Is this the end of the world?
This year the ancient Maya people of Central America are delivering an apocalyptic message across the centuries. According to interpretations of the Mayan calendar, 2012 – December 21, to be precise – is when the world will end.
In fact the calendar says merely that a cycle of time is due to conclude but the Armageddon scenario is a gift for the tourist authorities of Mexico, who are expecting a bumper crop of visitors this fateful year. JLA got me in early, in January, and I began my journey back through the time cycles in one of the world’s great portals to the past, the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Here you learn that the Maya were the greatest civilisation of Mesoamerica, the term for the cultures of Central America before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Their heyday of power and influence – known as the Classic Period – was from 300 to 900AD and it was in this time that they developed great cities such as Palenque and Chichen Itza and became brilliant astronomers and mathematicians.
To see such cities for myself I flew south-east to the state of Chiapas, a region of rainforest and exotic birds, of fiestas and political radicalism, where a quarter of the population of four million is indigenous, mostly of Mayan origin.
When the conquistadors arrived in this hilly region in the 1520s the glories of Mayan civilisation were long past. The Spanish found a hostile people steeped in heretical beliefs, and promptly imposed Catholicism on them, destroying temples and icons and punishing the old ways, often brutally.
The Maya took on the outward forms of Catholic observance and, today, many remain deeply religious. In the church of Santo Domingo in San Cristobal the devoutness of an old, huddled couple was palpable – but their expressions of devotion were strange.
“He is ‘pulsing’ her,” whispered my guide, Hector Mejia, indicating the man’s fingers on the woman’s wrist. “He is a healer. The Maya believe that blood is the path to the spirit world. They can tell what is wrong with you by feeling your pulse, and make you feel better.”
The healers are the priests of the old belief system. To witness them practising the full panoply of their arcane rituals we drove six miles north-west to the Mayan village of San Juan Chamula where the Day of San Sebastian was being celebrated with music, revels and devotion.
In a church strewn with pine needles, festooned with white flowers and heady with copal incense, a band played – deafening drums and trumpets – kneeling shamans healed pilgrims by holding sacrificial chickens above their bodies, then wringing the fowls’ necks, and intoxicated men swigged posh (cane liquor) from old soda bottles. For a moment, we had felt transported to pre-Hispanic times and the following day we took that journey for real, driving north-east across the Chiapas Highlands into a nexus of Classic Period sites that included Palenque, Bonampak and – the most atmospheric of all –Yaxchilan. Located on a bank of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan is a tangle of vegetation and old stones like a skeleton in its rotting shroud.
The trip ended in Yucatan, at the greatest Mayan city of all, Chichen Itza. Here, at the sacred cenote, or water hole, the sacrifice of humans continued well beyond the Spanish Conquest and it was hard not to imagine the hand of the Maya stretching forward through time to fulfil the prophecy of the calendar. “But don’t worry,” said my guide, Pepe Gonzalez, with a wink, “it is not the end of the world. Just the beginning of a new cycle.