Travel Story 

The struggles of the modern Maya

A civilization that inexplicably abandoned its cities survives in the Yucatan jungles

"We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle – we are people struggling for equality." — Rigoberta Menchu, 1992 Nobel Laureate

From the top of Nohochmul Pyramid, above the forest canopy, I can see across the unbroken flatness of the Northern Yucatan to the distant horizon. Below me a small group of other tourists, having given up the climb, is making its way back down. I am alone for a while, standing on the narrow stone ledge surrounding the small summit-temple where a thousand years ago Mayan Priests performed ritual ceremonies to appease their Gods.

I tried to imagine the world as it was back then, when Coba, now only a pile of crumbling ruins in the jungle, was a thriving city-state with a population of 55,000 people. Back then the broad roads, called sacbeh, now barely discernable through the encroaching forest, were corridors of trade linking Coba with Chichen Itza, Tulum, Tikal, and dozens of other Mayan city-states as far away as Copan in northern Honduras. Nohochmul, highest of the Yucatan pyramids, laboriously built by human hands but dedicated to their all powerful, often vindictive Gods, may well be a symbol of what ultimately went wrong with Mayan culture.

During the height of its glory Mayan society was rigidly divided into an elite class of priests and rulers, and a lower order of workers and farmers. The priests, who were believed to have divine insight into the Machiavellian scheming of their many Gods, controlled all aspects of daily life, from the planting of crops to the offering of human sacrifice. It was a society obsessed with the measurement of time and, driven by a belief that time and fortune were cyclical and repetitive, they developed an accurate calendar, became accomplished astronomers, and chiselled a complex record of their history into temple walls and stone slabs, called stelae.

The great stone monuments that have become the legacy of Mayan culture were designed to glorify the Gods, rather than house the people. The pyramids, temples, sacred precincts, and ball courts were places of assembly where people gathered for religious, political or sporting events. Except for royalty and a few priests, the people lived in wood and thatch houses surrounding the city core and almost nothing of their lives is preserved in the archeological record.

When the Spanish arrived in the Yucatan in 1542, Coba and the rest of the great Mayan cities had been abandoned, their towering monuments and temples already overgrown by jungle vines. No one is exactly sure why: Inter-city war? Revolt against the oppressive rule of the priests? Crop failures? Over population of urban centres? Or, more likely a combination of all these things. What we do know is that the historical record carved into the stelae stopped abruptly long before the Spanish conquest.

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