March 03, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

City of Wonders

Crouching on top of one of the world's most famous Mayan ruins - the Pyramid of Kukulcan, at the vast archaeological site of Chichen Itza, Mexico - I barely thought about the majesty of the scene. I was aware of only one emotion: terror.

Despite the heavy jungle heat, we had easily scrambled up the front steps of the 10th-century, 75-foot pyramid, also known as El Castillo. But as we tried to stand, the huge staircase seemed to fall away below, nauseating us with fear. I had no idea how we were going to get down.

Surrounded by dense jungle in Mexico's Yucatan, 125 miles inland from Cancun, Chichen Itza is home to a number of great Mayan ruins, some more than 1,400 years old, including an early Mayan ball court, an astronomical observatory, and the Well of Sacrifice, from which dozens of human skeletons have been retrieved.

For centuries, the city of Chichen Itza dominated much of the Yucatan peninsula until it was abandoned, for unknown reasons, in the 14th century, well before the Spanish arrived.

Some scholars think that disastrous wars and ecological crises led the Maya to lose faith in their theocracy, which was based on the idea that the blood of gods had given life to mankind. This original act of sacrifice was repeated on earth by the Mayan king, the gods' representative, who participated in horrific blood-letting rituals reenacting the moment of human creation.

Blood - the king's blood as well as that of others - was the price of power, the debt to the gods that had to be repaid, according to anthropologist Linda Schele. The Maya warred constantly against their neighbors, seeking high-born captives to sacrifice to their ravenous gods.

Indeed, at the top of El Castillo, we were trying to steady ourselves on the spot where victims had once been ritually killed, their chests ripped open with obsidian knives. I pulled from my pocket a passage from the 16th-century diary of Diego de Landa, first bishop of the Yucatan, who recorded the rite: "The Arm of God plunged into the ribs and seized the heart like a raging tiger and snatched it out alive."

El Castillo was built in the 10th century around an older, smaller temple housing a startling life-size jaguar encrusted with jade. We crawled into a cool corner of the inner temple, staring at the menacing jaguar as we tried to muster the nerve to head down. This much was clear: This place had never been serene.

The myth of the Maya as the "intellectuals of the new world," a contemplative, peace-loving people dedicated to engineering, erudition, and astronomy, has been refuted by scholars over the last 20 years. But we wondered how anyone sitting in the temple could have believed it to begin with? This building may have been built to study the heavens, but it had also been built to terrify.

At every turn in Chichen Itza we were confronted with evidence of a highly developed civilization based on blood and brutal human sacrifice - sculptures showing Maya lords sitting on the necks of prisoners, images of battle captives being seized by the hair, eagles eating human hearts, reclining nobles holding diagonally placed spears, and human skulls lining the wall outside the ball court.

Yet Maya achievements are breathtaking. El Castillo's alignment, for example, is so precise that twice yearly on the equinoxes, sunlight bathes the balustrade to create the illusion that Quetzecoatal, the Feathered Serpent god, is descending the stairway of the pyramid. The light causes seven isosceles triangles to form into the body of a 37-yard serpent that creeps downward until it joins the huge serpent head carved in stone at the bottom. Some say that in the days before crowds, observers could see the snake slither along the causeway to the Well of Sacrifice.

The Maya backed up this ostentatious but fundamentally impressive display with a profound understanding of the heavens. They had mapped the cycles of the moon so accurately that 1,500 years later their calculations are off only by seconds. Their sacred calendar, unlike any other known calendar, identifies the astrological significance of every single day, and predicts the time and place of solar eclipses.

The serpent effect lasts for about two weeks, so you don't have to be at Chichen Itza precisely on March 21 with the thousands of tourists, scholars, and happy New Agers - not to mention the native Maya who come on somber pilgrimages to their ancient gods.