SAH Blog

In the Yucatán, Land of Kukulkan

By Amber N. Wiley, 2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
| Aug 11, 2014

THOSE WHO BUILD HOUSES AND TEMPLES

Essential
to count the haab years or katun’oob
that have passed since
the great powerful men
raised the walls of the ancient cities
that we see now
here in the province of the plains,
all these cities scattered
on the earth
here and there, on high hills.
Here in the cities, we try to give
meaning to what we see today in the skies
and what we know;
for day to day
at midday
we see in the skies
the signs told to us by
the ancient people of this land,
the ancient people of these villages
here on our earth.
Let us purify our hearts
so at nightfall,
and at midnight,
from horizon to zenith
we may read the face of the sky.
  HUA PAAGH’OOB YETEL PPUZ(OOB)

Tz’u lam kaa[bet]
u ppizil u xociil ua hayppel haab ua katum
kin maan[aac]
le u kinil uay te cahobaa leil
h nucuuch chaac uincoob
laitiob liiz u pa[ak] leil
u uchben cahob
helah c’ilic
uay Peten H’Chakan,
tu lacal lail cahoob ttittanoob
yook lum
uay helah
taan c’ilic ttuuch
men ttuuch yokol canal uitzoob.
Lail eu talziic
tu uay t cahoob c tz’iic
u thanilbaal [baal] lail c’iliic hela
baax c ohelma;
tumen zazammal
ci ilic t c chumuuc caan
u chiculil bax alan ton
tumen h uuchben uincoob
uay t cabale,
uay t lume.
Ti c tz’iic u hahil c ool
u tial caa paactac
xocic u ba[al] yan t yiich
lai caan yo[co]l akab bay tu c chum
tu chumu[c] beyua tun chimil
tan canza.

Ancient Mayan poem from “The Songs of Dzitbalche.”  English translation and Mayan text from John Curl in Bilingual Review 26.2/3 (May 2001-Dec 2002).

Mayan heritage in the Yucatán Peninsula is a living heritage. Mayan languages are living languages. It is because of this that I have titled this month’s blog post, “In the Yucatán, Land of Kukulkan.” Kukulkan is the Mayan feathered-serpent god, an equivalent to the Aztecs’ Quetzalcoatl. It is Kukulkan who is said to descend the stairs at Chichén Itzá on the spring and autumn equinoxes. In many ways, ancient and living Mayan cultures are omnipresent in the everyday aspects of life on the peninsula. The murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco in the Palacio de Gobierno in Mérida, as well as the exhibits in Palacio Cantón, which houses the Museo Regional de Antropología Yucatán, and in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya all reinforce this impression. I took guided tours of Tulum, Coba, and Chichén Itzá and in both instances (I toured Tulum and Coba on one day) my tour guides referred to the ancient Mayans as their ancestors. This strengthened the idea that the inhabitants of the Yucatán today are of the same lineage of the ancient peoples of yesteryear, and that through storytelling, preservation, and contemporary custom, these bonds remain strong. One tour guide described how the Mayan calendar was cyclical, rotating and progressing along a trajectory, but always returning to its point of origin. An exhibit at Palacio Cantón entitled “To’on: Maayáa’onil Le K’iino’oba’” which is translated to “Mayas Contemporáneos” in Spanish and “The Maya of Today” in English opens with this idea:

Maya life has always been – and continues to be – cyclical. This is a constant we could also say is part of human history, but in the case of Maya culture, it forms part of thinking that is anchored to a past, and connected to a future, that creates a present, living cycle of myth.[1]

The “To’on” exhibit, while aesthetically and spatially disappointing, was a conceptual and thematic feat. Each section of the installation mixed traditional proverbs with images of contemporary Mayan culture, illuminating how and why the wisdom of ancestors transcends time.


To’on exhibit board that discusses the tradition of building a house


Image from To’on exhibit showing house building method


Thatched roof house seen in stone carvings at Uxmal

Climate and Geography

One of the best advantages of traveling to various architectural sites is getting first-hand knowledge of differences in climate, geography, and natural resources available to the people who live and build in various regions. The tropical climate of the Yucatán was a stark contrast to mountainous Mexico City. The verdant Mayan jungle provided copious (and much needed) shade at sites like Coba and Uxmal. Tulum sits on the periphery of a dense forest of trees, high and mighty on a rocky cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. 


Temple of the Wind at Tulum

Cenotes, sinkholes that are abundant on the peninsula, offer fresh water to adventurous tourists and locals alike. These cenotes, naturally filtered through the earth, were sources of fresh water even for the ancient Maya. In some cases, cenotes were also used as places of sacrifice, like at Chichén Itzá.


Tourists swimming in Cenote Ik Kil

Ancient Mayans had access to both fresh water and salt water, and the latter was a source of sustenance for various sites since farming was not an option.  Sea salt was a staple trading commodity for the Mayans. Farming was difficult for Mayans because the ground consisted of limestone that rendered the land infertile. The solubility of the limestone partially accounted for the landscape of cenotes. The limestone was also a major construction material for important Mayan buildings and temples.

Ancient Maya

While on the peninsula I was able to visit Tulum, Coba, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. Uxmal is the only site I did not visit with a guide. I visited Tulum and Coba on the same day and enjoyed the opportunity to visit both sites, although Coba captured my imagination the most. It is a lesser-visited site than Tulum, but its situation in the midst of a dense jungle gives a feeling of greater integration into the landscape. There were moments when I didn’t see another human being in the complex, thanks to the thick curtain of trees. Additionally, the combination of partially restored and unrestored sites in Coba illustrated the amount of work and research involved in the reconstruction process. Traces of the reconstruction process were also evident at Chichén Itzá, where the Castillo was only partially reconstructed on certain sides.


El Castillo at Chichén Itzá

Central to my understanding of these sites and their evolution are the numerous, detailed Frederick Catherwood lithographs and the large scale, deeply intoxicating photography of Armando Salas Portugal. While most architectural historians may be familiar with Portugal’s images of Luis Barragán’s work, his documentation of Mayan sites is both so very poetic and scientific at the same time, evoking the inextricable relationship that the Mayan sites had with their surrounding landscapes.

Querida Mérida

I was immediately enamored of Mérida upon arrival. There is a vitality of life there that is truly exceptional. This city of about a million people shuts down major thoroughfares on a weekly basis for free street festivals, concerts, dancing, interactive shows, vendors, pedestrianism, and biking. I walked into something exciting provided by the city, without even trying several days in a row. 


Songs in front of Catedral Mérida

I walked and walked and walked in el centro in Mérida upon arrival. The architectural mix – Spanish colonial, Italianate, Art Deco – was colorful and vibrant. The focal point of the centro, Catedral Mérida (San Ildefonso), took my breath away. I decided then and there that I preferred this austere design to the excess of the baroque cathedral in Mexico City. The interior space of Catedral Mérida embodied the type of gravitas that the ancient Romans would have appreciated. This cathedral, like its counterpart in Mexico City, was built on the site of one of the most important pre-Hispanic edifices in the city, using the stones of former Mayan temples to build the foundation and walls.


Interior of Catedral Mérida

The legacy of Spaniards in the Yucatán is a bit more celebrated than it is in Mexico City. This is evident in the detailed attention paid to the restoration and maintenance of Museo Casa Montejo. Additionally, a major corridor in Mérida is named after the Spanish conquistador family Montejo, a surprising development since most of the Spanish colonial history I saw in Mexico City was restrained in comparison to the celebration of figures of Mexican revolution and independence. The Paseo de Montejo, mainly developed during the Porfirian era, is advertised in guidebooks as Mérida’s Champs-Élysées, portraying the grand aspirations of this peninsular city. Along Paseo de Montejo one can find testaments to the richness of Mérida’s past. The Palacio Cantón, already mentioned herein, was the house of Francisco Cantón Rosado, governor of the state of Yucatán from 1898 to 1902.


Palacio Cantón

So much about Mérida reminded me of New Orleans. The color palette of the buildings, the colonial past, the tight, grid-like layout of the historic center. Even the tropical climate and the insects that came with it. I arrived in Mérida during the rainy season, and one day I saw the streets of Mérida flood in a manner all too familiar to me after living three years in New Orleans. I was completely astounded. As it turned out, the kinship that I felt existed between the two cities was not a figment of my imagination, and in fact was felt amongst officials of the two cities as well. Mérida and New Orleans have been sister cities since 1990. The New Orleans airport offered direct flights to Mérida via Pan American World Airways as early as the mid-1940s, and in 2009 New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Mérida Cesar Bojorquez Zapata renewed their sister cities agreement. Anna Hartnell, scholar of contemporary literature, who organized a 2013 conference entitled “After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South” in which I participated, described the relationship between Mérida and New Orleans as such:

Mérida, like Port au Prince, is architecturally reminiscent of New Orleans and, in turn, Havana. It boasts a high percentage of indigenous peoples – some say about 60% – who are proud of their distinctive culture and cuisine, eager to preserve their practices against a seemingly encroaching dominant Mexican culture. The culture here contrasts with that of New Orleans in marked ways, but the city’s embattled status, and the sense of abandonment that stalks some of the beautiful Spanish and French colonial buildings at the city’s core – despite the fact that Mérida, unlike New Orleans, is often promoted as a social and economic success story – is a reminder of the fact that so much of what seems to be unique to New Orleans are cultural traditions shared not just with the rest of the US but with its Latin and Caribbean neighbours.[2]

The vibrant palette of architecture, the vivacity of life in the street, and the quirkiness of the city of Mérida truly is a testament to a “culture of feeling” that transcends national borders and is created between age-old trade routes and regional connections. 


#pajaroscallejeros

I found Mérida to be a surprisingly small town, given its metropolitan population of about one million people. On my last day in the city a friend of mine, who spent a month in Mérida this summer, asked me if I knew the secret behind the bird stencil graffiti all over the historic center. I told her I did not. I went on to ask my bed and breakfast hostess, who immediately pointed me to the artist Guillermo S. Quintana. As I prepared to catch a bus to Cancun, the city from whence my flight to Guatemala would depart, Guillermo walked into my bed and breakfast to introduce himself. My hostess had called and invited him over for some coffee and to speak to me briefly about his work, “#pajaroscallejeros.” Quintana considers his pieces to be urban interventions (a term that is a staple of current architecture school lexicon), adding another dimension to the everyday experience of the street. He has moved into a different phase of work, #pajaroscableados, stuffed cloth bird silhouettes hanging from electrical wires (much like sneakers in an urban neighborhood in the United States). While I did not have the opportunity to talk about his work in an in-depth manner, I do look forward to seeing how he progresses in leaving a unique imprint on the city. The ease with which I was introduced to Quintana, his willingness to stop by for coffee on a busy day, and the open dialogue about his work is the type of situation I could easily imagine happening in New Orleans as well.

Logistics + Tackling Technology

My time in the peninsula was partially spent doing the tangible work of this fellowship – organizing and editing my photographs from Mexico City to upload to SAHARA and brainstorming on how to organize my first SAH Blog post – would it be extremely academic, theoretical, logistical, reflective or all of the above? There’s really no blueprint to this thing, which is both freeing and decidedly challenging. So I went with option e.) All of the above

As you are aware, I included in my previous blog a list of recommended readings that I was able to access online – academic journal articles that would supplement and illuminate the things I was learning on the road. Toting books would be too cumbersome for the many miles I was traveling. I have decided to continue including recommended readings that have helped me understand the many things I have seen and experienced.

I have been introduced to a variety of gadgets over the last few months with which to document and navigate this journey. The first two that I learned in preparation for the trip were Google Maps and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I admit I was late for the bus on both of those tools. Adobe has useful tutorials on getting started with the Lightroom software, so I spent an evening getting the basics down. Lightroom is a fantastic way to batch edit the many photographs I take, and even allows me to edit the metadata attached to each image as well. Google Maps allows me to list all the sites I visited over the course of the year. The H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship map is updated to include sites visited in and around Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula.


H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Maps

While on the road in Mexico a designer/curator and fellow former New Orleanian, Sergio H. Padilla, introduced me to the Galileo app for my iPhone. Galileo is an offline vector map that gathers information from various sources including Open Street Map, a community-driven wiki map. The map includes places of interest such as historic buildings, museums, coffee shops, restaurants, markets, etc. Padilla kept my Mexico City itinerary current in the twenty-first century with recent architectural projects, so we were able to find our way to various sites in Mexico City, including the Jumex and Soumaya museums. I have used Galileo consistently throughout my journey; the Mexico map I downloaded was invaluable for both Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula. 

I am writing this from Guatemala, the second country I visit on this trip – I look forward to sharing more about this country – its architecture, urbanism, and culture – next month!

H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

Recommended reading:

Wendy Ashmore and Jeremy A. Sabloff, “Spatial Orders in Maya Civic Plans,” Latin American Antiquity 13 no. 2 (June 2002): 201-215

O. Hugo Benavides, “Working/Touring the Past: Latin American Identity and the Political Frustration of Heritage,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17 (2013): 245-260

Kelli Carmean, Patricia A. McAnany, and Jeremy A. Sabloff, “People Who Lived in Stone Houses: Local Knowledge and Social Difference in the Classic Maya Puuc Region of Yucatán, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 22 no. 2 (June 2011): 143-158

Ileana Cerón-Palma, Esther Sanyé-Mengual, Jordi Oliver-Solà, Juan-Ignacio Montero, Carmen Ponce-Caballero, and Joan Rieradevall, “Towards a Green Sustainable Strategy for Social Neighbourhoods in Latin America: Case from Social Housing in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico,” Habitat International 38 (2013): 47-56

Marvin Cohodas, “Radial Pyramids and Radial-Associated Assemblages of the Central Maya Area,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 39 no. 3 (October 1980): 208-223

Lawrence G. Desmond and Paul G. Bryan, “Recording Architecture at the Archeological Site of Uxmal, Mexico: A Historical and Contemporary View,” Photogrammetric Record 18 no. 102 (June 2003): 105-130

William L. Fash, “Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization,” Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994): 181-208

Lindsay Jones, “Conquests of the Imagination: Maya-Mexican Polarity and the Story of Chichén Itzá,” American Anthropologist New Series 99 no. 2 (June 1997): 275-290

George Kubler, “Serpent and Atlantean Columns: Symbols of Maya-Toltec Polity,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 40 no. 2 (May 1982): 93-115

Stephanie Litka, “All the Maya of Coba: Managing Tourism in a Local Ejido,” Annals of Tourism Research 43 (2013): 50-369

Grant Murray, “Constructing Paradise: The Impacts of Big Tourism in the Mexican Coastal Zone,” Coastal Management, 35 (2007): 339–355

William M. Ringle, “On the Political Organization of Chichén Itzá,” Ancient Mesoamerica 15 no. 02 (July 2004): 167-218

Rebecca Maria Torres and Janet D. Momsen, “Gringolandia: The Construction of a New Tourist Space in Mexico,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95 no. 2 (2005): 314–335

Dimitri Tselos, “Frank Lloyd Wright and World Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 28 no. 1 (March 1969): 58-72


1 “Cyclical Time and the Bipartite World,” To’on: Maayáa’onil Le K’iino’oba’ Exhibit, Palacio Cantón.

2 Anna Hartnell, “After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South,” http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/afterkatrina/2013/12/

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