THE CHICKEN BUS TO MERIDA must have stopped at every shack and henhouse in northern Yucatan. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, and the weekend market was already underway in the main plaza where our hostel was located. There was music, street food, and numerous little stalls crowding the central part of the square with everything on display from cheap trinkets to fine handicrafts. Like the main plaza in Campeche, the square in Merida was dominated by a Spanish colonial cathedral, which had been built with stones taken from the Maya temples that once graced this spot. Formerly known as T’ho, the city had featured five pyramids as its focal point, which provided plenty of building material for the Spanish. The fall of T’ho in 1542 at the hands of Francisco de Montejo (the younger) marked the first real breakthrough for the Spanish in their war against the Maya. Soon after this victory, other Maya polities in the northern Yucatan began to accept Spanish suzerainty. The most opportunistic of these made a devil’s bargain by allying themselves with the new boss in order to gain the upper hand against their old rivals. It was a tactic the Spanish were happy to exploit, thus hastening the end of Maya independence.
In the evening we watched a presentation of some folklorico dancing in the plaza. The girls wore traditional Maya huipils while the boys were dressed like Chicago gangsters. They were very young and it was like watching a middle school play. While there was nothing unusual in the performance – certainly nothing menacing – I had trouble enjoying the proceedings because such depictions of native culture put on for the benefit of tourists always remind me of the scene in Joan Didion’s book Salvador where the author is treated to just such an event in a country that, ironically, is in the process of exterminating its indigenous population:
The dances … were Indian, but they were less remembered than recreated, and as such derived not from local culture but from a learned idea of local culture, an official imposition made particularly ugly by the cultural impotence of the participants. The women, awkward and uncomfortable in an approximation of native costume, moved with difficulty into the dusty street and performed a listless and unpracticed dance with baskets. Whatever men could be found (mainly little boys and old men, since those young men still alive in places like Nahuizalco try not to be noticed) had been dressed in “warrior” costume.
She found the performance, which had taken place under the watchful eyes of soldiers with assault rifles, “deeply obscene”. Troubled by these images, I found myself looking forward to traveling back in time with our next stop: the Terminal Classic city of Uxmal.
The Classic period of Maya civilization in the central lowlands was over. The great cities of Tikal, Calakmul, and Palenque were already being reclaimed by the jungle. But in the north, beginning around 850 AD, there was a florescence of Maya culture which in some ways represented the most sophisticated period of the Maya before their light dimmed and was finally put out. Uxmal, which was the most important polity in the northern Yucatan at the beginning of the 10th century, was a magnificent city. It epitomized the architectural style known as Puuc, named after the nearby hills, and survived the intervening millennia in far better condition than many other sites in large part because of its superior construction. I knew none of this prior to my visit, which explains the astonishment and delight I felt upon seeing what remained of this jewel.
I had an inkling that something was different here when I paid the entry fee, which was three or four times the usual rate. Upon entering the site we were faced with a solid pyramidal mass rising over a hundred feet into a perfectly blue sky. This was the back of the Magician’s Temple. As we walked to the front I marveled at the rounded sides of the temple. Instead of the sharp corners of the central lowland pyramids, the Adivino – as it is also known – seemed to bulge like an overstuffed chair. At the front of the temple there was a small courtyard framed by low buildings with rounded columns and expertly carved geometric patterns on the upper tiers. The temple itself was adorned with several masks representing Chaac, the rain god. At the top of the stairs was what looked like a Borg spaceship: a large, ornate cube. The entrance to this cube was through the gaping mouth of a Maya earth monster, who was often depicted guarding the entrance to sacred places.
Uxmal was full of striking ruins, some of which were so well preserved they couldn’t even be called ruins. The Nunnery Quadrangle was a large courtyard bordered by long, low buildings with ornate friezes of Chaac, Kukulcan, and other fantastic creatures. By the time I reached the structure known as the Governor’s Palace I should have been ready for what rose in front of me, but I just shook my head in wonder at the sight. It was perhaps the quintessential example of Puuc architecture. A long building, over three-hundred feet, it was positioned atop a hill overlooking the rest of the city and built on a 40-foot-high platform, giving it the appearance of a museum piece displayed on a pedestal. The lower half of the Palace had several chambers cut in featureless stone, while the upper half was a showcase of baroque ornamentation, heavy with gods and monsters. This latter part of the building is larger and overhangs the substructure, giving it the impression of a densely populated celestial realm. I shuddered to think of such a magnificent example of Maya workmanship taken apart to build a cookie-cutter colonial church.
Uxmal was one of those sites, like Palenque, that you don’t want to leave. It seemed alive. I almost felt that if I stayed long enough I’d see a Maya priest come out of one of the enclaves atop the Adivino. But there wouldn’t have been any divine kings in resplendent quetzal plumes; the Maya had moved beyond such fanciful forms of governance and had established a more pragmatic system of rule by committee. They had taken that first small step towards a more representative form of government, from divine king to ruling class. A thousand years later, few countries could claim to have made any further progress.