Like dusk at Puerto Morelos.
Like dusk at Puerto Morelos.
We all know that the classic Maya temple was a place of religious ritual. But these structures must also have been pretty handy during times of conflict (most times). From the top of the large temple at Coba, which is 42 meters (138 feet, or about 12-14 stories) high, you can see quite a distance — under favorable conditions all the way to Ek Balaam, I think.
In this image you can see a structure from the central Coba group, which I think is called the Castillo, in the middle distance at the left, and the lakes of Coba (right) and Macanxoc (left) just below the horizon line. The five lakes of Coba are a very unusual feature in the Yucatan.
You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy Girón goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).
In 1677 three nuns arrived in Antigua from Peru. They had been sent to establish a Carmelite convent in the then Guatemalan capital. A few years later, building began on the church of Santa Teresa, where the foreign nuns and their new local sisters would be based; construction was completed in 1687. Unfortunately, thirty years later a major earthquake damaged the church. The nuns were terrified, and thereafter lived in thatched huts in the convent garden.
But that would not be the last earthquake to damage the building. Another hit in 1751. Then, in 1773, a catastrophic earthquake caused the building’s total destruction. These are the ruins that are visible today (which is remarkable, since most damaged buildings in Antigua are quickly rebuilt). Although the facade may appear fairly intact from the street view, the interior is in total ruins, and cluttered with rubble to this day.
The convent itself — which had been abandoned by the nuns in favor of the garden huts — actually faired considerably better than the church. It was used as a men’s prison well into the twentieth century
Antigua’s distinctive architecture is not all in a single style, yet a certain spirit seems somehow common to each of the examples. Elaborate facades such as that of La Merced (shown) have been called churrigueresque (a term indicating elaborate symmetrical ornamentation). Other writers have called Antigua’s architecture hispano-indigena. But S.D. Markman, in his excellent Colonial Architecture of Antigua Guatemala considers Antigua’s architecture to be in essence mudejar.
The term mudejar is applied to Moors who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest. It is a corruption of the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated.” In book arts, a mudejar binding is one decorated with intricate interlaced designs, and in architecture it refers to a late medieval and early Renaissance Spanish style influenced by Moorish tastes. The mudejar architectural style, in essence, involves the use of simple materials such as brick, tile, plaster, metals, and wood, which are then elaborately worked. For the Spanish workers who developed the style, labor and creativity were more obtainable than were fine, expensive materials.
According to Markman, the Spanish examples closest to the Antigua style are found in the provinces of Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, and Malaga (which collectively were called the Reino de Sevilla). “But this comparable stylistic mood is not to be found in the monumental churches of the capital cities of this part of Spain, rather in the small towns of the countryside.” The image at right is the Carduja Monastery in Cadiz, Spain (the image is from somewhere on the web, but I have lost the address).
The mudejar style was exported to the new world as a craft tradition, which underlay all of the iterations and evolutions of the architecture of the often-rebuilt city (most of its architectural landmarks contain elements from a variety of different periods). “The mudejar is the one Iberian style which predominates and underlies all the other recognizable styles from which the Antigua style is derived,” says Markman. It is “the basic core on which the other imported Iberian styles appear as an accretion. In this respect, the architectural tradition of Antigua is but an extension of that of the Reino de Sevilla where the mudejar style is not confined to a single stylistic period, but one which lies submerged in the nonindigenous styles such as the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque. The same process of assimilation and acculturation of architectural styles seems to have taken place in Antigua.
In future posts we will have an opportunity to look in more detail at some of the elements that characterize the mudejar-influenced Antiguan style in architecture.
This is a watercolor I did some years ago.
The town of Esquipulas in Guatemala is famous for its black Christ image, carved of dark balsam wood in the sixteenth century. The church is a famous pilgrimage site, and in 1995 Esquipulas was named “the spiritual center of Central America” by Pope John Paul.
The 1987 Central American peace treaty was called the Esquipulas Peace Agreement.
Narration in the video is in Spanish.
One of the great festivals in Guatemala is Semana Santa in Antigua. On Easter celebrants bear heavy floats depicting images from the passion of Christ; the floats, some requiring dozens of carriers, may weigh thousands of pounds.
Elaborate carpets — alfombras — of pine needles, corn kernels, flowers, and sawdust are created on the cobbled streets. These beautiful artworks will soften the treads of the bearers of the heavy statuary as they make their way across the hard, uneven cobbles. And they will be destroyed by them.
These photos were taken many years ago. The corn in this alfombra detail is interesting. The figure appears to be presenting the corn as a form of offering. The corn seems to emerge from a cooking vessel.
Maize has been the main crop of Mesoamerica since time immemorial. One of the chief deities of the classic Maya was the corn god, who is associated with death and rebirth. He descends to the underworld and reemerges in youthful guise much like a young shoot breaking through the surface of the earth at the beginning of the growing season. So it is natural that he would become associated with Easter, a springtime festival that is also associated with death and rebirth.
The Maya ruins of Tulum are located on the Yucatan coast, in the southern Riviera Maya. Tulum is not exactly a major Maya site. It’s a late one, and the construction is a little crude compared to the finest Maya stonework.
During the period the city was at its height the Yucatan was racked with warfare, and consequently Tulum is one of the few walled Maya cities. Today Tulum is appallingly overrun with tourists, which makes it a bit difficult to fully enjoy. Nonetheless, it boasts a spectacular location. Few significant Maya cities are built directly on the coast (no doubt its seaside location was a defensive factor for the city’s founders). It is likely that the Spanish conquistadors’ first intimations of the Maya civilization were the siting of Tulum on its lofty perch.
I will have more to say about Tulum later. Today I mention it because Hurricane Dean is about to make landfall, and reports say it will hit just south of the historic city. I hope that the ruins will not be badly damaged and that the good people of the Yucatan will suffer as little as possible as the storm cuts its furious swath through to the Gulf.
The church of La Merced is one of the most distinctive in Antigua. Its history is strongly marked by earthquakes. Originally built in the mid-sixteenth century, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times until assuming more or less its present shape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps its most striking feature, its churrigueresque facade, was added in the nineteenth century.
But this post is not about the church — I will save that for another time. This is about the fountain in the adjacent courtyard. Called the Fuente de Pescados, it dates from the eighteenth century; it was restored in 1944. Twenty-seven meters in diameter, it’s said to be the largest classical fountain in Guatemala, or in Central America, or in Latin America — it doesn’t really matter.
The fountain is in the shape of a water lily. Water lilies are more common in the lowlands, in which bodies of water tend to be still or slow-moving, than in the highlands. In Maya symbology, the water lily, perhaps as a result of the way it seems to emerge out of the watery depths, is associated with creation. A Lancandon legend says that the first god created a water lily, from which all the other gods emerged (Miller and Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya).
I took the picture at the top of this post some three decades ago. Compare it to the following one, which I took about five years ago. Here you can see that the surrounding arcades have been completely restored. The stucco-like surface has been replaced with brick. It’s not an unpleasant change, and now one can walk all the way around the courtyard, looking down on the fountain from many angles.
Still, the romantic quality of the ruins in the first photo brings a wave of nostalgia. I feel fortunate to have been among the last to see the fountain in this form. I don’t know when this latest restoration occurred, but I suspect it followed the massive earthquake that struck the highlands just a few months after the first picture was taken. Nothing is permanent in Mesoamerica, where Christian churches are built on the foundations of ancient temples, and the earth itself rearranges the surface of things at frequent intervals.
Many years ago we lived in this little house in Mixco, on the outskirts of Guatemala City. The house was near the police checkpoint at the edge of town, where the road to Antigua (as I recollect you got there along Avenida Roosevelt) began to leave the broad Guate valley and wind up the bucolic hills toward the old capital. The area was largely rural — we would watch lizards sunning themselves on the fence outside our kitchen window; on the other side of the fence cattle grazed. Down a dirt road was a little cantina.
Today there is a broad freeway to Antigua. It bypasses this area, which has all been swallowed up by the grim urban sprawl that characterizes the city today.
Flying giant kites on Nov. 1 is a tradition in Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala.
This year’s presidential elections are the deadliest since the 1980s. Frontrunner Alvaro Colom has called his chief opponent, Otto Perez Molina, an idiot. Perez Molina has called Colom a thief. Meanwhile, “the electorate is tremendously skeptical.” And people keep dying.
Francisco Goldman is releasing a book that implicates general Perez Molina in the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerard, a human rights activist.
Tigre fe54 has a nice set of door knocker photos from Antigua, Guatemala, at his flickr site. Clickable thumbnails appear below, via the Crossroads plugin.
Archaeologists have discovered traces of an ancient Maya city in a papaya plantation in the Corozal area of Belize. The find includes three Mayan foundations tentatively dated to the early classic period. Skeletons of a man and a woman were also uncovered, although they seem to be from a little earlier. According to the Belize Reporter, “It is believed that Aventura had seven to ten thousand inhabitants and encompassed an area of two to three square miles.” The Reporter article also alludes to a temple and some “ornate pottery.” I suppose in time exactly what the site comprises will become clearer.
How times have changed. When I was teaching in Guate — there was no internet, so don’t even think about WiFi — we once got so desperate for bagels (nowhere to be found in the entire country) that we tried cooking our own. As I recall you have to drop the dough into boiling water. My colleague Marvin Schwartz pronounced the result decent. “But,” he concluded, “they aren’t bagels.”
What better way to begin than with this poignant sign of an unknown Maya reaching out through the centuries to touch our world. (I say to begin because earlier posts below were transfered from my site rightreading.com to this new domain, and this post marks the beginning of buriedmirror.com as a new domain.)
This is a photo I took in February of a red handprint on the interior of the arch at the Maya ruins of Kabah in the Puuc region of the Yucatan. Most Maya structures were brightly painted, and this handprint was left in red paint. The handprint was originally obscured by a stucco surface, which has peeled away. Similar handprints in blue paint can be seen at Uxmal, about 20 kilometers northeast.
The arch was the opening to a sacbe, a grand road or walkway, seven kilometers wide at the north and ten kilometers wide here, which connected the great cities of Uxmal and Kabah. A similar arch marks the Uxmal end of the sacbe. A photo of the Kabah arch is below.
As it happens, the name “Kabah” includes the Maya word for “hand,” “kab” (pronounced “kah” by Maya today). The combination “kab-ah” has given Mayanists trouble, and its meaning is disputed. Some say it should be translated as “strong hand,” others as “skilled hand,” others as “sculpting hand,” others as “snake hand” or “mole hand.”
Did the ancient Maya painter imagine that the print of his hand would reach out to distant generations? If so, how might he have imagined us?
click images for larger views
I’m having some trouble getting my Maya materials online because there are so many of them, and there’s just so little time. So, we’ll do this one building at a time. This is “El Caracol” (“the snail,” so called in Spanish for its winding internal staircase), which is called “The Observatory” in English.
It’s not hard to see how it gets that name, because it looks a lot like a modern observatory. It’s quite unusual for a Maya building, with its round dome placed on a square base. Slits in the dome allowed viewing the sky at the cardinal and subcardinal directions. Certainly the movements of celestial objects were important to the Maya, and their astronomical reckoning was quite advanced (witness their highly accurate calendar). But I’m not sure that we can say definitively how this building was used in its particulars. As with all Maya sites, a great deal of fancy has come to surround the ruins, making it difficult to separate fancy from fact.
The earliest parts of the Observatory were probably constructed in the ninth century. The building underwent several modifications over the succeeding centuries.
Click the small image in the post to see several more images of the Observatory.
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