Letter 12 from Belize: Xunantunich, a Mayan city
After almost three months helping as a volunteer, I grew very concerned that my two
colleagues, Frs Dominic and Gerry, had never allowed themselves a day off in that time. They were working 7 days a week, frequently starting at 6am, and not finishing until well into the evening. Something needed to change before unwelcome change visited their doorstep. I suggested that we might all take a day off together and go and visit one of the many Mayan ruins that bestrew the Belizean countryside. To my surprise, they agreed!
Background to the Maya
Nomadic communities migrated from Asia, across the land bridge of the Bering Straits, and headed south. The first recorded appearance of the Maya in Mesoamerica dates from 2,600BC, and they rose to prominence around 250AD in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations, the Maya developed astronomy, calendric systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
The Maya in Belize
I was reminded by a Mayan gentleman out in one of the villages that today’s national boundaries are merely a modern invention, and that during the Classic period of Maya occupation (200-900AD) much of Central America was dominated by Mayan kingdoms, each with its own city and systems of defence. These cities generally cooperated and traded with neighbouring Mayan kingdoms, but kingdoms rose and declined almost cyclically. For many centuries, Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) was the religious and commercial centre of Mesoamerica, but more locally in Belize there were numerous Mayan cities whose fortunes ebbed and flowed in the course of time. Some of these sites have been meticulously excavated, others (and perhaps the majority) have been identified but left in their natural state. Amongst the most spectacular are Altun Ha and Lamanai in northern Belize, and Caracol and Xunantunich in western Belize. We had the great good fortune of visiting Xunantunich, only a couple of hours drive from Dangriga.
Its name means “Stone Woman” in Mopan, a modern name given to the site, whose original name has never been discovered. Before entering the site, we had to cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry that carried only a single car. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of El Castillo (the principal building) ascends the stone stairs and disappears into a stone wall. It is an impressive, well-excavated and accessible Mayan site, close to the town of San Ignacio near the border with Guatemala. Xunantunich was a thriving Mayan city during the Classic period, from about 600 to 900AD, and boasted a population of about 10,000 at its height.
What the eye can’t see
It is easy to be dazzled by the restored remains visible to the eye, but what still lies underneath the ground can be even more startling. Excavation has revealed an impressive number of intriguing structures, the most dominant being El Castillo, standing at 130 feet, and the second largest structure in Belize (after Caracol). But as you look around the site you become aware that you are viewing only a small portion of the total city. The humps and ridges in the ground are not natural contours. They hide a vast network of chambers and tunnels that stretch for up to 3 kilometres. This was indeed an impressive city.
Xunantunich is situated on a high hill, which gave it an almost impregnable position. But to climb a further 130 feet to the top of El Castillo is a lesson on how to cope with vertigo as you climb the steep steps to the summit. The vantage point at the top provides a breathtaking, 360 degree panoramic view over the jungle canopy of the Macal, Mopan and Belize River valleys, as well as a vast area of the Guatemalan Peten District, which is only a few miles away. You will also get a close look at two unique stucco friezes, which appear on the east and west sides of the upper portion of the pyramid. Look closely and you might guess that they are not the originals. In fact they are fibre glass copies, because the originals have been returned to their former covered state so as to protect their integrity.
Revival of ancient rituals
March 24, 1998: In a history-making event, Xunantunich was ‘reclaimed’ by her people and became, once again, the sacred ceremonial site that The Stone Maiden was meant to be. An international group of some 60 devotees gathered on the spring equinox to perform ancient rites, and to establish once again the historic purpose of such citadels. Hunbatz Men, the Mayan Elder, was clear about their purpose: “For us, the Maya, it is time to do rituals again, and we should do them in all the ceremonial centres. When we do the rituals, we have more respect for life, we have more respect for the land and the rivers. The Mayan Culture is bringing back this education. With love, harmony, ritual and respect, we can understand humanity.”