By Mildred Boyd
They are empty and silent now; pale spectres of cities that teemed with life and seethed with color. Once priestly processions moved in solemn splendor across those wide plazas and climbed the steep stairways to make their bloody offerings to the gods while hushed crowds of worshippers looked on in awe and wonder…and fear?
On happier occasions there might be shouts and cheers from excited spectators at the sacred ball court or the sound of bells, drums and rattles accompanying the ritual dancing.
Some were not cities at all. Only the gods and the priests and acolytes who ministered to them lived there. These were ceremonial centers, often serving wide areas, where the faithful came to worship and appease their sometimes terrible deities. They might also be administrative centers but, since Kings were usually High Priests, it amounted to the same thing.
Today, only small groups of tourists move about the vast courtyards. The voices of guides and the roar of tour buses raise brief echoes among the ancient stones and are quickly gone.
Only the ghosts remain.
This huge complex of palaces, temples and tombs, built by the Zapotecs as early as 600 D.C., eventually boasted a population of 24,000. The enormous plaza is bounded on all sides by impressive temple platforms all facing toward a central group. A labyrinth of secret, underground passages connects the major buildings. Among the more interesting structures are the Palace, atop an imposing platform, and Mound L, where those enigmatic sculptures, the danzantes, were found.
Temple J, arrowhead shaped and curiously oriented, seems to have served as both observatory and battle monument.
This was truly a great city, stretching for miles and laid out with geometric precision. Its population may have reached 200,000. A broad avenue, the Street of the Dead, runs, arrow-straight for five kilometers and is lined with imposing temples, palaces and public buildings. The Pyramid of the Sun rises over 200 feet from a base some 650 feet square and is reached by a steep flight of 248 steps. The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller but still impressive and the great public market also served as an amphitheatre for religious spectacles.
Built by the Zapotecs, Mitla became the capitol of the conquering Mixtecs and was later buried by the modern village. One major building has been precariously excavated beneath the church. Another has enormous round columns, almost Doric in simplicity, found nowhere else in the New World.
The most interesting feature, however, is the intricate friezes of small, precisely-cut stones set in every possible geometric pattern, which decorate the facades. They have been poetically described as ‘petrified lace’.
Chichen (the Itza came much later) was an important Maya center for centuries but almost all its existing buildings date from after the Toltec invasion. The Temple of the Warriors is an almost exact copy of one at Tula. Many pyramids were renewed every 52 years simply by building a shell around the existing structure, leaving the old temple intact. This is the case with El Castillo where such furnishings as the marvelous jaguar throne may be seen.
The most unusual building is the Caracol. Circular, with sloping ramps, it has been identified as an observatory.
In 1949 Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz, noticed an odd-looking flagstone in the Temple of the Inscriptions which, when lifted, revealed a rubble-filled stairway leading downward inside the 65-foot pyramid. By the end of the season, slow and cautious excavation had uncovered the first landing and still the corbel-vaulted passage led on. Three years and 80 vertical feet later Ruz broke through into King Pacal’s magnificent tomb.
Until that moment archaeologists believed that Meso-Americans never used their pyramids as tombs.
The free-standing ‘Triumphal’ arch is the best known feature of this Mayan city. Set between columns heavily carved with geometric motifs and flanked by sheltered niches which probably once contained statues, it gives access to a broad central plaza surrounded by temples and palaces.
Of these, the Mirador is the most fascinating. A tall pyramid supports a pillared loggia above a chamber with unique half-columns, carved to resemble living tree trunks.
The Puuc style of architecture, common in northern Yucatan, featured cement walls faced with finely dressed stones and overlaid with high-relief carvings in repetitive motifs.
Kabah’s K’odzpop Palace is fine example of Puuc. Here the facade is densely studded with representations of the Mayan rain god, Chac. The endless repetitions of the long-nosed deity cast fascinating and ever-changing patterns of deep shadows so that the images seem to be in motion as the bright tropical sun races across the sky.
The Pyramid of the Morning Star was dedicated to the god/priest/king, Quetzalcoatl, who numbered Venus among his many aspects. Almost completely destroyed by barbarian invaders, it has been splendidly restored by archaeologists, helped by the fact that the Toltecs, pleased with their design, repeated it in Yucatan.
A sacrificial altar in the form of a half-reclining man with a rather quizzical expression fronts the sweeping staircase ascending the pyramid. From a base 140 feet square it rises 30 feet in five equal tiers to a flat area with rows of titanic warriors that once supported the roof.
The Pyramid of the Niches is unique in Meso-America. Rising from a base 115 feet square to a height of 60 feet in six vertical levels it resembles a giant’s stairway rather than the usual talud-tablero (terrace-and-slope) construction. The actual stairs slant steeply, unbroken by landings, and are defined by balustrades inlaid with scrolls which may represent serpents. Another innovation, later adopted by the Toltecs, is the statues which stand at the top on either side.
The most intriguing feature is the 365 window-like openings, actually deep niches, which, some think, may have once housed images.
The Pyramid of the Magician is, at 84 feet, the tallest in Mexico. It dominates the site and offers breathtaking views. The Nunnery Quadrangle’s wide, vaulted entrance leads to a colonnaded courtyard 80×260 feet. Its walls are intricately carved with masks, serpents and geometric designs. Opposite, wide stairs climb 30 feet to a terrace and the 11 double rooms which give the structure its name.
The House of the Governor, situated on a natural rise, stretches 385 feet atop 20 foot platform. Its lower walls are smooth stucco but the upper half is covered with Greek key designs and grotesque masks.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com