A trip to Tulum is a must if you’re visiting the Riviera Maya region of Mexico. Not only is there fascinating architecture, but it’s the only Mayan temple built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The storytelling elements of a guide are well worth the money; otherwise it’s a plot of land with some stone buildings. Ernie, our guide, entertained us with some of Tulum’s Mayan culture and history.
Known as Zama in ancient times, this ceremonial center was also an important trade port. Zama in Mayan means the place where the sun comes up, or dawn. In 1842, archeologists named it Tulu ‘Um meaning “wall”. The walls bordering the North, West, and South were 5 meters (15 feet) high and 7 meters (21 feet) deep. The Caribbean Sea was a natural border on the East. Tulum was well equipped to provide for its people and visitors. It had farmland outside its walls, an underground freshwater river where they built the Casa del Cenote, and the bounty of the sea to provide food.
Tulum was built in 1200 A.D. and still inhabited in 1518 as mentioned in the journal of Spaniard Juan Diez who was part of Juan de Grijalva’s expedition, but by the late 16th century was completely abandoned. In 1842, it was “found” again by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who published the first detailed description of the ruins in 1843. Excavations began in 1921 and continue to this day. Mexico consists of 5000 archeological zones, but only 150 or so have been uncovered. Unfortunately, it costs mucho dinero to excavate a site and reclaim it from the jungle.
In the Mayan culture, everything had a reason “to be”. Buildings were built according to the rotation of the sun and moon. Holes and spaces were deliberately built into structures for the Mayans to tell time. The Templo del Dios Descendente (Temple of the God of Wind) had a rotating stick on it with a hole in the circular end. When hurricanes were approaching, the wind whipped through the hole causing a whistling sound which would warn the people to seek cover. According to Ernie, “After 1200 years, still working, better than the Weather Channel. Those guys always wrong”.
The Toltecs brought new ideas and new gods to the Mayans. Kukulcan (or Quetzalcoatl), the feather serpent, and Ixchel, the Goddess of Moon and Childbirth, are two very important gods absorbed into the Mayan culture. The Mayans and Toltecs both sacrificed humans to the gods, but approached this way of worship differently. The Toltecs captured people to sacrifice; the Mayans considered it an
honor to sacrifice their own life to the Gods. They believed in reincarnation and prepared for death spiritually and ceremoniously.
Besides El Castillo where most of the ceremonies and sacrifices took place, the Templo del los Frescos (Temple of the Frescoes) is also the most intact and interesting because of the murals, carvings, and faded paint colors.
The Descending God and Ixchel, the fertility God are depicted on the temple numerous times. The temples to worship gods were built with stone roofs held up by a stone corbel arch. Palaces also had stone roofs, but they were held up by wood beams, and after a few hundred years disintegrated, and the roof collapsed. When people died, they were buried in their house. Doorways were built small on purpose to show humility by bowing to the gods. “These guys were short, but they weren’t that short”.
The Rosetta Stone was the key to translating the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but we are still looking for the key to the Mayan hieroglyphs. About 75% has been translated, but the last 25% is crucial in helping us decipher their heritage. Today’s Mayan language
consists of 23 dialects, and according to Ernie, “that’s why we crazy”. Mayan children are taught the Mayan language at home, and learn Spanish in school. By 10 years of age, they are bilingual. And just a side note from Ernie,” December 12, 2012 is the end of an era, not the world, and a new era begins. Nostradamus started his theories, but never finished them. And don’t listen to Mel Gibson. He’s crazy”.