The International Writers Magazine:
BALAM AND COBÁ: HIDDEN JEWELS OF MAYAN SPLENDOUR
we drove from Valladolid, a replica of a Spanish city in Mexico,
toward the still hidden city of Ek Balam, I thought of the Mayans
and their legendary culture, especially during their age of splendour,
from about 200 to 900 A.D. Throughout this period, when their culture
reached its zenith, they built some 2,000 major urban centres in
the lands of Mexico and the other countries in Central America.
Today, and in the
subsequent days, we intended to explore some of their handiwork, especially
those remains not usually visited by tourists
The creators of one of the greatest of the ancient civilizations, the
Mayans built on the discoveries of earlier cultures. They developed
the most sophisticated mathematical system to ever emerge in the Americas
and a very complex hieroglyphic writing system of some 800 symbols.
Of all the world's ancient calendars, the Mayans had the most complex,
intricate and accurate. They excelled in an elaborate and incredibly
ornate system of architecture, which included ceremonial-pyramids, palaces
and observatories - strangely, all erected without metal tools.
In addition, the Mayans were master farmers, clearing large sections
of tropical rain forest and building excellent drainage canals for agriculture
purposes. They were also skilled as weavers and potters, while their
engineers constructed grand jungle highways, developing extensive trade
networks. They had an intricate knowledge of astronomy and medicine,
and even carved the theory of evolution in stone, 1,000 years before
After driving for about 20 minutes to the north of Valladolid, our bus
stopped at the Mayan renovated gate of the ruins of the newly excavated
archaeological site of Ek Balam (in Mayan Black Jaguar) - once the capital
of a state of 250,000. One of the ultimate jewels of Mayan splendour,
the ruins are rarely visited by the thousands of travellers who flock
to the land of the Maya. Unlike its sister city, Chichén Itzá,
some 30 minutes drive away, Ek Balam has never been overwhelmed with
tourists. Quieter and more peaceful than its sister city, it exudes
an aura of satisfying pleasure to the few travellers who stroll amid
its partially excavated structures.
city, when compared to other Mayan cities had a long span of life
- about a thousand years. Its construction began in 100 B.C. and
continued until 900 A.D. From 600 to 900 A.D., Ek Balam, rose to
the Pinnacle of glory. Some historians believe that it was still
partially inhabited when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century.
As happened to all Mayan urban centres, when the site was abandoned,
it became almost totally engulfed by the dense low-lying Yucatán
jungle - the roots of its trees cracking open and destroying the
once majestic buildings.
adventurers, seeing hills covered with bush and trees in the very flat
Mayan landscape, soon uncovered Ek Balams hidden treasures of
beautifully preserved wall carvings and paintings. Excavating the mounds,
they unmasked structures and artifacts hidden for hundreds of years.
Archaeologists have theorized that Ek Balam was one of the most prosperous
agricultural and trading centres in the Yucatán. Its wealth,
reflected in its monumental buildings, came from the slave trade and
from the production of corn, salt and honey - much of which are still
produced in the area.
The most important of its uncovered structures is the enormous and elaborate
palace/pyramid - a striking sight after driving for miles through the
surrounding jungle. The largest restored building in the ruins and one
of the largest Mayan structures in the Yucatán, it measures over
151 m ( 495 ft) long, 60 m (197 ft) wide and 30 m (98 ft) high. The
structure consists of six levels, added on by different rulers during
the centuries. This unique religious-civil edifice was, beside its use
for religious ceremonies, the home of governors and the higher classes
The temple's expanse and layout is found no place else in the Yucatán.
In the same fashion as in countless other towering temples in the Mayan
lands, it came to be as a result of many generations of development
- addition after addition. Archaeologists have only unearthed sections
of the temple. There could be much more.
Ek Balams restoration began in 1993, but has been only pursued
in earnest since 1997. However, only a number of the citys main
buildings have been unearthed and, to some extent restored. Work is
continuing at a fast pace on 19 of the some 600 mounds in the12 sq km
( 4.6 mi) of the ruins.
We began our exploration by entering the ruins on the side of a renovated
typical Mayan arch - once the entrance into the city. Ek Balam was surrounded
by three walls, but they were not high enough to provide protection.
It is believed that they were only used for ceremonial purposes. To
the right, the wall of a large rounded structure caught our eye. The
Mayan did not often build rounded structures and this is one of the
few to be found in the Yucatán. Passing through a small Ball
Court, we saw looming before us the majestic pyramid
Its size was impressive and I could hardly wait to climb the steps of
this imposing structure. Crossing the plaza before the pyramid with
its edging small ceremonial temples, we begin our climb. About half
way up its face, we stepped on a platform to gaze above us at an ornate
and breathtaking stucco wall, forming the entrance to an opening of
an impressive mausoleum for one of the masters of Ek Balam - a marvel
of the excellence of Mayan artwork.
The doorway is formed in the shape of a jaguar's mouth, edged by fearsome
looking fangs. Around are full life-like statues with so much elaboration
that you can see the braids in their hair and the design of their loincloths.
Along with well preserved paintings, hieroglyphs of corn, in excellent
shape, pose beside fighting men with skulls hung on their waistbands.
These works of art from the Mayan age of splendour, found nowhere else
in the Mayan lands, held me spellbound and were the highlight of our
visit to Ek Balam.
our climb upward, we soon reached the top of the pyramid. From this
vantage point, we could survey all the other structures of Ek Balam,
as well a two large tree-studded hills - unrestored buildings, waiting
for the excavators. They gave us an idea as to how Ek Balam looked
before it was partially reclaimed from the jungle.
Beyond the ruins, the surrounding deep-green jungle appeared like
a huge emerald necklace hugging this once great urban centre. It
was a picture postcard of enchanting beauty.
I was engulfed in
this charming and delightful handiwork of both nature and man when my
friend who, along with myself, had huffed and puffed our way up the
pyramid steps, remarked, "Ek Balam is truly a hidden gem undiscovered
by modern tourists. Just look, what they are missing!"
Of course, I could only agree. Ek Balam is truly a must for any traveller
interested in the Mayan world.
As we drove back to the joys of 21st century Cancún, I mused
over Mayan history and of how these people with such history were almost
eradicated from the face of the earth after the Spanish conquest. However,
they have survived and still number some 12 million throughout Central
America. They rebelled again and again, first against the Spaniards,
then against the Mexican government. The longest of these insurrections
was known as the Cast Wars which began in 1840 and lasted
for 14 years. However, rebellions flared up again and again. According
to Mallagh, our Scottish, now Mexican, guide in Ek Balam, these wars
have not ended - the Mayans still do not have equality.
Early next morning, Cancún, Mexicos number one tourist
resort, was barely beginning to awake when we began our journey to the
ruins of Cobá - once a very important Mayan urban centre, 170
km (106 mi) away. That city was at the epitome of its glory and power
from about 622 to 800 A.D., then slowly faded in importance until just
before the Conquistadors came when it was abandoned. Now, as our mini-bus
moved further and further southward, I became progressively excited,
thinking of those renowned ruins that we were to explore that day.
A short distance from the ruins of Tulum, the only Mayan city still
inhabited when the Spaniards arrived, we turned on a narrow road to
drive the last 40 km (25 mi) to Cobá. In about half an hour,
the tops of the half-submerged seemingly strangled ruins, built on the
shores of three shallow lakes in a rain forest appeared - ghostly in
their beauty. It was like a mirage of the past Mayan civilization, but
true to life.
Once a great trading city of some 55,000, it is the only Mayan urban
centre built edging lakes. After its abandonment, like all the Mayan
cities, it sank back into the jungle and almost disappeared. The dampness
produced by rain, tree roots and vines, as happened to all Mayan cities,
eroded most of its monuments, yet what still remains tell a story of
past majesty and grandeur.
It is believed that the fading away of the Mayan cities came about as
a result of the eradication of the forests and the ensuing drought.
The plaster needed to build the huge structures of stone was made by
burning wood which depleted the forest. Twenty kilos of wood were needed
to make one kilo of plaster. The plaster was used for all types of construction,
The remnants of 16 sacbés (white roads), of the 50 that once
existed, radiating from Cobá, still can be seen. Built in a raised
fashion above ground through the jungle, then plastered and polished,
they attest to Cobás importance as a trading hub. These
mostly straight roads linked religious centers, throughout the Yucatán.
The longest of these was a 101 km (62 mi) scabé, without a single
curve, which linked Cobá to Yaxuná - also once a large
and important religious and trading centre.
Strangely, the sacbés were, only used by humans. In spite of
their progress in many areas, the highly advanced Mayans never invented
metal, the simple door, employed beasts of burden or discovered the
wheel. On the other hand, some historians assert that the Mayans knew
the wheel but it had religious significance and, hence, could be used
by humans. This could be a fact since toys with wheels have been found
in a number of Mayan ruins.
We walked into the ruins in the shade a canopy formed by interlocking
trees overhead. Clearly visible, on both sides of the pathway were edged
by still uncovered mounds of structures, looking like shrub studded
Of Cobás 70 sq km (27 sq mi) of ruins only 12% has been
excavated, but what has been uncovered is an impressive testimony to
the greatness of the Mayan builders. An intriguing reminder of Mayan
glory, the ruins tell of the political and social power of one of the
most important of the Mayan cities.
Suddenly, the very impressive 24 m (79 ft) high La Iglesia (Church Pyramid),
crowned with a temple, loomed before us. We did not tarry long at this
imposing structure, which is the oldest in the city, our goal was the
Nohoch Mul Pyramid - the loftiest of the Mayan structures in the northern
The partially excavated Juego de Pelota (Ball Court) was our next stop.
However, after one has seen the huge Ball Court in Chichén Itzá,
this one in Cobá appeared unimpressive. The ball game, very important
in Mayan culture, was played with about a nine pound rubber ball which
was propelled only with the hips to shoot it through a ring jutting
from the side of the court. It is said, but not proven, that the winning
team's captain was sacrificed so that his better-than-average blood
would feed the ground and, hence, it would grow better crops.
As we moved along, the guide would stop and decipher some of the over
30 uncovered stelaes in the city. Some of them were dated and etched
with figures and hieroglyphics and stood, with some thatched-roof covering,
where they were discovered. A number commemorated important events such
as accessions, alliances, births, death and marriage; others depicted
great triumphs with the victorious king standing on his captives. However,
all those we saw were so weather-worn that we had to rely on the guide
to inform us of their message. When I asked the guide, "Why are
these treasures not better protected from the elements."
He smiled, "Who is going put out the money? We have millions of
Moving forward in sweltering heat, we stopped to survey a small rounded
building, called the Wind Pyramid. According to our guide, the Mayans
rarely built rounded structures and there are only 10 to 20 of this
type of building in the Yucatán.
Past a preserved part of a beginning of a raised sacbé, part
of the one to Yaxuná, we walked for a few minutes, and there
before us towered the 45 m (148 ft) high Nohoch Mul Pyramid, standing
high in all its glory. Soaring 12 stories above the jungle, it honors
the Descending God and must have been a majestic sight in the days when
it was still the home of Mayan priests.
Exhausted from the searing heat during the 1 1/2 km walk, I sat down
perspiring profusely by the pyramid steps. Yet, even though it was midday,
I still wanted to climb this renowned structure. Wearily and with great
effort, I climbed three quarters of the way up the steps. Sitting down
with water seemingly pouring out of my body, I looked around. From my
vantage point, as far as the eye could see, there was a panoramic view
of the surrounding deep-green jungle. Below, amid the few excavated
buildings, countless un-excavated tree-covered pyramidal structures
poked up through the encompassing forest. It was quite apparent that
the archaeologists had much work to do if Cobá is to show its
I sat for a while debating if I should climb the remaining short distance,
but I decided not to tempt fate. The noon sun was at its peak and I
was pushing 80. It seemed madness to go on. In any case, I had experienced
the view for which Cobás pyramid is renowned.
Back in the air-conditioned bus, I felt satisfied. I had trekked through
Cobás ruins, back and forth for at least three kilometers,
then almost climbed to the top of one of Mexicos most grandiose
pyramids. That night, in one of Cancúns five-star luxury
hotels, I smiled to myself, thinking of the guides words after
I told him my age and trying to climb the pyramid in the scorching midday
sun. "God is great. He protects his children, drunks, idiots and
mad men like you."
© Habeeb Salloum June 2004
Toronto, Ontario Canada :
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