18.104.22.168.19; 7 Kayab 2 Cauac; 300 days left . . .
Would you vote for someone if they could make it rain? The ancient Maya would.
Just when I started to think I was beginning to understand the amazing Maya and their mighty cities and dazzling architecture, I had to come to Uxmal (oosh-mahl) and discover that actually, I know nothing at all.
My journey through the world of the Maya has carried me through the various stages of their own ancient civilization, starting with the more rudimentary, Pre-Classic structures of Izapa and through the Classic of Palenque and the Terminal Classic of Edzna.
Uxmal was a regional capital that reached its peak in the Terminal Classic (850 to 925 A.D.) and exhibits a whole new style to anything that I’ve seen thus far. That is because Uxmal is Puuc.
Puuc (also spelled Puk) is the fertile region of small hills in the state of Yucatán. It is also the name of the ancient style of architecture that developed in said region–a style best displayed in the elaborate ruins of Uxmal.
Visiting Uxmal is like reading one of those children’s books where you have to stare at a picture and find ten hidden objects. Among the stretch of pyramids, palaces and squares, I spotted warriors, snakes, planets, and macaws, along with so many Maya deities. Of these, the Maya rain god Chaac is the most prominent–his face is everywhere.
Shown with a hooked nose and bearing his trusty rainmaking tools (axe and snakes), it is clear that the Maya of Uxmal had rain on the brain. Not only does Chaac adorn the stairs of the highest pyramid, there are over a hundred statues of him on the governor’s palace. What does this mean?
Probably that the Maya wanted it to rain quite badly. Some academics believe that a very long drought contributed to the decline and ultimate collapse of ancient Maya civilization. In Uxmal, the government’s 9th century preoccupation with rain the supports that theory: if the rulers’ power was based on divine right (a direct link to the gods), then they likely lost that power when they failed to make it rain. It really is not so different from politics in 2012, when voters look for relief from a bad economy.
For the ancient Maya, lobbying the rain god Chaac took many forms, from small rituals to rather elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices, one of which might have involved throwing objects (or perhaps people) down into a well. Alas, in Uxmal, it was not enough. The city faded into history as power shifted eastward towards Chichen Itza.
I visited Uxmal in the height of the dry season, and despite a bright blue sky painted with lots of friendly white clouds, there was no rain (in fact, I haven’t seen rain since I left Chiapas). There was water in the bookshop though: cold, clean, and only 10 pesos per bottle.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Hydrating in the hot sun, I pondered the politics of water. Among the many scary scenarios painted by this year’s doomsday prophets, I have yet to hear anyone predict how we humans might simply run out of clean water. A thousand years ago, lack of water was enough to overthrow a government and disappear the population from a mighty city like Uxmal.
It’s a scary thought in the modern context. So scary that I am already contemplating an appropriate offering to the rain god Chaac.