The Mayas

14 02 2009

Driving through Yucatan is inevitably followed by lots of visits to Mayan ruins. I remember reading about the Mayas when I was a kid, at that time that actually visiting such a place was inconceivable, like going to Mars! Such strange civilizations, so far away! Yet, we were there and we saw quite a lot of them: Chitchen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque, Balamku, Calakmul and so on. In short: which is the best? For me Uxmal as an archaeological site, Calakmul for its position.

My first encounter with the Mayan ruins was in Chitchen Itza. Coming from Greece, the Mayan culture is, well, primitive… At the end of the first millennium AD they were less advanced than the Cycladic or Minoan civilizations almost 4000 years before! I have to admit that in the beginning this was kind of disappointing. Apart from the human sacrifices, a taboo issue for us, Mayan archaeology has so little to offer. And yet so little is known…

But eventually I realized this is probably the most amazing thing about the Mayas. It is a primitive culture yet so close to our time chronologically and so well hidden away in the jungle, that presents a unique opportunity to peek on ancient civilizations, their growth and decline, as no other. It is something like the gravitational lenses of Einstein, you can look far back in time!

From this point of view, one can see human history from a different perspective: what if… The Mayas as far as they evolved, they had one big difference from the European world and one big similarity: the difference is they had no particular reason to evolve; no huge threats, no radical cultural differences with neighbouring cultures, easy trade, many resources. The similarity is they over-exploited their resources. But with limited capability to go looking for new ones, they fell in decline.

What went wrong then? In the Mediterranean people had to trade and trade hard, travel around, communicate. They had to fight strong and notorious enemies. People had to know how to write and read and fight, almost each one for his own skin. Bringing letters down to the masses led to an eruption of development.

So it is amazing to see and visit the remnants of a thriving culture in the middle of the jungle that fed them and consumed them. It is a magical culture in a magical setting.

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