- Historic Sites
On a journey to Mexico’s land of the Maya even the experts can fill in the past only lightly
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
We are at Chichén on the twenty-first of March, a Mexican national holiday (marking the birthday of Benito Juárez), one day after the official equinox, to join with thousands of Mayas and other Mexicans in witnessing a kind of light show, a natural phenomenon that has taken place every spring and fall for centuries. When the late-afternoon sun shines onto the stepped north face of the pyramid-shaped main building, the Castillo, it casts a light that takes the shape of seven triangles. As the sun sets, these triangles gradually descend the building to create, in the space of an hour or so, the illusion that an outsize diamondback rattler is gliding down the stairs, an image made even more powerful when the lowering sun finally reaches the great carved snake’s head resting on the ground. Was this effect intentional or just an extraordinary trick of the light? Despite recent breakthroughs in understanding the Maya culture that have followed upon the first decoding of the written language, no one knows for sure. It may have been a way of honoring a local god called Kukulcán, a feathered serpent, who may in turn have represented renewal. As the snake sheds its skin, so we all mark the movement of time, reinforcing an age-old awe for what Ed Krupp calls “the mystery of order and change.”
For those who continue to try to pin down the meaning of this pageant of light, Krupp offers his three archeologist’s rules: (1) yes, it does mean something; (2) people do things for reasons; (3) it’s always more complicated than you think.
Despite the air-conditioned buses, the ample hotel lunch along the way, and the constant flow of ice water and juice offered by the Stella Solaris staff, there’s no denying that this is a demanding day. Not one, of course, to be compared in any way with the hardships endured by earlier generations of explorers, but it takes its toll. After three hours on the bus, and another three or so of wandering broad, shadeless courts, I find the fantastical carved limestone temples, baths, and ball courts seeming to shimmer in the broiling heat. Some of us simply fold up on the only available seating, a bed of roots and rocks and dust, feet refusing to travel as far as the mind will go. The crowds that day were estimated at about thirty thousand, and most of these were young—a new generation of Mayas. There were masked dancers, drumrolls, and political harangues (some, I was told, referring to the recent events in Chiapas). To the growing anticipation was added a sense of unease when, as the day wore on, clouds gathered, threatening to obscure the sight of the descending snake. But then, somewhere around five o’clock, as we sat facing the Castillo, the sun pierced a bank of clouds, and one more time in its centuries-old slither, the serpent returned. A moment of unified silence was followed by cheers.
The next day, back on the ship, our lecturers asked for a vote: Who would have preferred to visit Chichén Itzá on March 20, the actual day of equinox, when relative calm prevailed and the snake’s audience would have numbered about one thousand? And who would choose to go back all over again to join, as the astronomer Anthony Aveni put it, the tumult of “thirty thousand people getting in touch with the universe”? The final tally favored the universe by a margin of two to one.