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A Maya stela, altar, and pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal and Maya Stelae

While in Central America, I had different local guides and archaeologists who spent time with me at different Maya sites in four countries. While I was at Tikal I had Horia, a direct descendent of the Maya, as my guide. The Tikal site is in one of the largest rainforests and only a small portion of the ancient ruins have been excavated. Several million Maya lived in the area between southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras during the classical period (1200 B.C. to 800 A.D). The empire spread across this region with trade between four different kingdoms. The capitals were Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico. When you walk though the paths in Tikal, you can see and feel the grandeur of these magnificent ruins. You can see the layout of this vast city even though only a few pyramids, palaces, plazas, and stelae remain. Others are covered by the trees and vegetation of this great rainforest.

The temples and pyramids had four decorated sides facing north, east, south, and west. The masses were uneducated and controlled by the rulers, and only priests and astronomers were highly respected and held places of honor. Some pyramids were for meditation, and others had a flat top for astronomers to study the night sky. Without the telescopes and scientific equipment that we have today, they knew about the Milky Way, constellations, and the Moon calendar. In Central America, farmers are still following the moon calendar to plant crops. The Maya calendar was very accurate, using 365 days in 20-year cycles.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

At Tikal and later at other Maya sites, especially Copan, I learned about stelae. A stela is a free-standing statue or monument carved in the image of a ruler, and it also gives information: date of his birth, years of rule, accomplishments, warfare, marriages (they were polygamists), and death. Each stela was carved from one large block of tuff quarried from one of the nearby hills. The block was rolled on logs to the spot where it was erected. A hole was dug, a base was laid on the ground and the huge stone was raised to a standing position. After the stone was raised, workers placed a temporary roof over it to keep it moist and easier to carve. When it was completed, it was painted red using iron ore or cinnabar pigment.  Each stela has an altar for sacrificial bloodletting. Thorns and stingray spines were used to prick ears, tongues, and other body parts. There was an offertory vault where offerings such as shells, jade beads, and stalactites were found. There are 24 stelae still standing in the Copan Valley in Honduras, and another 39 are in storage. Early on, it was customary to destroy and bury the predecessor’s monuments; only in the later dynasties were monuments kept and new ones built around them.

The stelae were erected for the people to worship their semi-divine ruler, and they were placed on different plazas throughout the kingdom. They symbolize the four corners of the universe: north-xaman, south-nojool, east-lak’in, and west-chik’in. The stelae showed an advanced civilization, like that of the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. Most of the rulers portrayed on stelae carry in their arms a double-headed serpent, with the serpents’ mouths opened wide to show emerging heads, representing reentering into the world. There are smaller figures alongside the ruler: ancestors, spirit companions, and spirits from the supernatural world. The carving is very detailed with high relief.

One stela I took time to analyze was of the ruler Fiery Snake- K’ahk’Uti’Chan, who was born in 563 A.D., became king in 578 A.D., and died in 628 A.D. at age 65. On his stela, he honored the founder of his dynesty, K’inich Yax K’ uk’ Mu, whose likeness is also carved there. The ruler is wearing a jaguar pelt skirt, a loincloth over it, a ceremonial belt, jade pendants, and masks hanging from his chest (in public, rulers always wore masks to cover their face). A serpent body is alongside the ruler’s legs. There are water plants and on other stelae there are maize, a symbol of death and rebirth. The spots on the jaguar’s pelt are like the stars in the night sky, and the jaguar is a solar deity. The Maya believed that like the sun, the souls of the deceased rise and fall every day.

I learned so much about the Maya civilization. During my long days there, we would continue soaking up the history, even during lunch breaks on the site. One day I was enjoying sopa, rice, beef, and steamed vegetables and a small plate of tortillas with sauce that was put on the table. I dipped a tiny piece of tortilla in the sauce and to my horror, my tongue and lips began to burn. My mouth was on fire! I tried soup, rice, water, soda, and ice, to no avail. Finally, the sensation went away, and I continued with my lessons on Maya history.

(posted July 18, 2017)

Mayan majesty in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal, Guatemala

Our little group drove from Antiqua to Chichicastenango and then to Guatemala City, spending several days touring, visiting historic sites, and walking. It was cooler in the mountains and the air was more refreshing. In the valleys between the volcanoes, we passed large fields that were bountiful with crops.

Mango, pineapple, cantaloupes, and bananas are grown for export. Sugar and coffee are exported too, in large quantities, to the United States.  We passed sugar fields being burned before the workers go in to chop down the cane with machetes. I would see the workers walking from the villages to the fields with a stick in one hand and a machete in the other.

From December until May, the air is polluted in smog caused by the vast amount of burning fields of sugar cane. Workers refuse to go into the fields until burned for fear of the poisonous snakes that live there.

There are orange groves and cocoa trees with beans for chocolate. There are rubber trees and zarzapawilla trees for medicine.  In the high hills are coffee trees, where coffee is all handpicked and carried down on narrow trails, in big sacks on the back of workers.

The roads are good for traveling and there are a few cafes along the way. We stopped for lunch at a café and bought cheeseburgers. Mine was delicious but so large I had to cut it into quarters. I ate one fourth, I gave one fourth to my driver, George, and I neatly bagged the other half along with some great homemade French fries and a bottle of water. Not much farther along the highway, George stopped and my guide, Rafael, left a snack for a couple of workers.

We reached Guatemala City in the early evening, and at my hotel, we said goodbye to my driver George. Rafael was staying there, and early the next morning, we would meet Edwardo, owner of the Honduras Travel Company, at the airport.

Guatemala City is the second largest city in Central America with a population of 4 million. We didn’t take time to tour the city the next day.

Ever since Moises (my original guide) had gone to court, it had caused a chain reaction. A few days ago, Rafael had driven 13 hours from Honduras to meet me. He now had to leave me, as he had a contract to be a guide for a Chinese group meeting in Belize and touring to Panama. At the airport, Rafael was flying to Belize, and Edwardo had flown from Honduras to Guatemala City to be with me.  We would fly to Flores, where a driver and guide would take us to Tikal, the capital of a Mayan empire in the jungle.

That morning began at 3:30 am with a hurried trip to the airport. There was a pleasant goodbye to Rafael, who was a good, qualified guide. Edwardo and I boarded a small domestic plane to Flores, where our local guide and driver took us to Tikal.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The vast ruins are only partly excavated, but the temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy. There were spider monkeys in the trees and we had the site to ourselves for most of the day.

We walked all day though the jungle, where in 700 AD, thousands of Mayans lived here in great living conditions. Every 20 years, a great central plaza was built upon the older existing dynasty. There was elaborate housing for the royal families, astronomers, and priests, along with temples, plazas, cemeteries, and many villages around the area. We climbed many steps to the top of several pyramids, and all the while, I learned so much about the Mayan people.

Later that day, we returned to Flores and had a light lunch. Edwardo also wanted to stop at a new resort to meet with the owner, as part of his business. We caught a late flight back to Guatemala City, where my new guide was to meet us. He had driven his large van from Honduras to meet us, and for the rest of my trip, Patricio was my guide.

(posted June 20, 2017)

Flowers at the church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango Mayan Market

Chichicastenango is an interesting place to visit, because it was in the center of ancient Mayan civilization, and it is still an active, traditional, native town. It has the largest outdoor market in Central America. Actively in existence since 1,200 BC, it is still selling some of the same things: vegetables, flowers, limestone for tortillas, leather goods, beadwork, hand woven textiles, live chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and so much more. It is situated in a hilly valley void of forests from years of civilization, and the market is on dirt between Santo Tomas church and the large community cemetery that includes a number of acres. The market is held every Thursday and Sunday and people come from miles to buy or sell. We found people carrying goods on their backs, or on their heads, coming from all over Guatemala by car, truck, and buses.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Mayan descendants in this area have kept to traditional ways. They are very small in size: men and women are less than 5 feet tall and small framed. Their way of life ages them. They have not easily adapted to modern technology. They dress in wipile Mayan traditional clothing. The mother carries her baby in a brightly-colored, hand-woven shawl knotted and placed on her back.

The market was filled with local people walking the narrow aisles and children running around, while venders were asking you to buy their wares. Young toddlers sat on the ground all day while their mothers were selling crafts or food at the market.

On the church steps were people selling fresh flowers. There was also a pagan alter on the bottom step, lit with firewood, and there special herbs giving off smoke in all directions. A shaman was walking up and down the steps while chanting. He stepped slowly and cautiously between the women and their many buckets of flowers, which covered almost every space on the narrow steps leading to the front doors of the church.

Rafael and I walked carefully up the steps, trying not to step on the women or the flowers, and went into Santo Tomas Roman Catholic Church. The outside steps, front wall, and wooded doors of the white church were blackened from the soot and smoke of this ongoing pagan ritual. Inside was just as bleak: the walls and ceiling were darkened from years and years of candles being burned. There were pagan alters in the center aisle where people would come and sit or kneel and chant or pray. On the ceiling above the high altar is a painted sun, as the Mayans who were Christianized when the Spanish Conquistadors came worshiped their sun god and God at the same time when attending church. Rafael and I went to the church while Mass was being held the previous evening. It was quite an interesting scene.

Nearby and within walking distance is the large Christian cemetery. Family lots are varied with creatively designed vaults. The ancient Mayans buried their dead as they still do today, with bodies in caskets. Today they are encased in cement above the ground, placing one on top of another when space is limited.

We kept walking. I was learning so much about the culture of the people. This cemetery was so large it just seemed to go on and on, like a miniature city, up and down little hills until we came to a pagan altar covered with a simple tin roof. There was a family of about 20 people gathered there while a shaman was performing a ritual by the burning fire. Some people were standing, others were sitting on the graves, and some were drinking some sort of brew. One young man who appeared to represent the family was smoking a cigar, deeply inhaling then exhaling over the altar, then passing the cigar around to each person. No one was talking except the shaman. It was very solemn. I asked Rafael what he was saying. He said he couldn’t understand him as there are 19 different dialects spoken by people in Guatemala. It was a very interesting, simple ceremony, so ancient, still being carried on in the same place after thousands of years.

Rafael and I walked back to the market where I could buy a few items and several little tag-a-long kids caught up with us to ask us to buy what they were selling. Begging is not seen and bartering is not very common. People are friendly, with venders accepting US currency or the Guatemalan quetzals.

It was fascinating to be in this country setting dating back to pre-Columbian people and have a taste of Guatemalan culture.

(posted June 6, 2017)