In search of the Maya Civilisation: Dzibanche, Kohunilch and Altun-Ha
As you make your way deep inside the lush green jungle of Central America – be it either Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras – you come across ancient awe-inspiring and somewhat mysterious edifices of the Maya civilisation…Visiting each Mayan site is a fascinating journey of discovery into central America’s extraordinary and majestic past. During our Christmas maritime adventure with Celebrity Cruises, we visited three Mayan sites – Altun Ha in Belize, and Dzibanche and Kohunlich in Mexico. I am certain you have heard of Chichen Itza, perhaps the most well-known Mayan site and one of the new seven wonders of the world alongside the Great Wall of China, Christ the Redeemer, Machu Picchu, Petra, Taj Mahal, and Colosseum. We gently meandered around the less famous ones, allowing our mind to time travel back to the pinnacle of this ancient civilisation without the disturbance from the overwhelming crowds of tourists.
The Maya civilisation spans more than two thousand years with the earliest settlements dating as far back as 1,800 B.C. It was a unique and advanced culture with a dominant presence in Mesoamerica. The Mayans are known for their exquisite and incredibly complex hieroglyphic script and the only known fully developed writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas. Their knowledge in mathematics was incredibly advanced. In fact, Mayans invented the mathematical concept of zero, while in Europe there was no such developed notion of nothingness. They used such concept as a placeholder in their elaborate calendar system. The Mayans are also known for their progress in astronomy – they kept very detailed records of the movements of the stars, sun, moon and planets – as well as their impressive art and architecture.
The Maya civilisation reached its peak around 700-800 B.C., but afterwards it went sharply into decline… As to why exactly, it remains a mystery. However, the Mayan people never disappeared and their descendants are still living along the Yucatan peninsula. In fact, Mayan languages are spoken by approximately 6 million people in Central America.
One of the things that truly fascinates me about Mayans is their relentless pursuit of body deformations, either natural or self-inflicted, as the ultimate concept of beauty. For instance, amongst the upper class flattened foreheads, achieved by pressing boards on newborns’ forming soft foreheads, were very much a la mode. Another criteria for Mayan beauty were crossed eyes. This was accomplished by suspending an object in front of the baby’s eyes until its eyes were permanently crossed. In addition, the Mayans had a penchant for altering the appearance of their teeth (ouch) by either filing them to make them spikey or creating holes to be filled with jade. The art of tattooing was also very much en vogue amongst both men and women, who decorated their bodies with elaborate designs.
The Mayans also pursued the harrowing practice of human sacrifice until the final stages of the Spanish conquest in the 17th century. Human sacrifice was the ultimate ritual offering of nourishment to their deities. The preferred sacrifical methods were a still-beating heart extraction and decapitation.
Some of the Mayan ruins have been partly restored, and yet a very large proportion of Maya ruins in general remains not excavated and hidden by the thick jungle.
Altun-Ha (Belize)The first Maya site we visited was Altun- Ha, which lies on the north-central coastal plain of Belize, about 30 miles from Belize City. Altun Ha was occupied for many centuries, from about B.C. 900 to A.D. 1000; the city reached its largest size between A.D. 400 to A.D. 900. The grounds are exceptionally well-preserved, and climbing to the top of the main pyramid offers splendid views of the surrounding areas, as well affording visitors to get a real sense of the layout.
Dzibanche and Kohunlich (Yucantan peninsula, Mexico)
Dzibanche and Kohunlich are two spectacular archaeological Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico, located close to each other. The former, Dzibanche, was a major Maya city, and an early capital of the Kan dynasty. Howler monkeys are abound here and add a sense of complete wilderness… Both cities were elaborately planned and engineered. The latter, Kohunlich remains largely not excavated, however we got glimpses of raised platforms and pyramids, citadels, courtyards and plazas surrounded with palace platforms, all laid out to channel drainage into a system of cisterns and an enormous reservoir to collect rainwater.