Feel free to just look at the pictures. No offense will be taken.
A Preamble of Sorts
I begin this post with a similar shot that you saw as a lead image in Part 1.* In the previous story we saw captioned photos from Cancun and Chichen Itza. This part will show another Mayan excursion—the exceptional ruins of Tulum on the cliffside Caribbean coast.
I've long been entranced by the culture and history of the Maya, well before it became apocalyptically popular. I remember using tracing paper and copying the Mayan glyphs I thought were interesting as a fifth grader—yes, that would have been just after the Post-Classic Period of said Mayans.
The love and interest continued into adulthood as I spent many years traveling to the remote mountains in central Guatemala, beyond the Sierra de los Cuchumantanes, to help the Mayan people in the Ixil Triangle. Our medical and NGO humanitarian groups built health and dental clinics and built homes for widows after the ravages of the thirty-year-long civil war in the region that claimed some 200,000 lives—most of the victims were unnamed indigenous Mayans.
The premise of the trip to the Yucután Peninsula last month was a business junket of the bride's, billed as a Five-Star Weekend. Our last F-SW was a 2009 trip to Florida at the Boca Raton Resort and Spa and we were able to meet with OS's own Lea Lane. That was awesome—you already know she's gorgeous and smart—she is more so in person.
Since the bride is the CEO of a large national association, she occasionally gets invitations to participate in the goings-on of one of the associations to which she belongs and is a board of directors member emeritus. It's officially known as ASAE–The Center for Association Leadership. ASAE stands for American Society of Association Executives, but it's been said that what it really stands for is Always Standing Always Eating. Indeed, the events we've attended connected to ASAE have always included more food than was necessary to consume. One of the things I love to do while traveling is to visit small cafes or greasy spoons for authentic regional breakfasts. I never get the chance to do that while accompanying the dear bride on an ASAE trip since I'm still full from the previous day—even when I keep to my normal regimen by only eating half of the dinner entree presented.
Ok, that's out of the way—let's get back to our Mayan excursion—sort of. First, we'll look at a little historical context and background. I think it will help us appreciate what we're looking at in the Tulum shots below.
The Maya World had a surface area of nearly 300,000 square kilometers (about 115,000 square miles). It covered southeastern Mexico (Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucután), Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
The history of the Mayan society is usually separated into periods: Pre-classic from 1800 BC to AD 250, the Classic from AD 250 to 900 (and within the Classic period some scholars identify a sub-age defined as the Maya Collapse or Terminal Classic encompassing the ninth and tenth centuries), and the Post-classic from AD 900 to the early 1500s.
The Pre-classic period marked the rise of the first agricultural villages. These were located in the Yucután next to cenotes, or sinkholes, that collected rainwater and connected underground river systems. There are no major surface river systems in the region, so the cenotes meant life for the people. You're probably aware that the soil in the Yucután is poor, the entire region was an ancient seabed, which means the land is mostly comprised of limestone. Limestone is good for water retention as it percolates down to an impermeable layer and remains as a aquifer. The limestone is also easily eaten away by natural processes to create the cenotes, but it's not much good for developing arable soil. The local small village Mayan farmers were able to coax some subsistence foods—corn, beans and squash—and they also hunted what megafauna were indigenous to the area. Interestingly, the corn, beans and squash seeds went into the same hole for planting. The corn grew tall, the beans climbed the stalks and the squash leaves spread out along the ground protecting what little moisture was captured from infrequent rains.
It was in this Pre-classic period that we saw the beginnings of ceremonial centers and the trade routes by land and sea were established.
During the Classic period, the Mayan culture flourished; economic development progressed and there was an increase in the complexity and construction of ceremonial centers and also in social divisions—the politically powerful, the rich and the priesthood on one side—often combined, and the laborers and farmers on the other side of the divide. It's during this time we see the remarkable architectural accomplishments of the stepped pyramids and other large-scale construction projects, although elaborate construction continued into the Post-classic period as well. The Classic period is also the time of transition from the mostly agricultural society to a mixed urban and agricultural lifestyle and the rise of the city-state. We see the ruins of those city-state hubs in Tikal, Palenque, Copán and Calakmul.
There were also extraordinary advancements in science, especially in the interrelated disciplines of astronomy and mathematics.
Nevertheless, at the end of the Classic period, in the Terminal Classic we see a marked breakdown of the society and a series of serious socio-political-economic-agricultural crises. The result was the abandonment of the majority of the Mayan cities across the Yucután peninsula.
In the Post-classic period, the Toltec and Itza invasions from central Mexico brought huge changes to the culture—these are the peoples that built the Chichen Itza complex. It was the beginning of the mystic-military predominance and introduced new gods, such as the feathered serpent Queztalcoatl—known as Kukulkan in the Mayan language. We also see new forms of worship, and artistic and architectural styles. The mobility of the growing population of Itzaes gave them a monopoly on trade in the region and we see the construction of smaller trade cities and ports.
Thus we get to Tulum, which was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries, well past the Classic and near the end of the Post-Classic period. It only managed to survive as a community less than 100 years after the Spanish invasions in the mid 16th century, probably as a result of introduced Old World diseases. But in its halcyon days, it was a center of worship for a wider region for the Descending God. In addition, because of its location on the cliffs facing the Caribbean Sea, and with nice landing beaches, it was an important trading center for peoples from the Gulf of Mexico down into the southern reaches of Mesoamerica.
It's a small site, there are only significant remnants of 10 buildings remaining, though you can still see platforms where individual homes were built. It's a walled city, and the walls tell the story of the Post-classic era, one of general mistrust and a community's efforts to protect against raiders. The walls are on three sides of Tulum, with the fourth side open to the sea. The western wall, running north and south, is 1250 feet long, the two side walls, running from the western wall to the sea are about 560 feet long. They were about 20 feet thick and were nearly 13 feet high when the site was thriving. The area encompasses only 65,000 square meters, just under 16 acres, but the site, inside and outside the walls, were packed with people when it flourished. The enclosure also served as a dividing line in the Tulum society—the priests and rulers lived on the inside and the rest of the population were in small homes surrounding the walled city.
It was also an important worship center and astronomical site. The Mayans knew the city as Zama, which in their language meant "dawn." Indeed, we see these elements in the Temple of the Descending God where the dawn light at the winter and summer solstices will shine through a porthole on the ocean side of the temple and travel through the open doorway on the opposite side to strike the corners of other buildings on the site.
Long before the trip, I sent a photo gift to the lovely bride of a long time OS friend—a member widely regarded as having the perfect combination of intelligence and wit, whimsy and credentials. In return, and completely unexpected, I received the beautiful thing above. A dried gourd adorned with Mayan glyphs drawn by her own artistic hand. The leather weave for the rim is perfectly held with precise threads, the feet are threaded wooden beads. It holds a place of honor in my office, atop my MacPro. I love it every time I look at it, which is often. And she herself is full of whimsy, as her selection and artistry is shown below on the second of four views circling the gourd as if in tapestry.
You can see the other two "sides" by clicking on the image and scrolling to the side for the other views.
The Place of the Descending God
Now for the Tulum images with annotations. I hope you enjoy the experience of vicarious travel, and that the preceding narrative adds to the appreciation of what you see. If you get the faintest glimmer of a chance to see the site in person, and/or Chichen Itza and Coba, then by all means grab that bull by the horns. We only had two hours at Tulum in our constrained bus travel schedule with the need to get back to Cancun for the later activities. That was a shame, I could have spent days there and I think created a better selection of images.
This is a Photoshop and Adobe InDesign overlay of the site I made after looking for and not finding a decent map of the site. Most of the maps I found were a bit too cartoon-like for my tastes. It simulates a height of about 700 feet, a common enough view for birds, but I don't think a parasail will get you that high.
- The bus and auto parking is about a quarter mile away from the entrance gate.
- North entrance through the wall
- House of the Northwest
- House of the Halach Uinic
- House of the Chultun
- House of the Columns
- Temple of the Frescoes
- El Castillo, comprising the main Temple, the Dance Platform and the Temple of the Initial Series
- Temple of the Descending God
- Temple of the Sea
- Temple of the Wind
- House of the Cenote
- Corner Watchtowers
When you get to the parking area, you have to take a tractor shuttle to get to the site. They come and go every 15 minutes or so. But first you have to walk through a kitschy "upscale" visitors' center, where you can buy cheap to expensive tchotchkes. At the tractor waiting area you see the guys above. We all stood there waiting for them to perform—well, they do—but you have to pay them first. The five guys on top have a compatriot on the ground who carries a bucket around. When the tractor shuttle arrives back from the site, he makes the rounds asking for donations from the people on the tractor shuttle and from those who are waiting. If no one pays, the flyers don't perform. I didn't see them perform. Apparently the little bit of money he collected, including some of mine, didn't meet the reserve bidding. What happens is that the flyers on top are tethered to the pole with sturdy ropes and they fly around in a circular fashion like a human maypole. I would have like to have seen it, even if it not really a Mayan tradition, but one imported from central Mexico.
We enter through the remains of the great wall, now a lesser remnant than back in the day. The little tunnel requires a hunched traverse. The Mayans then and now are a small people, but it was also probably extra security to make the tunnel as small as possible. The wall would have been stuccoed and painted.
The first architectural remnant we encounter on the inside of the wall is the "House of the Northwest." It was probably a private residence, and of course for someone of importance. It had a portico with columns that supported a second floor leading up to a private shrine as evidenced by the extant staircase. Perfectly camouflaged near the center front of the photo is a male iguana emerging to eat some banana peels tossed out for him.
Next along the crushed limestone pathway is the House of Halach Uinic (Great Lord). Many of the façades of the Tulum buildings have niches carved in them and in which are depictions of the Descending God. Larger version here.
Next along the pathway we step back a bit for a broader view and see the House of the Columns. The House of Halach Uinic is just at the left in this image.
It's here we get a glimpse of the largest architectural edifice at Tulum. Known as El Castillo (The Castle), it's comprised of several structures inside a walled perimeter. On the north side is the Temple of the Descending God, at the center inside the walls is the Dance Platform and on the south side is the Temple of the Initial Series. The steps lead up to El Castillo, the highest point on the site.
You'll notice I don't have a lot of people in my shots, both in the images in this post and in the previous Chichen Itza post. It's not that I'm averse to having people in my images when it suits my compositional thoughts, but, man, there are some goofy looking tourists at times (I know of course I'm one too). So it requires some patience in waiting for the scene to clear out when I just want the larger elements of the scene to be preeminent. Sometimes you'll see someone's fannypack sticking out behind the edge of a wall or a disembodied leg below some palm fronds, but you have to look pretty close. You're not allowed to take a tripod onto the sites, and you have to pay a fee if you take a video camera into them as well. I did have my monopod with me, which is allowed. The easiest way to remove people, when you can't possibly wait long enough for them to clear when there are lots of people is to take several shots from the same place and your camera is on a tripod. You just layer the different shots in Photoshop and remove the various Biffs and Buffys cluttering your image and replace what was behind them from a different layer. I prefer to be patient and wait than to do that much more post processing, but sometimes you have to employ different methods.
The above shot doesn't have any people in it, but you can play Where's Valdemar and find several iguanas basking on top of walls when you look at the original resolution, seen here.
We see the Temple of the Descending God on the left side, north, of El Castillo. Still no people but there are more iguanas hanging around. I see three.
We get to near the end of the path that traverses the western length of the site and come across the Temple of the Frescoes. It's a two-part structure, originally a single edifice with a vaulted roof and later surrounded by a six column portico. Inside, we're told is an altar (we're not allowed to go into any of the buildings at Tulum) and the walls are decorated with mural paintings. I would have loved to have gone inside. The scenes depict Chaac, the rain god, and Ixchel, the fertility goddess. There still a little bit of color on the outside. Also, notice one more thing. If you read Part 1 and saw the image of the reconstructed corner of the Ossuary, we saw the icongraphic stacking of styled carved images that represented faces. If you look at the upper center of the corner of the Temple, you'll see first the lips and chin below the ledge, with the nose and eyes just above. We see a repetition of the motif that we found in the much earlier Chichen Itza site. Larger size here on black (people on the path!).
Here's the western side of the Temple of the Frescoes. Larger version is here. (People in the background not photoshopped away!) You'll notice some bas relief on the cornice above the columns. The one on the right is of the Descending God. You can see a detail below in the next image.
His name is Ah Muu Zen Caab, otherwise know as the Bee God, in addition to being the Descending God. He had many roles. He descended on light, was a giver of honey, and was also associated with the planet Venus. Did you notice something curious? Yes, look at his feet. He's upside down. For some reason I haven't discovered, he's usually depicted upside down. Also, I'm not sure if the figure at the center left is a depiction of Ah Muu Zen Caab as a baby, but the baby is also upside down—but then that's the normal attitude for birth. Larger.
This, I think, is my second favorite building on the site. Sure you can go big and glitzy for El Castillo, but since we can't climb the steps nor go inside, I'll settle for the the little skewed tilty building that is all about the Tulum site. It's the Temple of the Descending God and we've seen his image and influence all through this post. The God of Light, Honey, Bees, and Venus—a great résumé if you ask me. Again, he's inverted in the niche above the door. And while you can't go inside this little temple either, it just seems more personal and relevant than all the other buildings. Larger version to see him all Tango Uniform again is here.
Before we get to my favorite building, let's take a peek over the edge. It's easy enough to get down to the beach. I'm sorry we were so rushed as a group that we didn't have a chance to go for a dip. I'll have to make it a point to make it back down. I'll have to be on my dime, but that's money well spent.
Our final image is the favorite, the one that leads the top of this post and the Chichen Itza post as well. It's the Temple of the Wind. Having grown up in San Diego, surfed all through high school, sat on cliff tops just looking at the horizon knowing there wasn't anything between me and the coast of Japan except the inexorable presence of the Pacific, it's not always easy to get my coastal cool breezes in the middle of Texas. Oh, the compromise of having my bride in my life was certainly worth it, though I never say I'm from Texas. We'll celebrate our 30th anniversary this coming May—just after my third anniversary on OS in April.
all photos copyright © 2011 by barry b. doyle · all rights reserved
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*Some OS compositional meta stuff—no real need to read:
I always lead with an image on my posts. It serves several purposes—when you look at my blog roll, you'll see image after image as you scroll down and they serve as markers or indicators of content—that is, if the title somehow doesn't really make sense at first glance. I also think it makes my individual blogs look better with a good lead image when or if you get around to opening one. I also add a space or two in the compose window above the lead image—otherwise I think the title, which is a font version of Georgia Bold at 24pt, and the Rate/Link bar are too close to the image. I like a little white space above the lead image (yes, a holdover from my graphic design/page layout days).