Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Last weekend (2/5-6/2013) I was privileged to stay at a beautiful hotel on the turquoise beaches of Cancun, Mexico. While there I joined an all day tour to the ruins of Chichen Itza, two hours inland. I knew of the Mayan culture and their mysterious disappearance a thousand years ago. Their advanced calendar was the subject of the sensational movie 2012. I knew as well that they had a violent culture. I was curious to see the place with my own eyes and understand more of the reality behind the hype; I was able to do so thanks to the skill of our knowledgeable tour guide, Embarto. This short overview chronicles the three places where that violent culture was revealed in this tour. Each has a photo that I took.
As we drove across the Yucatan, I was perplexed by the countryside. It was flat and composed primarily of fields and scrubland. It didn’t fit my idea of a jungle, so I asked our guide about it. He said that because the Yucatan is primarily made of limestone the soil is too thin to support big trees. When rain falls it percolates through the soil into underground rivers; this explains why there are thousands of sinkholes throughout the country (cenotes (pronounced seh-noe-tays).) These provided water for the cities, but also played a sinister role in the Mayan religion. Chichen Itza has 17 square miles of ruins; only 20% of that has been excavated and opened to the public. Our bus joined many others at the main entrance as we disembarked to follow Embarto through the grounds. 
The first place we toured was a ball court that is the largest known in the Americas. It reminded me of the quidditch tournament field in Harry Potter.  It was bounded on two sides by stone walls that rose 26 feet high and were 554 feet long with some 100 feet between them. Each wall had a circular stone ring about 3 feet on the inner diameter that stuck out from the middle of the wall (lengthwise) and some 20 feet above the ground. Each ring was 90 degrees to the wall and oriented in a vertical plane, as shown in this photo:

During ritual games, players tried to hit a 12-pound rubber ball with their arms and hips  through the hoops. This was not a casual sporting game, but a life and death undertaking that was linked to the Mayan religion and politics of the Kingdom —losers were put to death.
The Mayan priests and kings were obsessed with astronomy; their hieroglyphs, calendars, and monuments were built to track and observe the stars. For example, the main structure in the complex is the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. The pyramid-shaped structure has four stairways, each with 91 steps (4 x 91=364); add the top platform and you have 365 [days]. Other buildings and hieroglyphs chronicled the appearance of Venus and predicted eclipses. The supposed importance of the recent expiration of one of their calendars is merely that: an end of a cycle that would merely begin another cycle when it was done. Nothing about the end of the world was envisioned.
We were shown some hieroglyphs that illustrate the brutal way they killed prisoners (I will not elaborate). Knowing that we would likely find the Mayan guilty for this cruelty, Embarto mentioned that even the Biblical God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, even though he admitted that God made sure it wasn’t done. Embarto started to recite the lyrics to John Lennon’s song Imagine - as a way to say (I guess) that the world would be a better place without religion. Here is a photo of the Temple of Kukulkan, where sacrificial killings may have taken place:

The Mayan had an interesting counting system that was based on the number 20 and had the concept of zero hundreds of years before the Europeans did. Notwithstanding their technical ability, the priests sacrificed young girls to the gods by throwing them into cenotes. We stopped at a beautiful cenote called Ik Kil a few minutes after leaving Chichen Itza. The vegetation that surrounds its rim sends vines down to touch the surface, some 75-100 feet below. There is a (modern) stairway that tunnels down to the bottom, which has been expanded to have diving platforms.  The water is clear, cool, and deep and tourists are eager to swim in these sunken pools that have such a tragic tale to tell. I chose not to join them. Here is a photo of Ik Kil cenote:

Later that night, as I was sitting in the beautiful lobby of our hotel, which has a 12 story Atrium that mimics the interior of a cenote, there was a man playing background music on a violin. He began to play the song Imagine and I thought; how likely to hear it twice in one day? I thought of the words as I pondered its application. “Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky, Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people living life in peace...” 
The trouble is, John Lennon was murdered a few months later in New York City. Within a few years after Chichen Itza reached its zenith the Spanish conquistadors invaded and plundered the land. Embarto lamented the fact that a zealous Catholic priest destroyed most of the books that the Mayan had written. Religion has indeed been one of the great problems of the world. But sinful hearts are a bigger problem and something better than religion is needed to fix that.
Fortunately, the Gospel tells of God the Father Who sent His Son in the form of a baby who died to replace religion with a relationship. A relationship that can change sinful hearts into redeemed lives, if they will receive it. But that was not available to the Mayans and the jungle covered them over as it did Chichen Itza. Why that was so is one of the questions that I want to ask when I come into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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