Tikal

Temple 1 at Tikal in the Petén Region of Guatemala

I had always wanted to visit Tikal. In the 1980s, when I visited Yucatán several times, I wanted to swing south through Belize to the ruinsat Tikal. Unfortunately, a murderous religious madman named Efraín Ríos Montt was in charge at the time; and the State Department was recommending that American tourists stay well away from the massacres and disappearances that were plaguing Guatemala at the time.

Tikal is huge, 575 square kilometers (222 square miles) in area. It almost defined the Classic Period of Mayan archeology, from approximately 200 AD to 800 AD at its height. The area in which it is located is a monkey jungle, pure and simple. With my hared of mosquitoes, I am thinking of spending three nights in nearby El Remate, where the hotels have electricity 24 hours a day, and not just sometimes. If there is air conditioning, or at the very least a functioning ceiling fan, one can escape being bitten to death and coming home with Zika or Malaria or Dengue, to name just a few baddies.

The Shores of Lago de Petén at El Remate

Although Guatemala is not a large country by North American standards, the road from Guatemala City to El Remate takes twelve hours or more on good roads. One has to go all the way to the Atlantic Coast before cutting north. There is a little matter of some high mountains preventing a direct route. If I took the mountain route, it would take at least twenty hours and several buses. I am actually thinking of flying from Guatemala City to Flores, which is within a few miles of El Remate. (I could stay in Flores, for that matter, but if I wanted to spend two days at the ruins, I want to be a bit closer to Tikal.)

There are sunrise and sunset tours at Tikal, but I don’t want to lose sleep just so I can gamble on a perfect sunrise or sunset. I’m willing to take pot luck.

 

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum

 

 

Pre-Columbian Writing

Detail from the Dresden Codex

At the time the Spanish landed in he New World, there was only one Pre-Columbian culture that had a written alphabet, and that was the Maya. Now I have heard that in earlier centuries, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Northern Mexico had a written alphabet, but stopped using it after a certain point. Curiously, the Aztecs and Inca did not have their own alphabet, however advanced they may have been in other respects.

Right now, the only instances we have of writing in Mayan are glyphs at various Maya ruins and four surviving codices that escaped the religious zeal of the Spanish missionaries in destroying what they perceived to be heretical. And since the subject matter related to Maya religion, it was heretical insofar as Christianity was concerned.

The most famous destroyer of Mayan codices was Diego de Landa, the Franciscan Bishop of Yucatán in the 16th century. In a famed book burning conducted in 1562, de Landa had 27 codices burned at Mani. He described the Maya as being disconsolate at the destruction of so much of their culture at one time. Curiously, it was the same de Landa who wrote the Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatán, which preserved an astonishing amount of the culture and language, such that it is still studied by Maya scholars. It is still available in a Dover Publications paperback.

Do you see the dots and dashes in the above detail from the Dresden Codex just above the four seated figures? They are, in order, the numbers 16, 4, 9, 13, zero (yes, the Maya had discovered zero), 5, 12, 2, and 1. As you can probably surmise from this, the dashes represented the number five or a multiple of fives; and a dot, a one or multiple of ones up to four. It was a vigesimal system, meaning to the base 20 rather than base 10 like ours. Very likely, the numbers in the illustration represent a “long count” calendar date fixing a particular event in time. You can read more about Maya mathematics here.

The other interesting thing about the Mayan alphabet is that some symbols were hieroglyphic and stood for an entire word and others phonetic, standing for syllables. This confused scholars for years.

At the time I started visiting the Maya world, only the calendrical symbols had been decoded (mostly thanks to the selfsame good/bad Diego de Landa). In the last forty years, we have discovered that the Maya have a history. We have learned names of rulers and translated descriptions of events commemorated by Maya rulers.

 

On Giving

Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) was the greatest writer that Guatemala ever produced. Although many of his owrks were translated into English, most are out of print now and hard to find. Here is a short poem by Asturias that I hope you’ll like. It’s called “Caudal (The Fortune)”:

To give is to love,
To give prodigiously:
For every drop of water
To return a torrent.

We were made that way,
Made to scatter
Seeds in the furrow
And stars in the ocean.

Woe to him, Lord,
who doesn’t exhaust his supply,
And, on returning, tells you:
“Like an empty satchel
Is my heart.”

Mayan Stela at Père Lachaise Cemetery Commemorating Asturias

When Martine and I visited Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery in 2000, we turned a corner and suddenly found a very Mayan stela commemorating the Guatemalan writer.

 

 

O Brave New World!

Maya Nose on Pre-Columbian Figure

The world opened up for me when I was thirty years old. It was the first time I even thought of breaking loose from my mother and father and exploring the world. For my first trip, I chose Yucatán in November 1975. And it was magical. First there was that cab ride to the Hotel Mérida past snack bars that were open to the street. It was my first experience of the tropics (other than Florida), and in the dark I saw men and women drinking beer and sodas. I was able to peer into houses and saw families watching television.

Once I checked in to my hotel, I stood at my sixth-floor window looking down onto Calle 60 and looking at passers-by walking on the sidewalk below. Suddenly one stopped and looked straight up at me. How did he know to do that? I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, staring at an optician’s office across the way called Optica Rejón.

I was entranced by the zócalo and the 16th-century structures surrounding it. I had my boots polished every day. There was endless people-watching, all those Maya with their distinctive noses.

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

 

Around mid-afternoon, I hung out at the main entrance of the University (also on Calle 60, just a couple blocks from my hotel). So many beautiful young women that looked so different from the ones back home! Young Maya women are astonishingly good looking.

Can you wonder that, feeling the way I did about travel, that it would become a major feature of my life. Even though, in the next two years, I would travel to Europe, there was something about Latin American that lured me—and still does.

Why I’m Stuck on the Maya

Maya Girls

My first real trip outside the borders of the United States was to Yucatán in November 1975. I was so entranced with what I saw that I kept coming back to Maya Mexico for years, until 1992. During that time, I also wanted to go to Guatemala, but a civil war between the Maya and the Ladinos (Mestizos) was raging until 1996; and Guatemala was on the State Department’s “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list until just recently. Even now, the State Department as the whole country classified under a blanket “Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime” warning.

Why is it that I am so fascinated by the Maya that I would risk flouting President Trumpf’s State Department?

For one thing, the Maya are incredible survivors. The Aztecs were ground down by Cortez within two years. In Peru, it took forty years before resistance was smashed by Pizarro and his successors. And the Maya? That took a full 180 years before the last Maya kingdom (at Tayasal in Guatemala) was leveled.

Today, there are 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. There are some 6 million speakers of the 26-odd Mayan languages and dialects. Of course, the Incan Quechua language has even more speakers: some 8.5 to 11 million speakers in several South American countries.

In recent years, there have been several disturbances in the Maya area:

  • In Mexico, there was a Maya war against the Ladinos in Yucatán that lasted from 1847 to 1901 and a Zapatista revolt in Chiapas that flared briefly in 1994.
  • In Guatemala, there was a violent civil war against the Ladinos from 1960 to 1996. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Maya were massacred by the army.
  • In El Salvador, there was a civil war from 1979 to 1981. (Only some of the indigenous peoples involved in that one were Maya.)

The Maya are still there, occupying large parts of Mexico (Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo); Belize; Guatemala; and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. It is no small achievement for them to have survived so much persecution for upwards of 500 years.

That is what interests me.

 

 

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.