Thursday, February 20, 2014

Belize: The Mayan Motherland

Artist's idea of Cahal Pech 
The ruins of Cahal Pech are within the city limits of San Ignacio, Belize. We hired a guide (mediocre) who told us that Cahal Pech was the birthplace of the Mayan civilization. Near the confluence of two rivers, it was a major trading center. Other sites developed up and down river, the highest towers of each visible to the next city. He said that Pech meant Great King, but I knew from reading the literature that Cahal Pech means Place of the Ticks, as in ticks that crawl on animals. I asked him about that and he said Pech meant both things. Apparently the Mayan politicians were the same kind of blood sucking ticks we have today!

It turns out that Cahal Pech was a trading center, but certainly not the oldest of the Mayan sites in Belize. People have been occupying the land and ceremonial center at Lamanai since 2500 BC. Coello and Cerros have the oldest pottery to date.

From what is now known from the archeological digs, it would appear that Belize certainly has many of the oldest ruins. Mayan civilization got its start in the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, including what is now Belize.

Altun Ha is the most accessible site from Belize City and is frequented by cruise ship tour groups. It is generally packed with people Mondays through Thursdays during the peak season. Found at Altun Ha, in a tomb, was one of the largest solid jade objects ever made, the carved head of the Sun God Kinich Ahau. It resides in the Museum of Belize when it's not on loan to other museums.

Temple mask at Lamanai

From Orange Walk's toll bridge, tourists can arrange for a boat tour to Lamanai, which means submerged crocodile. The tour includes a guide. It is an impressive site with a small museum, nice restrooms, some vendors, and a picnic area. Several of the monuments have enormous masks on both sides of the stairway leading to the top. And the jungle around it is filled with monkeys, butterflies, and birds, including the rare trogan.

Coello is not far from Orange walk and is considered by many to be the oldest in Belize.

On the western edge of the country, there are dozens of sites, many of which are not open to the public, and are only barely excavated.

Xunantunich is right on the border of Guatemala, and a short taxi or bus ride from San Ignacio. There is a hand cranked ferry (for cars!) that crosses the slow moving river. Uphill about a mile is the ceremonial center.  El Castillo rises 39 meters and is the tallest pyramid in Belize. A climb to the top reveals a wide vista of the entire area. It's easy to see the practical aspect of towering platforms. Light signals could easily be sent at night from one city to the next. In addition astronomical studies were performed continuously by the priests. The Mayan calendar is based on astronomy, and due to their precise measurements of the cosmos, the calendar is far more accurate than our modern ones.

Caracol, the subject of the previous post, has the most intact stelae and consequently the best historical information in Belize. From the carvings, pottery, and monuments, information about the warfare between cities, the lineage of god-kings, kinships, and specific dates are available to those who can interpret the writing.

For anyone interested in the Mayan civilization, Belize should definitely be on the itinerary.

View from El Castillo, Xunantunich

Cahal Pech, the great plaza

Partially reconstructed temple at Cahal Pech

Iguana in the jungle