The Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

Visit Altun Ha in Belize

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Why The Modern Maya Don’t Think The World Is Ending

If you want to meet Maya people, go to the Yucatan. More specifically, go to the city of Merida. Merida’s population is nearly at a million and 60% of all inhabitants are of Maya ethnicity. Roughly a third of the population of Merida speak Mayan – the Yucatec Maya language. Fighting for space for my body on the crowded sidewalks and space for my car on the congested streets, my time in Merida was spent in close physical proximity to the modern Maya, as comes with the territory when visiting the downtown area of a capital city in Mexico over a weekend.

Although Merida was created atop a Spanish-overtaken and demolished Maya community, the Maya culture today is preserved in Merida through museums, music, dance, art, fashion, markets, cuisine and language, as well as in other areas of modern Merida life. When the conquistadors set out to rule the land now known as Merida, the Maya were forced to learn Spanish and their books were burned. The stones from Maya buildings were used to build Merida – the walls of the cathedral downtown are made from these stones. Old Spanish city gates that were once a part of a massive wall still stand in Merida. The wall was initially erected to protect the city’s center from revolting Maya. The last major revolt was the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901). Today, an outwardly integrated city greets travelers and it is flush with Maya souvenirs and Maya experiences to take home.

%Gallery-173726%The words of Rigoberta Menchu were in my mind when I conversed with the local Maya about the popular Doomsday Prophecies:

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Before entering into these conversations, I already knew what I later found supporting evidence for in my discussions: modern Maya don’t think the world is ending on December 21. Careful not to speak in a way that would carry offensive implications of mystic misunderstandings, I asked the Maya I met about their own take on December 21 and all the hype. I asked the Maya on the street and in the market, I asked the Maya at restaurants and hotels. The answer was the same for everyone, there was no exception to this.

“We are entering into a new cycle,” they’d tell me. “This is just a new beginning,” they’d say without doubt.

I’m not alone in my findings. In a MINNPOST article, Phyllis Messenger, the president of the Maya Society of Minnestoa, is quoted as saying, “I have not yet run across any indigenous person who believes this is the end of the world.” The article’s author, Catherine Watson, goes on to make a good point when she reiterates the words of archaeologists with, “The Mayans probably didn’t fear the end of one baktun and the start of the next, archaeologists say. More likely, they celebrated it, much as we go all-out for really significant New Year’s Eves, like the ones when a century turns.”

Modern Maya aren’t worried because ancient Maya weren’t worried. The 13th baktun, a 400-year unit, is coming to a close and a new one is beginning. But because it is not a 14th baktun that is beginning but rather the first again (this method of tracking time is cyclical), the ancient Maya inscribed the date in zeroes. The lesson to take home from modern Maya: zeroes in this context represent resetting the clock, not unplugging it.

Make sure to check out the rest of my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” which explores the Yucatan region, Maya culture and more.