Many great civilizations have come and gone throughout time, and no less among them were the ancient Maya of the Yucatan. Remnants of the ancient world they knew remains mysterious to us in the present day, and among their many secrets, there are also persistent misconceptions about who these people were, and the lifestyles they led.
While the Maya, for instance, are often described as a “lost” civilization of the past, many of their descendants exist today, particularly in Guatemala, where roughly 40 percent of the country’s population are comprised of those with Mayan heritage. Still, it is known that between the eighth and ninth centuries, the Mayan civilization began to sharply decline, marked by depopulation and abandonment of their ancient cities. Climate change, as well as deforestation and depletion of other natural resources, likely contributed to famine, which gave rise to conflict over remaining sources of sustenance.
Though abandoned, the ancient temples of the Mayan Empire remained within the depths of the jungles, where over they years many have been discovered and excavated. Among the most popular that are known today are the famous pyramid at Chichén Itzá, as well as the Temple of Kukulcan at El Castillo, both of which marked astronomical events that were observed by the ancient Maya.
On the date of the 2016 Autumnal Equinox, I visited the Mayan site of San Gerviso, located on Cozumel Island, Mexico. This ancient Mayan site was known for its ceremonial significance in relation to the Mayan goddess Ix Chel, the Classic Period deity of the Moon who also represented childbirth and fertility, among other things.
At this location, a rather stark difference can be observed between excavated monuments like the well worn Ka’na Nah temple (seen above), compared with those found in other parts of the ancient Mayan empire. The aforementioned Chichén Itzá, as well as Lamanai in Belize, and several other Mayan cities and ceremonial sites appear to have been built upon the remnants of earlier structures; many of these date back to the period of the Olmecs, whose workmanship both architecturally, and in the art which adorned their massive structures, had been very advanced for its time. The temples and altars strewn about the excavated portions of the San Gervasio site, by contrast, were void of much of the artisanship found at the earlier Mayan temples, favoring a more spartan appearance in their solely-Mayan construction.
There is unique history here, particularly in relation to the crumbling temple I visited at San Gervasio. The place was apparently the subject of a passage in the writings of Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara, where in 1552 he described a temple at the location, ”where they kept a very strange idol, very distinct from the others.” His account of the idol, and its significance to the Mayans who worshipped there, was as follows:
“The body of this great idol was hollow, made of baked clay and fastened to the wall with mortar, in back of which was something like a sacristy, where the priests had a small secret door cut into the side of the idol, into which one of them would enter, and from it speak to and answer those who came to worship and beg favors. With this trickery, simple men were made to believe whatever the god told them.”
The site, as it appears today, does still feature the structure at the temple’s apex where de Gomara’s “strange idol” would have rested. Interestingly, the description he gave is vaguely reminiscent to the function of the ancient Greek Nekromanteion, a temple site near Ephyra that was excavated in the 1950s by archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris. It is believed that activities carried out by the priests at this location may have involved actions similar to those attributed to the priests at the Ka’na Nah temple at San Gervasio.
On a related side note, albeit one which is purely speculative, upon my first viewing of the Ka’na Nah temple, it’s odd, rigid and seemingly misshapen structure initially struck me as resembling a labyrinth, almost the likes of the path leading to the hilltop at Glastonbury Tor in England. Granted, I cannot in any way assert that the Ka’na Nah temple was designed with such function in mind, or that it would have in any way resembled this centuries ago while still in use. Nonetheless, the parallels between the site, and the ancient Greek Nekromanteion, are somewhat novel, superficial though they may be.
Though much is known about these ancient Mayan sites, much of the story about the rise, and the subsequent fall, of the Mayan empire will likely remain a mystery. What does remain of their culture, however, stands as a testament to their lives and their many enigmatic beliefs, represented in no small part by the truly magnificent ceremonial structures they crafted, which held such great significance in their view of nature and the cosmos.