New Book Explores the Rich History of Mayan Culture
The advent of 2012 has brought with it much discussion of the ancient Mayan people of Central America and, predominantly, their “apocalyptic” calendar. However, this sudden pop culture interest would better serve as a place to launch a far more in-depth look at a civilization that was flourishing when Europe was enduring its Dark Ages. Royal Cities of the Ancient Maya, a recently published work by literary co-pilots Michael D. Coe (text) and Barry Brukoff (photography) and currently available from Vendome Press (NY), presents readers with this most fortunate opportunity. Through a powerful alignment of text focused on essential history and a generous series of rich, atmospheric photographs, Coe and Brukoff have created a marriage of Mayan history and beauty that is just as much an education as it is eye candy.
The writing guides us through the origins of the Maya (and many other Central American civilizations) which were seeded by the Olmec peoples. The Olmecs, perhaps best known for their mammoth stonehead carvings, provided a religious and agrarian foundation for the populations that would soon follow. From this spiritual and agricultural unity, Mayan society would later evolve from random villages to city states, and much later on, large urban centers harboring tens of thousands.
The book provides detailed chapters on a number of magnificent archaeological sites including Guatemala’s expansive El Mirador (one of the largest Mayan centers) with its massive Danta structure which gives the false impression of a volcano to low-flying planes in the area. Perhaps the most famous Mayan city, Tikal, features rising limestone pyramids which made cameos as the secret Rebel base on the tropical moon of Yavin in the first Star Wars film.
The photography effectively captures both the impressive architecture of the respective eras, as well as the encroaching rainforests which currently surround the locations like a thick, emerald tomb of ferns and branches. Textures abound as well, particularly one shot of two temples in Hochob, which sport foundations of soft, round boulders while their roof combs reach upward to a sky full of broken clouds. Some of the most exquisite shots in this work are unique moments like a spider monkey (in silhouette) running across a stone monolith, or an ivory moon drifting through the night with a pale pyramid face below.
Luckily, the reader is not simply confined to sweeping shots of gorgeous panoramic vistas. The authors also change octaves by bringing us inside the temples and structures to explore exquisite carved interiors - the deepest heart of the Mayan world. With expanding gatefold photos and full page displays, they allow you to see complete sections of wall carvings (or “friezes”) with painstaking details: Open-mouthed frogs and seated kings basking in spiral designs of stucco, cormorants relieved from stone with a catch of fish in their beaks, and frightening clay figurines of the Jaguar God of the Underworld. From all the works we are shown, we can truly understand how important the laws of nature were to the ancient Maya. The power of the serpent and the jaguar, as well as the sun and the moon, were evident to them.
We also learn that the Maya were not just a people of singular religious conviction, but a culture that enjoyed life to its fullest. Remnants of ancient bull’s eye goals help shape the view that athletic competition via ball games was a favorite pastime of theirs, while elaborate frescoes awash in turquoise and amber lead us to believe the Maya promoted their artistry to the highest levels.
Unfortunately, the end of the Mayan civilization eventually came. New Meso-American invaders – and later conquerors from across the sea -- fell upon them and wiped out much of what we could have learned. All that remains of their culture lies preserved and protected in the forests and coastlines of Central America. Although few of us will get the chance to visit these magical places, a book such as this provides a rare passport to the ancient past where one can see a haunting moon rise over the House of the Magician in Uxmal without ever having to spend the night under a jungle canopy.
Snapper Ploen is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.