Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tulum by the Sea--Another Mayan Gem in Mexico

Here we are once again and ready to take a walk through the ancient Mayan city of Tulum.  It was smaller than Coba or Chichen Itza in terms of population and building scale, but it  was one of the few walled Mayan cities and it clearly had a splendidly scenic seaside location.  Although there was some coastal settlement earlier, Tulum began its major growth in the 12th century and flourished right on into the arrival of the Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. Archaeologists place it chronologically as Late-Post Classic in the list of Meso-American city development. With its perch on a rocky cliff overlooking natural sandy beaches and its tidy walled ground plan, it takes little imagination to see Tulum evolving as a trade center that offered easy water access plus reasonable protection of all goods coming and going. If you wish a fuller historical overview, let me suggest a Wikipedia article.  It covers the basics without getting overly technical.   Most interesting is the discussion of how the Castillo (Great Castle)  functioned as a sophisticated  beacon for ancient mariners. 

So let's get started. Here we are at the NW entrance. The city walls are pretty casually constructed and only ten to fifteen feet high--not exactly unscaleable by a determined opponent. This has made for some scolarly debate about whether the walls were as much about social barriers or religious cloistering than defense.    

There are only five of these narrow tunnel entrances into the enclosure--two on the north, two on the south, and one on the west.  The eastern coastal cliffs make up the fourth side. You can see these along with the general layout of the buildings below.

If you think about this as you go in, it does seem clear if an invasion occurred that the attackers would have to go over the walls rather than through these narrow little doors.

Once inside the plan is open and orderly. To your right is the wall running down to a NW corner tower structure. 

To your left, toward the sea, is a view of the House of the Cenote, which stands over one of the city's main fresh water resources.  
The main street runs dead ahead of you (north to south) and on your right (west) there are a series of ruins of smaller platforms and modest dwellings.

Larger more regal buildings, like the House of Halach Uinic below,  run along on your left (the east or seaside). Estimates of population for Tulum run from 600 to over 1500--most of whom would have been royals and/or members of the priestly classes. 

Over fifty shrines, dwellings, ceremonial plazas, platforms, and temples have been excavated and restored.  I will cover  three of the more important ones.  First is the Temple of the Frescoes.

It aptly exhibits post-classic Mayan architecture and like many Mayan structures was built in stages. At first it was a small roofed room with a vault or shrine and decorated walls.  At a later date covered galleries of columns were built on three sides. Later still,  a new temple was erected on top of the old. Two of the three column galleries were filled in to help support the new upper level and voila' you have the current look.

The name, The Temple of the Frescoes, comes from its remarkable and colorful decorative murals.
The interior is now closed, but this grey and blue signature piece is illustrative of what was found inside. It shows a walking god holding images of the rain god Chac. Around the outside are pictures of various growing plants.

The exterior bands and cornices are highly decorated as well. 

Here a descending or diving god hangs on to some kind of key or twisted rope

Much like Greek statues, the stucco surfaces of the exteriors were brightly painted. You can still see evidence of that coloring in this closeup of a rosette like pattern on a moulding.  In their time these structures must have made quite a brilliant impact on visitors and inhabitants alike. 

The second major structure of note is the Temple of the Descending God.  It stands on the northern end of the Inner Precinct right along the coast.  It's the building on the left below.

Like the Tempe of the Frescoes, the Temple of the Descending God was built in stages and was colorfully decorated.  The name comes from the signature bas-relief figure, seeming to plunge down in space,  in the niche over the central door.

It represents a winged god with legs bent up and arms hanging down as if diving down from the sky. Similar figures can be seen on other buildings in Tulum and in other sites throughout Mexico and Central America. In Tulum it seems to be one of the primary city deities.  Most of the time the image of the descending god faces west so it is illuminated by the setting sun. This fits well with another major Tulum deity, Venus,  the morning and evening star.  Studies of the Temple's directional placement have shown that the winter solstice is recorded by light coming through a small east window and striking the westerm facade lintel just below the outstreched hands of the "descending god." 

The final gem of Tulum is the great Castillo (The Castle) itself.  There it is in the background as our faithful guide Oscar tells the story of its development.

The Castle was also constructed in various stages through time and the central niche of the upper temple cornice (facing west) contains once again a descending or diving god figure.

The two columns on the upper temple level pick up on another classic Mayan motif--the serpent. At the great Temple of the Eagles at Chichen Itza the stairway entablatures take the form of plumed serpents.   Here at Tulum the column bases of the great "Upper Temple" are carved as snake heads and the tops are in shape of rattles. It's a tad hard to see this even in th telephoto shot below as that level of the temple is not open and I was not able to get a profile view. However, with a bit of imagination you can see the serpent mouth on the right hand column and the rattle or tail bump at the top.

Let's move now to the ocean side (to the right) of El Castillo.  Note how easily it could look like a medieval castle from a distance. It apparently did to a Spanish conquisdador sailing along the coast in 1518.

Pulling back a bit illustrates the potential of The Castle as a guiding beacon for incoming shipping.  Oscar told us this was the highest point on the coast and it may also give us a good hint as to why the city was founded here.

Just to the north of the Castle is a gentle beach that would seem to make a perfect landing point for the flat bottom ocean going canoes used by ancient Mayan sailors. The building out on the point beyond the beach is called The Temple of the Wind.
And just out front of The Castle is a break in the barrier reef that allows easy access to the lagoon and the beach.

The article from Wikipedia that I recommended at the beginning of this entry contains the full story of how the tiny windows in the eastern side of the Upper Temple facade can help incoming mariners day or night (with a fire inside the temple)  to line up their vessels so as to skim through the gap in the reef and make their way safely to shore.

If that doesn't impress you with the intelligence and creativity of the ancient Mayan culture, I don't know what will. 
And that my friends is Tulum. I would not skip it if you are in the area. You will find it fascinating and beautiful especially if you can ignore those strange looking beasts called tourists who always seem to want to have their pictures taken in front of the really important stuff.  

Now all that remains to cover in our 2012 trip to Cancun is to fill in a bit more on the Royal Haciendas and Playa del Carmen.  That will hopefully come shortly.  Adios!

1 comment:

Lynne said...

Thanks for your notes and phhotos. My husband and I are taking a trip to Tulum - I have a very serious amateur interest in the perColumbian civilizations from South America up into the Southwest US and have been focusing on Tulum and Coba in prep for the trip. It is beginning to seem that I could easily spend our entire stay and then some at the Tulum site alone!