WE WERE CLOSING THE CIRCLE NOW. From Merida we would be traveling east in the direction of Cancun, our starting point. We weren’t ready to tie things up just yet though, so we purchased bus tickets to Tulum, eighty miles south of Cancun. We planned on getting off the bus at the halfway point for a layover of several hours to experience the best-known Maya site in Mexico: Chichen Itza. At least it was the only site that I knew of prior to starting this trip, and then only parenthetically as the place where the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012. The event was being promoted the same way The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was promoted in Douglas Adams’ brilliant Hitchhikers series, as THE place to be for trendy hipsters when the sands of time ran out:
“At the Restaurant you can meet and dine with a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time … Afterwards the world will explode for your pleasure.”
When we stepped off the bus the following day we found ourselves in decidedly unhip company; surrounded by crowds of tourists. This site was close enough to the tourist hubs of Cancun and Cozumel that it was practically de rigueur to take a day off from the beach to see this splendidly reconstructed city. Some of the visitors appeared to have come directly from the beach and wore little more than their bathing suits, while others guarded themselves against the fierce sun with an excess of clothing that was just short of a burqa. It was strange to be among so many people after having so often been the only visitors at previous sites. Once inside the archaeological zone however, people quickly dispersed to the four corners of the site.
Immediately in front of us rose the Temple of Kukulcan. If it were painted black and had “50 TONS” stenciled on the side it would look exactly like an immense cartoon weight, the kind that Wile E. Coyote always managed to drop on himself. It was an almost featureless pyramid except for the carved serpent heads at the base of the northern staircase. Rising 100 feet from the center of a large courtyard, its solid appearance and great bulk seemed to declare permanence and ownership: We’re here to stay. Chichen Itza reigned supreme in the northern Yucatan for over 200 years. It was the largest and most powerful Maya city ever to come into existence. It also marked the first appearance in the Maya area of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, known elsewhere to the peoples of Mexico as Quetzalcoatl. It has been suggested that this is evidence of a takeover, perhaps by the Toltecs of central Mexico, but it appears that Chichen Itza was simply a more cosmopolitan city, open to foreign influences which in turn aided its widening influence and trade with the rest of Mesoamerica. It also expanded its domain through military action, overwhelming even the large polity of Coba, more than 50 miles away. Chichen Itza boasted the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, with a width of over 200 feet and twice that long. The complex comprised several other structures as well, including the Temple of the Jaguar which surmounts the east wall of the ball court, and the North Temple, which looks like a throne for a Roman emperor to enjoy the game of death on the field below.
I picked up an odd little tchotchke from one of the many vendors sitting in the shade: a small mask of patchwork stones and mother-of-pearl representing the Flayed God. Occasionally, during ancient Mesoamerican sacrificial rites, after a captive had been killed his skin would be flayed from his body and handed to a priest who would then wear it as his own flesh so he could perform a ritual dance for the spectators below. It was a kind of macabre resurrection theater with the skin of the victim revivified by the priest. My brightly-colored mask seemed far removed from its gruesome referent.
Unlike most other sites, the buildings here were off-limits to visitors, roped off against those of us who like to climb the structures and get acquainted with their every niche. It was an understandable restriction, considering the number of people who visit this place, and showed a kind of sustainable vision that the ancient Maya apparently lacked, since almost all archaeologists agree that the Maya consistently overpopulated and deforested their realms until they breached the carrying capacity of the land, leading to environmental degradation and perhaps societal collapse as well.
But Chichen Itza appears to have reached its demise in a different fashion. In the Maya Chronicles – native accounts written by Maya scribes shortly after the Conquest – we hear about Itza rulers who were like those of Rome in its decadent period:
They brought shameful things when they came. They lost their innocence in carnal sin … There was no great teacher, no great speaker … Lewd were the priests when they came to be settled here…
The instability was manifest in comments referring to this period as an era of
the origin of the two-day throne, the two-day reign.
Instead of overpopulation and environmental degradation, Chichen Itza appears to have fallen victim to internecine strife. In The Ancient Maya we hear of
political intrigue, even the dramatic kidnapping of the wife of the ruler of Chichen Itza by the ruler of Izamal.
Perhaps as a result of its cosmopolitan nature, the polity of Chichen Itza was rife with such maneuvering. The ruling elite of the city may have comprised several different groups: the Itza, Chontal, Xiu, Cocom, and perhaps Toltecs as well as other groups from Mexico. Each finding themselves in league against the other or forming Machiavellian partnerships, leading to a kind of Mayan melodrama with the participants in pursuit of dominance. The Postclassic city of Mayapan, apparently founded by a group that had been expelled from Chichen Itza, returned with a vengeance and conquered that great capital sometime in the 12th or 13th century. Mayapan, though it ruled in the wake of Chichen Itza’s downfall for another two centuries or more, itself fell victim to such intrigue. History appears to have repeated itself when the Cocom and their Canul mercenaries from Mexico expelled the Xiu from Mayapan, only to see them return (with their Mexican mercenaries, the Chel) fifty years later to put the house of Cocom to the torch.
These coups and countercoups brought an end to Mayapan and scattered the combatants all over northern Yucatan, where they established small – still warring – fiefdoms.
By now the Maya had essentially become seafaring merchants who had ceased to build the great temples of the now receding Classic. It is an open question whether this represented a lull between periods of florescence or if, in the words of our guide at Lamanai, “It was over”.