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The Lost World of Maya

In 1695, father Avendagno accidentally found some “strange old buildings” in the north-western part of Guatemala, while being lost in the thicket of endless marshlands. Mysterious high standing structures were covered by the lush tropical rainforest. Since the colonial power at the time was not interested in exploring such a distant perimeter, those buildings were left untouched for another hundred and fifty years until they were re-discovered.

Guatemala, Tikal. Photos: Paavo Eensalu

Today, those strange old buildings have become one of the greatest sights in Guatemala, bringing hundreds and thousands of people from all over the world together every year. I am talking about Tikal, probably the largest ruin complex that has survived from the Maya’s to our time. While this ancient metropolis must have had around 100 000 inhabitants, today the Tikal national park covers about 600 square kilometres of protected forest and ruin sites. The pearl of it all are five Mayan temples, each sixty meters tall.

It is unclear how the temples and pyramids were built in Tikal. The story around later abandonment of Tikal is even more confusing. History of the world seems to be a sequence of secrets and some lies in between, and the further back we look, the more we need to make assumptions according to our current beliefs. World history is also the story of lost worlds. The pyramids of Egypt, the deserted cities of Syria, Machu Picchu in Peru, the palaces found underwater near the western coast of India – all of these and other objects from around the world account for grand and powerful cultures that once flourished and have now fallen into the dust of time. One of such examples is the ancient Mayan culture in Central-America. Most historians have come to the common conclusion at least in that the arrival of European explorers could not be the only reason for the fall of the Mayan world, even if it is considered as one of the factors. There are those who think that the Mayan society perished due to the leaders losing their competence and turning ancient powerful rituals into mindless formalities and bloodsheds. Still, the descent of Mayas was strangely sudden, and there is no answer to, who buried the temples under the dirt, where limestone preserves better than in open air.

I would like to ask like Derek Walcott in one of his poems:
“Did the sea worm bury that secret in clear sand, in the coral cathedrals, the submarine catacombs where the jellyfish trails its purple, imperialfringe?”

Everyone who has a strong wish and enough resources can go and visit the ruins of Tikal and make personal conclusions according to their own perception and knowledge. That is what I did. When I arrived early in the morning, the forest was full of peculiar bird-songs. In the mist of the morning jungle, the eye catches little of the magnificence of the past. Even when I approach the Great Jaguar temple after a twenty-minute walk, I don’t experience anything exceptionally monumental. I surmise that the Mayan cities have more of the enigmatic than impressive quality. Then again, when the fog dissipates and I move on, other vistas reveal themselves.

The tallest temples of Tikal rise above the jungle roof and the landscape opens up for tens of kilometres. I ascend on the steps, where once only kings and priests were allowed. And even though it is quite dizzying to stand above the quieting rainforest on the narrow crumbling stone strip at the top of the perpendicular Sun Acropolis, an ordinary man, who is forbidden to walk the stairs of today’s rulers of the world, can fantasize what it feels like to be a king. At the top of the temples, where your voice echoes like thunder, it is not hard to imagine that. “I am the master of my choices, I am the creator of my world. I am the one who was born to be free and powerful.” I have to admit that, while sitting on the throne of the Mayan kings, there is a growing awareness in me that this city was not built and ruled by earthly men alone, that there were others, unseen beings.

One of the Tikal pyramids is strikingly called “the lost world” – “El Mundo Perdido”. I hear the tourists joking that, how can it be lost if we know, where it is. But I think that although we can see the ruins of ancient civilizations and know their geographical location, we can read their writings in stone, their deepest core is nevertheless lost to our understanding. Even today’s Mayas are but distant relatives to the spirit of their ancient forefathers.

It is easy to idealise the past. It does not take much effort, in the hardship of the moment, to think that life used to be more natural, more beautiful, freer, and healthier, that people had more abilities and leaders were wiser. Obviously, it does not mean that this is how it was. It is unlikely that the world changes its essence, no matter what era it is. One of the pictures of the Mayas that has reached us is that they were great wise ones, who calculated astronomy and mathematics, who had shamans communicating with the higher powers – who were the geniuses of their time. Another picture is that of aggressors, who brought innumerable human sacrifices to their Gods, mostly from their enemies, but in the end their own people. And the crowd cheered when the headless bodies tumbled down the temple stairs. Of course, in Europe the people gathered to witness hangings and stake-burnings at the same time, and that does not mean we do not value the musical, artistic and literary masterpieces of the period. One could say, we have humanized since then, we have more equality between people, but how much of that is truth and how much an illusion we can only decide, when we look back from the future.

As for Mayas, the current focus does not seem to be on their temples and pyramids, but on the date, December 21st, 2012, when the Mayan calendar is supposed to come to an end, terminating a long cycle of times. There are no writings that would tell us, what and how things will happen then. Considering that the last known Mayan city, Wakna, was discovered only ten years ago (1998), one can boldly guess that there is a lot of the Mayan heritage that we still do not know. Whether December 2012 brings an end to the world, a global consciousness shift, or the new coming of the Mayas – we can find more hypothesis than any one can think of. However, if the story of the world could make a universal claim, then it would be that nothing lasts forever, that even the mightiest cultures and empires fall into the transience of time. If not in 2012, then at some point in the future, we will become a lost world – a culture that was born and that died and was forgotten for thousands of years until someone stumbled upon it. Who knows, perhaps that is what culture means – to create something that is understood, but it seldom is.


Mathura (a.k.a. Margus Lattik) is an Estonian writer and artist, who has published four poetry collections and translations and held exhibitions around Estonia. See also: www.hot.ee/mathura.