tayasal, with hundreds of Spanish troops and native auxiliaries.

Kneeling Maya God/King Running a Sting Ray Spine Through a Hole in His Tongue

Who Was More Fierce?

The Maya were a tough people. Imagine the lives led by their god/kings. On certain ceremonial occasions, they punctured their tongues or their penises with sting ray spines and let the blood drip onto pieces of paper which they sacrificed to the gods. And the various Maya polities frequently fought wars with one another. When a king lost, he was sacrificed in a bloody ritual.

The Aztecs also went in for human sacrifice, but the Maya have been known to resort to cannibalism of their victims.

I think that Coe and Davies were right: You’d have a much better chance of surviving with the wavering Moctezuma than with the Maya.

 

“An Appalling Record of Death and Destruction”

The Disastrous Flood Caused by the Saint Francis Dam Break in 1928

The worst disaster in recent California history is the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Over three thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the ensuing fires. Today, while Martine and I were visiting the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in Newhall, we were forcibly reminded of the second worst disaster in recent California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 and the resulting wall of water that swept some fifty-four miles until it found its way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. Almost five hundred people lost their lives, decimating much of the then sparsely populated northern communities of Los Angeles, as well as many in nearby Ventura County.

If you have seen the movie Chinatown (1974), you know something about William Mulholland, the engineer behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the distant Owens Valley along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Almost singlehandedly, he made Los Angeles a viable city that could sustain its amazing record of growth. It was the same man who took responsibility for the dam failure that was to end his brilliant career, referring in a speech to the disaster’s “appalling record of death and destruction.”

The St. Francis Dam Site in San Francisquito Canyon in 2012 (The Dam Itself No Longer Exists)

According to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society:

To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the remains of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were never recovered, while others were washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of a victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and other bodies, believed to be victims of the disaster, were found in the late 1970s and 1994. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 431.

The War Between the Archaeologists

The Hieroglyphic Stairs at Copán

When I first started visiting the Maya ruins in Yucatán and Chiapas, I had picked the losing horse in the race to interpret the glyphs that were to be found at so many of the ruins. The archaeologist I followed was John Eric Sidney Thompson, better known as J. Eric S. Thompson. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he had a number of books in print that I studiously pored over, including Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, Maya Archaeologist, Maya History and Religion, and The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization.

Essentially, Thompson believed that, beyond significant calendar dates, the glyphs didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t until after Thompson died in 1975 that such pioneers as Linda Schele, Michael D. Coe, and David Stuart suddenly discovered that the glyphs at Palenque not only had calendar dates, but also the names of rulers and a description of events being commemorated. Quite suddenly, the Maya had a history. And what worked at Palenque also worked at scores of other Maya sites in Yucatán and the jungles of the Petén.

Maya Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson

The problem was that Thompson was not only uninterested in languages (he never learned Mayan), but he stood like a watchdog to make sure that no one who had the right background would not endanger his conclusions.

When last I went to the Maya archaeological zone, the Maya lacked a history. Thanks to the pioneering work of two Russian researchers—Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov—the Mayans of the Classical Period now have not only a history, but a rich one as well.

 

Star Wars and Axe Wars

Fresco at Maya Site at Bonampak in Chiapas

I have just finished reading Peter D. Harrison’s The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. During the reign of the kalomtes, or divine kings of the Classic period of Maya history, wars were almost constant. They were of two kinds:

  • “Star Wars” are wars whose timing is mandated by the positions of the planets, especially Venus. These do not usually involve massive destruction or conquest.
  • “Axe Wars” are wars of conquest or revenge.

In all my postings on the Maya, I have neglected to note one important fact: the Maya were never an empire of diverse peoples, such as the Aztecs in Northern Mexico and the Inca in the Andes. Instead, there were powerful city/states that rose into prominence and just as often fell to other Maya city/states. Tikal in Guatemala was probably the largest; but at different times such cities as Palenque, Calakmul, Chichen Itza, and Cobá in Mexico; Copán in Honduras; Caracol in Belize; and El Mirador, Dos Pilas, and Quirigua in Guatemala were first among equals.

With so many hundreds of Maya cities spread across Southern Mexico and Central America, the number of possible wars numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. When I think on this, I realize that the Maya were probably pretty happy to get rid of their kings and concentrate on survival rather than fighting in astrologically dictated conflicts or axe wars against powerful entities like Calakmul.

Then, too, it was hard work building all those temples and pyramids when none of the people of the Americas had the use of the wheel. Stones had to be shaped and carried long distances by men. There was probably a massive sigh of relief throughout the Maya world when all this war and labor was mostly behind them.