Credit is due to those alien theorists on television who point out interesting facts about manmade structures, whether it’s the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. A lack of documented history leaves plenty of room for speculation, and ultimately, faith in the unknown.
I for one choose to believe in mankind, that the magnitude of feats on display around the world is accomplishable without extraterrestrial assistance. However primitive the tools they had at their disposal, our forefathers were able to use them to the peak of their abilities, just as we do now with ours. With no urgent phone calls or breaking news to re-tweet, it’s not difficult to imagine ancient civilizations focusing on the mammoth task at hand, simply getting on with building some of those amazing structures we still see standing today.
The magnitude of the Mayans
This year, my wife and I visited Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, only a few years after the site was voted one of the new 7 wonders of the world, but about 1,200 years after the Mayans were believed to have built it. We took the advice of some vagabond souls we met on the road and made it into a 2 day visit instead of the stop-pose-snap whirlwind day trip we had originally planned. Arriving on the afternoon of the first day, we stopped first at the museum located at the entrance. After a run to the restroom, I realised I’d forgotten my hat in the rush to get out of the hotel and purchased a wide brimmed panama to look the part. By the time we started exploring the site, busloads of snap-happy tourists had already taken over in full force. In fact, judging by their sweatiness and sun-beaten looks, must have reached there a good few hours before we did.
The best known building at Chichen Itza is known as El Castillo, with a temple atop it dedicated to the Mayan feathered serpent god Kukulkan (the Aztec deity equivalent of Quetzalcoatl). Both the precision in the architecture and signs of a superior ancient knowledge start here. The 4 sides of the pyramid (all aligned with cardinal points) each count 91 steps, which including a platform at the tip of the pyramid, adds up to 365, the number of days in a year.
But the wonder of this amazing structure doesn’t stop at numbers. Copying those before us, we stood at the base of the pyramids and clapped our hands, the echo returning seconds later in the form of bird like sounds. This very emanation is said to be an accurate impression of the chirp of the Resplendent Quetzal, a sacred Mayan bird that also feature prominently in their mythology. To experience the acoustic miracle further, I then sent my wife right to the top of the pyramid, and after a bit of jostling to get our positions right, I could clearly hear her ask me, “Can you hear me?”, without even raising her voice. I nodded in appreciation and gave her the two thumbs up before joining her there to enjoy the panoramic view of the complex before continuing on our exploration.
Switching from sound to visuals, the light and shadow displays on the sides of El Castillo’s steps make spring and autumn equinoxes the most popular days to visit Chichen Itza. Laying at the base of the steps are stone depictions of an open-mouthed serpent, and during these 2 much observed days of the year, the light strikes the structure at just the right angle to create an eerie impression of it slithering down the entire length of the northern stairway. This mythical creature is actually depicted in a glyph contained within the famous Dresden Codex, the oldest known Codex of its kind in the Americas that also contains several charts that document the movements of the moon, planets, and constellations. The astronomical correlations and observations being made at this time show the advanced understanding the Mayans had of the universe and seeing the complex geometry in action certainly inspires considerable awe for this ancient civilization.
Being musically inclined, another acoustic phenomenon we had to see for ourselves at Chichen Itza was at the Great Ball Court, also part of the ‘Great North Platform’ set of structures. To this day, there hasn’t been a definitive explanation on how Mesoamerican ball games were played, nor the consequences of a match. Whatever it was, the court was massive, some 96 metres by 30. My turn this time to be the guinea pig, so I jogged down to the very end of the court, leaving my wife at the opposite end. Once there, I stopped, turned around, and said in a normal voice, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”. Seconds later, I heard the sound of my partner clapping her confirmation. We met at the centre of the court and I clapped my hands. Some online accounts claim 9 echoes can be heard, but we only counted 7 distinct return claps – either way, it’s still more than intriguing considering how vast the court is.
Masters of the Universe
After a few stops off at other structures, we made our way to the ‘Central Group’, making a beeline to archaeoastronomically famed El Caracol. The observatory is another impressive showcase of the Mayan’s celestial knowledge. It was fascinating just to stand in this crumbling structure, pondering the fact that over a millennia ago, the Mayans could already track Venus, and translate that knowledge into building doors and windows that aligned with movements of planets across the night sky. (I looked it up, but it was difficult to fathom, given my limited knowledge of the stars – something to do with the exact point on the horizon that Venus appeared and disappeared, and their correlation to solar years). Scientists have identified 20 astronomical events, including solstices and equinoxes, of which sight lines have been built into the structure itself. Not bad, considering most people in today’s age wouldn’t be able to pick out a single planet in the sky.
Our tickets included entrance fees to the nightly, hour-long Chichen Itza Light and Sound Show, so later that evening we returned to this inspiring site. It’s another experience altogether to see the buildings lit up. Recalling all the acoustic and archeoastronomical features we had experienced earlier in the day, I could only be awe struck by the sheer persistence of the human race. It all boils down to faith – whether you choose to believe it’s the mystical Quetzal returning your claps at El Castillo, or whether it is just an ingenious acoustic feature, intentional or not, the result inspires belief.
Here’s a Mayan legacy to ponder: The 2012 winter solstice falls on December 21, which is coincidentally the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar. Some say we will see an apocalyptical transformation in the world as we know it on that day – what do you choose to believe?
In addition to Chichen Itza, the Mexico Tourism Board (www.visitmexico.com) lists 27 other archaeological cluster worth visiting. The most impressive structures at Chichen Itza are listed below, but take your time to absorb the mystic vibe of the ancient site, which opens daily from 8am to 5pm.
- Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors): Mayan architecture with influence from the Toltecs.
- Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of 1,000 Columns): A series of columns spread out over 110sqm.
- Juego de Pelota: The largest Mesoamerican ball court ever discovered.
- Observatorio (Observatory): Also known as Caracol, the edifice bears testament to the Mayan’s astronomical knowledge.
- La Iglesia (The Church): A stone structure featuring images of Chac, the god of rain.
- Piramide de Kukulkan (Pyramid of Kukulkan): Nicknamed ‘The Castle, this is centerpiece of the entire site, famed for its serpent descent during autumn and spring equinoxes.
- Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Sinkhole): A natural well limestone sinkhole also associated with the rain god.