Ancient understandings

One writer’s visit to Mayan ruins reveals truths close to home

A stelae at Quiriguá in Guatemala.

A stelae at Quiriguá in Guatemala.

Photo by Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento-based writer.

Hundreds of years before Western dentists developed the skill to drill human teeth, implanting fillings and ornamental jewels in the enamel, Mayan dentists had worked out the technique. In excavated ruined cities in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, archeologists have found skulls, the teeth of which are adorned with delicate little gems.

I have visited many Mayan ruins over the decades, drawn back time and again by the beauty and the mystery of these ancient cities in the lush rainforests. This time around, in December, I was on a large cruise ship to give lectures about the post-election political landscape in the United States. I managed to get in some day trips to the ruins, while the boat docked at ports in Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucat&#aacute;n Peninsula.

The Maya weren’t only superior dentists, they were also extraordinary mathematicians, astronomers and engineers. Starting well over 2,000 years ago, they built up an understanding of the starry sky and calculated the movements of the planets with an accuracy that European astronomers wouldn’t approach until the 16th century. They constructed vast cities, some now thought to have contained populations hundreds of thousands strong, in land that is now dense jungle.

The Mayan world functioned somewhat as did the ancient Greek world, revolving around shifting constellations of powerful city-based alliances, linked vaguely by shared religious beliefs, language and cultural practices. Every so often, in the millennia of Mayan influence that preceded the Spanish conquest, an old center of power would fade and a new one, often led by a charismatic local king, would arise.

At Chacchoben, nearly 70 kilometers inland from the windy Yucat&#;aacute;n port of Costa Maya, huge pyramids, the bases dating to 600 B.C., the more recent layers a mere 1,400 years old, rise up out of the humid rain forest. They vie with the gnarled ceiba trees for height supremacy. The bare stones of these monuments are now slippery with green moss; but millennia ago they were covered with adobe, their surfaces painted a deep, ceremonial red. Along paths off of the main religious complexes are the foundations of houses, government buildings and the tiered stone seats, where enthused audiences sat at ancient ball games. Every Mayan city had such a sports complex; they were as ubiquitous as football and soccer stadiums are today throughout the Americas.

There was, however, one big difference: Frequently, at the end of a game, several players were ritually sacrificed to appease the local deities.

This was a culture of extreme contradictions: one of extraordinary intellectual accomplishments and also one preoccupied by highly orchestrated, ritualistic bloodletting. Think of a culture today that on the one hand produces Nobel laureates in abundance and, on the other, fetishizes guns and stands by while tens of thousands of people per year die of gunshot wounds as a result.

Different world, common ground

Cruise-ship life is a strange, disembodied way of being. One stands somewhat outside of time, outside of the rhythms of everyday life. True, there are alternative rhythms onboard, largely revolving around the times the buffets and bars open; but the sense of participation in a place and a time is put on hold. It's a slow-paced existence—one that would drive me mad after more than a few days, I suspect, but that for those few days is remarkably rejuvenating. One can sit on the deck, or in the little patio outside one's bedroom, watch the endless blue sea and listen to the gentle sounds of the calm Caribbean waters sloshing around the side of the ship.

When one disembarks, however, there is an unfortunate theme-park quality to the ports, an exploitative, superficial take on local culture that consists mainly of stalls selling tchotchkes and restaurants hawking foods heavy on the local names and light on the real and spicy local flavors.

But beyond the awfulness of the ports, farther inland, one can start to see some very different worlds. At Santa Tom&#;aacute;s de Castilla, in Guatemala, the ship docked for a full day. Our tour guide was a feisty archeologist keen to talk about not only the ruins that we were approaching, but also the history of his country: the decades-long civil war that ended 20 years ago; the impoverished state of the countryside; the power of the banana cartels; and the corruption and ineptitude of his country’s political leadership.

The previous government, he explained, had been driven from power by huge protests—more than a million people, out of a population of 16 million, in the streets. They protested, he explained, outside of the homes of cabinet members, making it clear that unless the officials resigned and faced prosecution, “we will burn your houses, your dogs and your cats.” It was a visceral, not particularly pleasant image.

The protests apparently bore fruit. Eleven of the 12 ministers, the president and his deputy, were incarcerated, our guide further explained. The 12th committed suicide.

These days, Guatemela’s president is a one-time professional clown who shot to fame through his television show and won power by promising voters he would use his outsider status to sweep clean a filthy, dysfunctional system.

This information struck a bit too close to home; half the bus, filled with tourists seeking to escape the current realities of the United States, audibly groaned.

At Quirigu&#;aacute;, however, contemporary politics faded away as we walked through an overgrown field of tall stone stelae, or Mayan monuments, each one intricately carved with the faces of kings such as Lightning Warrior—who threw off the rule of the powerful city-state of Copan in the mid-eighth century—and symbols telling their stories.

There are more than 700 symbols in the Mayans’ written language—a glorious hybrid of phonetic, alphabet-like symbols, along with complex imagery designed to communicate numeric and literary ideas. It’s beautiful imagery that hints at a very different world. That world was codified in magnificent detail throughout hundreds of years by the scribes of the Mayan codices—a body of knowledge akin to modern encyclopedias. The conquering Spaniards did their best to eradicate it, burning the codices and destroying the scholars and priests who were stewards of this alien, non-Catholic universe.

One can feel this distant culture when wandering through Quirigu&#;aacute;. One can envision the stelae in their full, painted splendor, and the temples and plazas fully populated with vendors and artists, the jade and obsidian artisans, the medics, the priests and promenaders. One can unleash the imagination in such a place, stepping outside of time for a few hours

That evening, the ship set off again toward the northeast, past the west coast of Cuba, up the western edge of Florida and back to Tampa once more. After a week of separation from the pressures of daily life, it was back to the airport and off again to California.