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Discovering the Maya

Tulum Temple
Tulum Temple

Our Caribbean cruise this time investigated the more Northern areas of the Caribbean, including the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. We booked for various shore activities including a trip to Tulum, an ancient Mayan temple on a cliff top overlooking the Caribbean sea below.

As we were totally ignorant about this culture we decided to mug up a bit before the trip. Tulum itself is part of the most important archaeological groups of finds along the Mexican coast together with Chitzen Itza. It was an important port where great commercial activity took place between Maya and those who arrived from many different regions. All of this long before Columbus “discovered” the Caribbean islands.

Even today the origins of the Maya is not exactly known. Many believe that they came from the southern Andean region. Others believe that they came from the North down the Atlantic coast. What is known is that the Mayan civilisation was one of the most advanced of its age. The entire Mayan territory stretched from the northern Yucatan coast to the Guatemalan and Honduran mountain ridges.

The formative period for the Mayans was about 500BC to 325AD. Then came their classic period until about 925AD. The Toltec period followed and finally absorption into Mexican culture happened in about 1200AD.

We know that throughout history religion has always played an important role in the development of different peoples and the Mayas are no exception. They were fanatic. One of their principle rites was sacrifice. Although not so bloody at the beginning, this was practised upon animals. But later the victims were children and slaves. The face was painted blue and the heart was torn out after the victim had been shot to death with arrows. The corpse was then eaten by the faithful. Most of the victims were sacrificed to the God Chac, mainly at times when rain was badly needed.

The largest temple in the Yucatan is at Chitzen Itza. However as this entailed a two-hour coach trip we decided to go to the nearer Tulum temple. Perched on a rock outcrop with a steep drop to the Caribbean sea, Tulum denotes a marked Toltec influence in all its constructions. The City is walled on the landward side with small openings for access. I say small as I had to bend double to enter. Tulum was built in honour of the sun and in the carvings on its buildings and temples the solstices and equinoxes are represented side by side with the figure of the rattlesnake. Our guide explained to us with a mass of calculations, for which he produced a calculator, that the Mayan predicted that the world would end on the 12th December 2012. (Quite a lot of 12’s there!) The ruins have crumbled badly but one can still see the two small holes which were left in the seaward castle wall for the sun to come through at the equinoxes and shine on the large sacrificial altar at the front of the building.

We left Tulum feeling that this was an area we would like to revisit one day to learn a lot more about this ancient culture.

Tony and Jane Rice-Oxley

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