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Ancient Mayan Ruins – the City of Tulum

When people think of the Mayans they likely think of two things: ruins and apocalypse.  If you came across this post hoping for apocalypse news, I’m afraid you will be disappointed.  Apocalypse will just have to wait one more year.  In the mean time, I did decide to get off my ass and leave the luxury (and drinks) of my all-inclusive resort to check out some ruins – more specifically, the Mayan city of Tulum.

The Walled City

When you see Tulum, it is not hard to understand why someone would want to live there, with its absolutely stunning views of the ocean.  Of course, the Mayans weren’t necessarily in the market for a summer home.  More likely, they chose Tulum for the water access, as the city was an important trade port.  Still, I’m pretty sure they didn’t mind the view…

Not a bad view

Even with a storm approaching, the view is fantastic!!!

Storm approaching, but I'm still enjoying my view

Beyond the incredible beauty, Tulum is a very smart place to set up camp.  Perched atop a cliff and surrounded on one side by water, Tulum has an awesome natural defense.  If that weren’t enough, there is also a reef in the water, allowing ships to enter the bay through one narrow passage only.  Watchtowers dot the border for defense and to spot incoming ships bringing in or picking up goods.  These buildings also served as lighthouses to help the sailors navigate the water and beaches.  According to our guide, they also had conch shells set up that acted as bad weather and hurricane “alarms”.  The wind needed to be of a certain strength to force the conch to sound the alarm.  Pretty cool.

Watchtower along the shore

On the landward sides, the city is encircled by a high wall, which gave it the name Tulum, meaning wall or fence.  Originally, the city was called Zama, or sunrise.  It seems the name was changed by explorers that “discovered” the city; but, both names seem fitting to me.  Anyways, the wall not only served as a defense, but also separated the rulers and priests from the common people.  Commoners…ugh.

Ryan breaching the perimeter

Inside the wall, was a very advanced society, especially when you keep in mind that the city was built around 465 AD and peaked in the 13th-15th centuries.  The Mayans had their own system of writing, very clearly were advanced in math and architecture, and invented the zero.  In addition, their astronomers were obviously ballers.  The things they were able to figure out were amazing.  For example, the building below was meticulously planned and constructed so that the sun would shine through the window during the spring equinox.  People still gather at Tulum to see this.

Equinox through the building on the left

Here’s a closer look:

Even the buildings that aren’t perfectly aligned with an equniox are still fascinating.  This building below is the Temple of the Frescoes that was used as an observatory.  On the corners, the faces of Gods are carved.

Temple of the Frescoes

You can sort of make out the face carved in the nearest corner, but here they are a little closer up:

Face of the God

Overall, it’s pretty damn impressive that they were able to build these structures without the help of machinery or modern technology.  It is obvious when you look at them that it took a lot of effort to erect these.  Plus, they are still standing after all this time!!! (I doubt that a lot of our modern buildings could pass this test of time)

© Heather Freitag 2011

Reverence to the Gods

The Mayans, like the Greeks and Romans, worshiped Gods.  Worship was not only part of their spiritual life, but also had a big effect on many other aspects.  For example – construction.  Stairs going up the temple were purposely constructed to be very shallow, forcing the people to walk up and down the stairs sideways.  In doing so, you could never turn your back on the Gods, nor could you look at them directly (suggesting that you are equal).

Similarly, the doorways to the building below, The Temple of the Descending God, were made to be very low so that you had to bow to enter.

Low entryway to show reverence

Though human sacrifices were performed in other Mayan cities, Tulum celebrated the God of Life, and so people were spared.  Instead, they sacrificed animals such as jaguars, animals that were easily captured…  While human sacrifices may seem barbaric, Tulum shows that the Mayans also celebrated life and appreciated it.  In reality, it’s not all that different than the modern day willingness to sacrifice lives for the cause of war.  It doesn’t show a disrespect or devaluing of life, but an understanding of a greater purpose and belief that the life is being given for a cause.  People in Mayan civilizations actually battled it out through games to compete for the opportunity and honor of being sacrificed.  I would lose on purpose.

So, how can you beat Tulum?  Awesome ruins, great beach views, no human sacrifices and lots of history – I highly recommend it!  One tip – it can get pretty hot.  I would go early and bring water.  Also bring your suit because the beach is open for swimming!

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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in History, Photography, Travel

 

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