Maya Nuns?

Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood

The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.

By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.

One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today

So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.

The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.

Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)

As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.

Next: The Palace of the Governor

 

 

The Crown Jewel

Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today

When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.

Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood

On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:

The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician

On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.

 

Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal in Yucatán

I may have to delay my trip to Mexico until I know what’s happening with the pain in my knee. To refresh your memory, there is some sort of muscular pain in the crook of my left knee, initially diagnosed to be a Baker’s Cyst or some sort of tendonitis. With luck, I will be able to go at some point in January, unless the condition requires surgery.

In all, I have been to Uxmal twice, in 1975 and 1992. Both times, I have been impressed that it is the most beautiful of Maya ruins. It is built in the classical Puuc (named after the range of hills where it is located), with smooth rectangular limestone blocks interspersed with images of various Maya deities. It looks even better today, after archeologists have cleared away much of the foliage. Below is an image of the same structure around 1840 when Frederick Catherwood drew it:

Frederick Catherwood’s Illustration of the Pyramid

The city of Uxmal was occupied only up to some point in the 9th century AD, when it is speculated that drought made the ruins in the Puuc Hills uninhabitable. There are no above ground rivers in the limestone peninsula that is Yucatán, and the underground rivers would have required digging through hundreds of feet of rock. Instead, rain water was collected in chultunes, underground storage chambers that circled the ruins.

I was sold on Uxmal from the very start. The van that took me there stopped close by the Pyramid of the Magician. The driver bowed his head and did the sign of the cross upon setting eyes on the pyramid. It is still considered a sacred site by the Maya, even though they have not inhabited it for over a thousand years.

 

Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.