Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 9 – Guatamala Mayan site: Tikal

Into Guatemala via a border post that demands a couple of sly dollars in each passport then a road that passed an endless number of Mayan mounds. At one point the road cut straight through a Mayan Temple revealing the steps like a cutaway drawing. The ancient population count has been upped recently as they’ve discovered dwellings between the mounds (previous estimates relied on mound counts). This is a poor part of Guatemala, and we see loads of guys on horseback and houses with separate thatched kitchens.

We dumped our stuff in the hotel and headed off for the Tikal site, stopping for lunch in a residential Mayan building on the east side of the site. Tikal’s sense of place comes from its position in the centre of a rainforest. The surrounding trees crowd in on the grey limestone buildings and when you climb one, you see the tips of others poke above the canopy of trees. The sheer size of the place makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the entire site. All around, parrots squawk, coloured birds roost and wild turkeys strut across ancient plazas. Then there’s the monkeys, howlers sitting feeding then roaring like lions. Spider monkeys swinging with tails, legs and arms. Causing the branches to swish. A very special sight was the beautiful Indigo Buntings in the evening sun against the limestone.

We stopped in complex Q & R with its seven sets of ‘twin’ pyramids to mark the end of a period of 20x360 day years. The replica of the stelae shows the last king of Tikal in full headdress.

We climbed the huge temple (IV) at 64m bult in 741 AD. The views of the surrounding jungle are astounding and only the tips of the other tall temples are visible. Then down to the Great Plaza, where the magnificent Temples II and I face each other , stepped 44m pyramid with nine levels, and a room with a comb on top. It is perfectly proportioned, tall and graceful. We climbed Temple I, a mere 38 m, and enjoyed watching the evening light in the plaza. Tn off to the huge acropolis complex at the back of which were four wild turkeys and a lone Howler, enjoying some fruit.

After this we headed back to the Plaza of the Seven Temples, where we saw parrots, a spider monkey and climbed the 32m Great Pyramid. We sat here until sunset, then asset off for a night walk in the jungle. Walking down the trail, fireflies spun across our path, Callum spotted a frog and a pair of cat’s eyes shone from behind the trees.

Cultural archaeology

Our guide in Tikal was a sophisticated and knowledgeable man, who saw in archaeology a series of imported cultural perspectives. In the post-war period it was all internecine warfare and sacrifices, in the sixties, hallucinogenic drugs and communing with gods, and in these days, climate change and environmental catastrophes. You can’t get into these sites on 23rd December 20112, as all places are booked by whacko, apocalyptic groups gathering for the end of days. He was in favour of a more complex and pluralistic explanations, with a focus on Mayan beliefs and cosmology.

Mayan dualism

Now here’s a thing. I had read the Hero Twins myth, and having twins with me (my sons) started seeing twin phenomena in many of these sites. There were twin temples with twin masks, twin ballcourts in which twin teams enacted (perhaps) the Hero twins’ myth. Mayan glyphs are read in pairs and their metaphysics was dualistic with a real world and other word, accessed through drugs, taken orally or anally (enema tubes are commonly found in tombs and pictured on pots). This was never mentioned by any of the many guides we had on this tour or in any museum.

Them stones and stones….

What’s strange about these Mayan buildings, even in cleared sites, is that you can wander right up to one without noticing until you’re almost climbing the slope. They’re sort of cloaked in vegetation and leaves making them invisible. Then you see a dressed stone, look up and see the symmetry in the hill and a shouldered level.

It’s easy to forget that this was a stone-age culture. They built these skyscrapers using stone tools from the only stone available, the ubiquitous limestone. Their ornamentation was green jade, valuable items glassy, black obsidian and asymmetric flints. Metals, such as gold, were rare, but not valued. There were no readily available ores or alluvial metals.

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