“We’re going to Chichen Itza.”
My wife’s mind is made up.
“Blood sacrifice” I say. “Beheadings. Hearts ripped, still beating, from their chests. Monuments to terrible violence we can easily see in Europe.”
“They’re the finest Mayan ruins in Mexico.”
“No, they’re not. They’re just the easiest for the tourists to get to.”
Before she can stop herself the words have already tumbled out.
“They’re a three hour drive away.”
“Exactly. Far too far. And it´s happy hour in the hotel bar in ten hours’ time.”
I think I’ve won that one.
Four hours later we’re picking up our tour guide at the gates of the at least 1500 year old Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Our Mayan guide, Luis, is, I suspect, not hearing my prejudices for the first time.
“Yes, it is true. There was human sacrifice here. But that was the Toltec. Invaders the Maya tried to live with. When the Maya realised the Toltec wanted to sacrifice them too, then they abandoned Chichen Itza at the end of the thirteenth century.”
“What about the famous ball game? Didn’t that end up with the winning captain having his head cut off?”
“Yes”, says Luis, his smile never wavering. “That too was the Toltec. They were a warrior people. Before they came the Maya victors of the game would climb into the stands and receive the jewelry of the noble women as their reward.”
I feel we could do with a Toltec representative here for balance and, standing at the side of the soccer pitch size ball court, we look around the grassy arena, slowly filling up with tourists, and down at the stone engravings of the seven players next to us. The game was played with a four pound rubber ball. The goal was to put the ball through the small stone circles placed high on each wall. Arm, chest, hip and foot ‘armour’ enabled the players to intercept the ball, and a racket and bat to pass the ball on. The final engraving, however, unmistakably, shows the losing captain holding the head of the victorious one, stone blood, centuries later, still spurting from it.
Luis and I look at each other and I say it before he can.
He tries a new tack.
“Do you know what Chechen Itza means?”
“It means the place at the mouth of the well of the people who are magicians, or astronomers or mathematicians.”
We are by now standing at one of the long ends of the ball court. Luis steps a little away from us, sets his hands together in front of him and waits for a pause in the shuffle and murmur of the tourist groups. Then he claps sharply once. A split second later his clap ricochets back to us.
“If there was quiet here, you would also be able to hear someone speak at the far end.”
“Like a whispering gallery,” I say.
“Yes, in this way the judges could communicate during the game.”
He points back to the huge wall behind us.
“You can see how each wall is divided into two halves. One half is constructed of larger stone blocks, the other half of smaller. Each of the walls is also tilted very slightly forward. This creates these acoustic effects.”
Luis has now brought us to stand before the great temple of Chichen Itza. He explains how the temple is a representation of the Mayan Calendar. The number of steps, the number of platforms, the number of panels, all represent different aspects of the solar and lunar cycles. The sides of the temple face the cardinal points of the compass and at sunset on the spring and autumn solstices as the sunlight falls across the north west corner triangles of light are cast on to the north face, illuminating the stone body of the feathered serpent, Quetzoacatl, as he ‘descends’ to earth.
Finally I say,
“So the temple is a kind of time machine. It showed the people how they had mastered the concept of time.”
“And through better understanding of time”, Luis adds, “ when to harvest, when to sow, more control over nature, less fear and therefore no need for sacrifice.”
“And then came the Toltecs,” I offer.
“And the Europeans,” says Luis, still smiling.
The Mayans, a people interrupted.