Archive for March, 2008

New Book Released Honoring Chichen Itza

March 31st, 2008 by ejalbright

Just in time for spring’s equinox, the newspaper of record for the region, Diario de Yucatan, released a new book about Chichen Itza.

Homenaje a Chichen Itza: nueva maravilla del mundo, was released March 19. According to the Diario, “This is a luxury edition, coated paper in bulk, published by Dante, and prepared in honor of Chichen Itza.” The book runs 48 pages, with 40 photographs by David Baeza Braga. The book also has a map of the site, and three-dimensional reconstructions of the main buildings and sections of the archaeological site.

According to the Diario, it also contains an acetate in which recreates how the great pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcan, would have looked in Maya times.

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Valladolid Piggybacks on Chichen Itza Fame

March 26th, 2008 by ejalbright

Valladolid, the largest city near Chichen Itza, is getting more aggressive promoting itself in concert with the ancient Maya city so recently named a “wonder of the world.”

The new designation has already boosted hotel occupancy by 15 percent during the recent Easter holiday. Hotel owners in Valladolid reported that they were full or almost full on Thursday, the day before the traditional spring equinox, when the feathered serpent Kukulcan can be seen crawling down the side Chichen Itza’s great pyramid.

As proof the increase was not just because the Easter holiday, hotel owners indicated that occupancy decreased on Good Friday through the weekend.

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Bad Weather Keeps Kukulcan Away on ‘Equinox’

March 24th, 2008 by ejalbright

Rain washed out the annual arrival of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza (photo by chor)

Overcast skies prevented Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, from slithering down the great pyramid at Chichen Itza on Friday, the “official” day of the spring equinox.

Thousands surrounded El Castillo, the giant temple of Kukulcan, hoping the sun would break through the crowds in late afternoon and reveal the shadows that play along the balustrade on the northern staircase that make it appear a giant serpent is crawling down the pyramid. The sun did manage to break through around 4 p.m., about a half hour before the full effect can be seen, but then a huge cloud buried the sun and the crowd estimated at 20,000 was ultimately disappointed.

Once it became clear that there would be no show on this day, the crowd evacuated the site in less than 10 minutes, according to one news report. The failure of Kukulcan to appear was the final indignity of a day of rain and heavy winds.

Ironically, March 21, although the traditional day of the beginning of spring, was not the equinox. Thanks in part to this being a leap year and February getting an extra day, the equinox actually occurred two days earlier, on March 19. On that day, the skies were clear and anyone visiting Chichen Itza would have seen the seven isoceles triangles projected as shadows on the northern balustrade, heralding the equinox and the return of Kukulcan.

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45,000 Expected at Chichen to See Equinox

March 21st, 2008 by ejalbright

El Castillo, silhouetted by the sun during a spring equinox.

Mexican authorities expect some 45,000 visitors at Chichen Itzá to see Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, descend the pyramid, El Castillo at around 4:30 p.m. today.

What is unclear from news accounts is whether the 45,000 will be showing up on one day (today, March 21), or over the course of the equinox season (March 19-23), or today but across all the archaeological zones across Mexico. Regardless, the estimate is 15,000 more than the number that came last year. The difference is that between last year and this year, Chichen Itza was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

However, weather forecasts are predicting clouds and rain, so visitors may have to wait until tomorrow before the sky clears enough so that the sun will project the shadow of the feathered serpent upon the north balustrade of El Castillo.

Good weather or bad, the Mexican Ministry of Public Security will have at Chichén Itzá 100 officers, 20 ambulances and a phalanx of firefighters, divers (at the cenote) and paramedics. They will be joined by 100 youth corps scouts, staff from Yucatan Health Services, and the guides and other staff that normally works the archaeological zone. The federal police will be out in force on the roads.

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Chichen Itza Gets a New Face on Several Monuments

March 20th, 2008 by ejalbright

INAH completed its third season of restoration/maintenance of monuments at Chichen Itza, the federal agency announced in a press release.

This past year work has focused on the buildings surrounding the great pyramid, El Castillo. The Temple of Warriors directly east of the pyramid underwent waterproofing. The two platforms to the north, one named after Venus, and other after Eagles and Jaguars, underwent restoration of the carved reliefs that adorn the sides.

Other structures that received attention were the Tzompantli, with its walls of carved skulls, and two structures that comprise part of the Great Ball Court, the Upper Temple of the Jaguar and South Temple.

According to INAH, the most important work was the waterproofing of the Temple of Warriors. The floors atop the structure were protected with a coating and sloped so that rainwater no longer pools and then seeps into the substructure.

In the case of the Platform of Venus, Platform of Eagle and Jaguars, and Tzompantli, INAH had to undo earlier restorations to make the structures closer to the way they appeared in their heyday a thousand years ago.

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Chichen Itza Readies for Equinox

March 19th, 2008 by ejalbright

El Castillo During Equinox

In Mexico, the spring equinox equals good business.

INAH, the federal agency in charge of archaeological ruins in the country, expects some 50,000 visitors this year to visit at least one of 176 prehispanic archaeological site open to the public. One of the biggest draws of all is the ancient city of Chichen Itza, especially since being named a Wonder of the World.

Beginning today and running through March 23, thousands will descend on Chichen to watch Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, wind his way down the north face of El Castillo, the giant pyramid. Last year the total number of visitors neared 14,000, with the greatest being 5,000 on the March 21, the official day of the equinox.

INAH this year will emphasize protection of the ruins, and has put in what it calls the Disaster Prevention Program in the Field of Cultural Heritage (Previnah), “which will safeguard the integrity of the non-renewable cultural resources,” according to the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada. The huge numbers visiting these sites during the equinox can cause “irreversible damage to the sites,” the newspaper said.

INAH and security staff will be looking to keeping the following out of the zones during the equinox: Alcoholic beverages and drugs, weapons, herbs, animals, flowers, gas cylinders, bicycles, suitcases, backpacks and large objects.

At the same time, INAH will also be out to insure the safety of the public, and advises that visitors bring plenty of water and sunscreen, that they wear hats or use umbrellas, make proper use of toilets and facilities in general, as well as caring for children and the elderly to prevent dangers of sun and heat.

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Yucatan, Day Five and Six

March 15th, 2008 by ejalbright

Day Five I originally planned to go to Chichén Itzá, but the night before I left I received a call that Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul, sister of my dear friend Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul, would be willing to meet for an interview. I cleared my schedule to speak with her, and she proved a delightful interview, as charming and intelligent as her brother, and very, very down to earth. It made my day.

The rest of the day was spent around Merida. The next morning I spoke at the Merida Men’s Club, where ex-pats from the US and Canada gather once a month for a breakfast. The subject of my speech was Edward H. Thompson and the Treasure of the Sacred Well. The group seemed to enjoy my talk, which was based on an article I wrote a couple of years ago.

After the speech, I hit the road for Chichen Itza, where I visited friends, dropped off some materials for the INAH director there, and checked into the Hacienda Chichén. I then went into the archaeological zone for a couple of hours. I had been reading in the papers that the hundreds of vendors who invade the park each day to sell trinkets had voluntarily withdrawn for a couple of days, but when I was there, they were back in full force. The patience of the Mexican government is just about exhausted, and one can sense that either the vendors will leave voluntarily or will be driven out by force, as they have on two previous occasions.

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Yucatan, Day Four

March 13th, 2008 by ejalbright

In 1915, the Mexican Revolution came to Yucatan. General Salvador Alvarado rode into Merida with several thousand federal troops to take over the state. The governor at the time, General Abel Ortiz Argumedo, fled to Rio Lagartos, a small community on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. A small group of Agumedo supporters contacted the former American consul, Edward Thompson, at his hacienda at Chichen Itza to see if he could get them to safety in the United States.

“I had a couple of days before heard that some natives were building a schooner at San Felipe, about 15 miles from their hiding place,” Thompson told a reporter later, “and I decided that then was a good time to go fishing.”

According to Thompson, the schooner was not finished, and no provisions of any substance could be found in the village. “We hastily scraped together a few eggs and a small amount of water. Then I found instead of 10 I had planned to rescue there were 26 to be cared for on our scant provisions, including two women, one of whom was in a delicate condition.” The party set sail from San Felipe and wandered the Carribean for 13 days before finally reaching Cuba.

I am writing about this event for my book proposal, so I took a trip to Rio Lagartos and San Felipe without any idea what I might find. I was accompanied by three friends, who came along for the adventure.

At Rio Lagartos, we found nothing other than a lovely coastal community, surrounded by mangrove swamps. One of our party, Bill Drennon, knew his swamps and was able to explain how the four species of mangroves survive in dispersion zone ecosystems where salt and fresh water interface. Each species of mangrove–red, white, black and buttonwood–thrives at different elevations and different salinities. Red mangrove requires more constant flushing as it is unable to process salt as efficiently as black mangrove, which can survive in more brackish conditions where salt levels can be higher.

Another traveling companion, Steve Fry, went with me to the library at Rio Lagartos which, much to my dismay, had nothing about the history of the village. Not finding any information about the 1915 escape from Yucatan, we pressed on to San Felipe. If anything, it was prettier than Rio Lagartos. We stopped at a hotel, Hotel San Felipe de Jesus, where the owner, Guadalupe Jesus Mena Sanchez, happened to know the oldest resident of the village. Guadalupe introduced us to Jorge Duran Coral, who was a vital 99 years young and who, as luck would have it, remembered the ship and knew the entire story.

Jorge’s version of events was somewhat different than Thompson’s, which unfortunately for you, dear reader, I will not be revealing here. But finding Jorge and hearing his account made the entire trip worth it.

We then returned to Rio Lagartos and hired a boat to take us through the inlets to see a wide variety of wildlife: egrets, herons, flamingos, crocodiles. It seemed as if every open branch had a bird of some kind. I heartily recommend making the trip to this remote corner of Yucatan, regardless of whether you are doing research or not.

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Yucatan, Day Three

March 11th, 2008 by ejalbright

I awoke without a sore throat. My illness has now moved into my chest, meaning an occasional painful cough that produces about a gallon of phlegm. I didn’t have a fever until last night, but that broke after only a couple of hours. This bug, whatever it is, is a speedy devil, blowing through my system like a summer squall.

I spent the morning in search of a few more icons of 1910-1923, the period I am currently writing about. This is the era of the Mexican Revolution, and of the launching of the Carnegie Institution restoration of Chichen Itza under the great archaeologist Sylvanus Morley. This is also the era of martyred governor of Yucatan, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and his American love, Alma Reed.

I began at the Museo de Antropologia on Paseo de Montejo. There were two items in particular I wanted to see. One was a carved disk that Morley found in the spring of 1923 buried in the Caracol, the observatory at Chichén Itzá. The other was a bust of Teobert Maler, the Austrian explorer, who was a lifelong enemy of Edward Thompson’s until his death in Merida in 1917.

I found the disk easily, for it was prominently displayed on the main floor of the museum. The Maler bust, however, which at one time decorated the entrance of an earlier location of the museum, was now in storage and I could not get permission to view it.

After the museum, I drove south to the city cemetery to find the burial places of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Alma Reed. I wandered around the cemetery like an idiot, and eventually a fellow took pity upon me and led me almost by the hand to the grande mausoleum containing the dead governor’s body. A hundred feet from there is a section of wall where supposedly the governor, several of his brothers and followers, were executed in January 1924. Across the street from Carrillo Puerto’s sarcophagus is the grave of Alma Reed.

After the cemetery, I attended a birthday of a friend’s wife. There I met Rafael Cobos, who works for INAH, and we exchanged information about Chichen Itza. Cobos had done a lot of work on sacbes, the white roads of the Maya. I was seeking in particular information about the Mexican restoration of Chichen Itza, specifically El Castillo and the Ball Court. Cobos directed me to a couple of places to check for information.

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Yucatan, Day 2

March 10th, 2008 by ejalbright

My throat has been scratchy since landing. My voice sounds like a wheezy accordion. Today I am convinced I have full blown cold or other sickness. Everyone in my office has been ill, so it made sense that I eventually would get it.

I started the day at Dzibulchultun, a restored ruin north of Merida. I came in search of a stelae that had originally been in Uxmal, a restored ruin well south of Merida. In the early 1890s, Edward Thompson had been commissioned to make molds of buildings at Uxmal and Labna for recreations of these buildings at the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Thompson led a small army of Maya workers to the sites during malaria season. Men started dropping from disease, and eventually Thompson also took ill with fever.

While Thompson lay in his hammock trying to recover, one of his assistants came and told him of finding a stelae with glyphs. Thompson somehow managed to find the strength to get up and take a look. He photographed the monument, then collapsed and had to be helped back to his quarters.

Over the intervening years, Thompson returned to Uxmal and tried to find the stelae, but he couldn’t remember where it was. His assistant who had found it had died. It became known as Thompson’s Lost Stelae.

However, the stelae was never actually lost. Others knew of it, including Sylvanus Morley, who rediscovered it in 1923. Eventually the stelae was moved by the 1980s to La Ermita, a church in Merida, as a decoration for its garden. A few years ago it was moved again to the museum at Dzibulchultun, a restored ruin north of Merida, which is where I found it this morning.

After snapping a shot of the stelae, I headed for the state archives to look up records pertaining to tax relief that Edward Thompson had received in 1910. The two women who ran the archives this day spoke little English, which was the perfect complement to my complete lack of Spanish. We flailed around trying to find the records until I remembered the two key words, Congreso (the state senate) and Legislativo (the state house of representatives). Once we had that, then the women knew right where to look.

Late in the afternoon I had coffee with George Ann Schuck, a retired professor who has been attempting to write a book about Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the martyred governor of Yucatan, and Alma Reed, the American journalist that he fell in love with. The chapter I am working on deals briefly with their love affair, and their relationship with Chichén Itzá. George Ann was a delightful coffee companion. We swapped stories and information about what we had discovered in our research.

We took a drive to see Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s grave, but the cemetery was closed. I planned to return tomorrow in the morning. I dropped George Ann off near her car and headed back to my friend’s. My throat was on fire, and I could barely keep my eyes open. When I got back, I just went up to my room with the idea of taking a brief siesta. Instead, I slept through the night.

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