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Habeeb Salloum

s 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 Darwin.
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.

The 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.

Archaeologists and adventurers, seeing hills covered with bush and trees in the very flat Mayan landscape, soon uncovered Ek Balam’s 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 of society.

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 Balam’s restoration began in 1993, but has been only pursued in earnest since 1997. However, only a number of the city’s 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.

Continuing 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, Mexico’s 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, even roads.

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 Cobá’s 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 tiny hills.
Of Cobá’s 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 Yucatán.
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 Mayan artifacts."

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 true charms.

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 Cobá’s pyramid is renowned.
Back in the air-conditioned bus, I felt satisfied. I had trekked through Cobá’s ruins, back and forth for at least three kilometers, then almost climbed to the top of one of Mexico’s most grandiose pyramids. That night, in one of Cancún’s five-star luxury hotels, I smiled to myself, thinking of the guide’s 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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