Back to Index

MEXICO and Guatemala: Mayan civilization...why travel?



I have traveled over most of the world, and for years I gave at Stanford a course on travel literature, which includes many important books of which The Voyage of the Beagle is but one. Travel allows you to talk with people, breathe the air, and eat the foot. At the same time, apart from the expense, it is a waste of time. Long and cramped airplane flights; sea travel which is slightly better; rides over nasty roads, sometimes in unpleasant buses; staying in unsatisfactory accommodations, packing and unpacking. How often have I reached historic building only to find it closed for the day or for lunch. Some guides are ignorant, and their main concern is to get a good tip. Often one is so tired on arrival in bad weather that one cannot enjoy the visit or even think about what one is looking at, assuming one can see it. A good travel film made by experts is a much better use of time, and an article with good photographs can convey much fascinating information.

That brings me to the April '02 of the National Geographic. As usual, its articles are interesting and its photographs superb. Because of my interest in Mexico, I was especially taken by the two articles on Yucatan: The first is by George E. Stuart "Yucatan's Mysterious Hill Cities". A good map shows these cities. I have visited Uxmal, located west of the Puuc range, on the road from Merida to Campeche, but that is only one of a surprising number of such towns. Since I love my creature comforts, I salute those who braved jungle conditions to open up these worlds for us. I knew Hiram Bingham who discovered Macchu Pichu. However, John Lloyd Stevens, who un- or dis-covered these ruins in 1841-42, was slightly before my time. He was "plagued by heat, lack of water and infestations of ticks", He nevertheless left an important scholarly record, as did Hiram Bingham. The second article takes us across the modern border with Guatemala to San Bartolo in the PetÚn lowlands, where William Saturno of Harvard recently discovered, buried in the jungle, the oldest known wall painting of Maya mythology.

Egypt is the scene of a fascinating civilization long disappeared, but Egypt is still a vibrant society. This Mayan territory, inhabited only by a few primitive Indians, brings home more forcefully the mortality of civilizations. These cities had been abandoned before the Spaniards arrived. Now the Mayan area is in the news chiefly because of the troubles in Chiapas, where the Indians are fighting Mexican troops. My great disappointment on visiting ancient cities like Jericho was to find how little of them remained. Despite everything, the Mayan monuments have survived better, although perhaps not as well as those of Egypt. Now the task is to study the society which built and abandoned these cities. As in Egypt, there was a strong clerical movement. In Egypt, the ornate tombs full of gold treasures, were built under priestly direction. For fear of grave robbers, the later tombs were built hidden in hills. The fact that the tombs were looted showed a lack of respect for the priests, allied with the ruling class. This is evidence of anti-clericalism. Is there a study of anti-clericalism in ancient Egypt? What about ancient Mayan civilization?

Ronald Hilton - 4/7/02


Webmaster