Tulum, Mexico: City of the Dawn — The North Star Reports – by Tayler Boelk. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
Along the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea lie the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans. The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies in Mesoamerica, excelling in agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, pottery, mathematics, and calendar-making.
Tulum, which means “fence” or “wall” in the Yucatan Mayan language, is named after the large stone wall that surrounds the city. However, it did not always have this name. It is believed that Tulum was previously known as Zama, meaning “City of the Dawn”, because it faces the sunrise. This particular location was an important pre-Columbian trade site as it had access to both land and sea trade routes. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city of Tulum traded with areas all over the Yucatan Peninsula, Central Mexico, Central America, and sometimes beyond. Now, it is the most popular Mayan tourist site in the Yucatan and the third most visited archeological site in Mexico.
My tour guide, Gus, was very passionate about de-bunking common myths and misconceptions about the Maya. For example, one Mayan myth is that they performed ceremonial sacrifices, the most popular story being the human sacrifice of a virgin. Gus explained that these “sacrifices” were most likely public executions of criminals and that there is no way to discover if those killed were virgins or non. While they did have some interesting practices, such as making a small cut to the hand as a blood sacrifice, most of these savage and primitive rumors surrounding the Mayan people were the product of their Spanish conquerors (or “conquistadors”).
The Spanish conquerors, bringing with them weapons and disease, caused a rapid decline of the Mayan people.
However, by the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, the Maya were already weakening. In fact, many large Mayan sites had already been abandoned. Recent discoveries show evidence that drought, deforestation, and the decline of large game animals contributed to the Maya’s collapse of empire. While there were many reasons for the decline, the central cause was that the Maya’s cities grew beyond the capacity of the land. This phenomenon forced the Maya to separate into smaller villages, which made it much easier to conquer them.
As the Spanish pursued their quest of discovering and extracting gold and silver, they learned more about the Mayan people. Mayan warfare, as Gus explained, was somewhat like a game of chess. If the warring state injured or killed the opposing forces’ King, they were considered victorious and both sides put down their weapons. It is believed that the Spanish took advantage of this tradition as they conquered different Mayan communities by targeting the respective leaders.
Despite their numerous militaristic advantages , it took the Spanish 170 years to finally subjugate the Maya peoples. Their Mayan pursuit took significantly longer than their battles with the Aztecs and Incas, and they never found the riches they were seeking. The survivors were forced into slavery and were expected to convert to Christianity. Those who refused were often arrested and tortured. To further discourage pantheistic practices, religious texts and artifacts produced by the Maya were actively destroyed.
Gus emphasized that it was the Spanish who created the Mayan stereotype of “the stupid Indians” when, in fact, the Maya were far more advanced than the rest of the world in both in mathematics and astronomy. This stereotype was reinforced as the Spanish suppressed the surviving Mayans into slavery and deprived them of an education. This is one of many examples supporting the saying: “History is decided by the winner.” Fortunately, a great deal of Mayan history has survived to date, and an adapted version of the Mayan language and some of the culture’s practices have been recovered. Today, Mayan descendants continue to live in the Yucatan Peninsula and other parts of Central America and strive to keep their rich heritage alive and vibrant.
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