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Edzna: Sun God

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Great Pyramid of Edzna in Campeche, Mexico (Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler); 5 Kayab 13 Caban; 302 days left . . .

For a minute I felt very special and rather lucky.

The sign at the entrance insisted that I not miss the spectacular laser light show playing that night, illuminating the ruins of Ednza into a Star Wars-like spectacle of colored light beams, flashing bulbs, and electric energy. An English-language billboard said that it cost 170 pesos for foreigners, that it began at 7 p.m., and that it was both “impressive” and worthwhile.”

Boy did I come on the right night! I was so proud of myself for stumbling upon this rare sight in the northeast corner of Campeche until I checked some details online and discovered the light show’s been happening every night rain or shine since the mid-Eighties.

Not so special.

I arrived at Edzna in the afternoon, around 2 p.m. when the white ball of sun hovers at a miserable angle and burns either the back of your neck or the back of your retinas. The light was so extreme that even with sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat, I found myself seeking the shade for periodic relief.

The heat beat down from above and rose up from the stones beneath my feet. I thought of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau (aka K’inich Ajaw) who in the Maya calendar rules “Sun-Day” and the month of Yaxk’in in the dry season. Neither of those dates coincided with my visit, but we are in the dry season and I surely felt his presence in the overwhelming 95° F heat (35° C). If I was to live with this heat every day, I would also heed the sun’s power in a religious fashion—we tend to worship whatever we fear. (Notice how there is no sun god in England.)

Here you can view the central quadrangle of Edzna, including the main temple:

Cowering in a corner of shade, I took in the grand sight of Edzna, a unique and geometric ruin that almost mimics the sun rising from the horizon. The largest pyramid complex is built atop a perfect square platform—8 meters high by 160 meters square. My first thought was for the ancient laborers who moved that much earth and fit all of those thousands upon thousands of square stones into place—all under a treacherous sun. I imagine one of the masons, after years of sweaty work and chronic back problems, grinning from ear to ear as he fit the last rock into one of the corners, as if completing the world’s largest Rubik cube.

In my sunstroked vision of the past, the crowd of laborers are jubilant—cheering and clinking glasses of ice water until some ruler-god bellows down from above and ruins their party.

“You’re not finished!” he cries. “That was just the foundation!” The workers hang their heads in disappointment and get back to work, building the pyramids on top of their immense square stone base.

Of course, Edzna was actually built in many phases that span more than a thousand years. That is a very long time, even in the Maya calendar with its 52-year cycles. I imagine laborers had rather short lives—perhaps shorter than a full calendar cycle. Staring at the stone puzzle of platforms and steps that rise and fall around Ednza, I wondered how many human lifetimes were invested in each structure. All civilizations can be defined by the way they spend their people.

Here is a view of the very same square but from the top of the south building.

The mighty ruins of Edzna date back to the Late Pre-Classic period (300 B.C. to A.D. 300), but the city only reached its peak at the Terminal Classic period of ancient Maya civilization. This was an era defined by a century of early decline (800 to A.D. 900) and known political strife throughout the rest of El Mundo Maya—a time when the Maya population shifted northward. Edzna grew to some 25,000 inhabitants. five hundred years later, the great city of Edzna was abandoned.

Among the many mystery of the Maya lies one great question, specifically, “What happened?” How did a society of brilliant mathematicians and architects just disappear? Current academic theories focus on three key factors, namely war, overpopulation, and drought. Chronic war caused long-term instability, growing populations imbalanced a fragile rain forest ecology, and sustained drought caused famine.

The Terminal Classic period is a punctuation mark for these changes, announcing the beginning of the end of the good times. Major political changes took place in the Post-Classic period—rather than mere lineage, rulers claimed their power was divine right bestowed by the sun god, Kinich Ahau.

According to Maya myth, at the end of the world, the sun god will descend with an army of jaguars that will eat up all mankind. How this scenario coincides with the 2012 Maya “doomsday” prophecy and coming of Bolom Yokté, I do not know, but it was at the ruins Ednza that I learned of this very specific prediction for the end of the world. Genocide by jaguar is rather terrifying, and I’m sure it was extremely terrifying for the ancient Maya who probably dealt with actual jaguar attacks. (Again, we worship what we fear.)

The jaguar is the animal avatar of the sun god, and among the ruins of Edzna are two very distinct carvings depicting the sun god along with a half-human/half-jaguar creature. Staring into the piercing eyes of this sharp-edged sculpture was a bit unsettling.

By four o’clock, I was the only tourist still traipsing up and down the ruins of Edzna. The sun god had lessened his power down to a comfortable afternoon warmth, and I was grateful for the passing of time. In Mexico, the hours of the day are marked by an omnipresent sun—just as the Maya long count calendar counted a 24-hour period as one kin—one sun.

Like the ruins of Pomona, Edzna gets fewer visitors than nearby Uxmal or Chichén Itzá. Yet even as a ruin, Edzna is a magnificent city of towering pyramids, vast temples, palaces, observatories, a ball court, an acropolis, and evidence of an intricate water and road system. Unlike other ruins that are scattered and lost in the jungle overgrowth, Edzna feels like an actual city.

In the falling sun, Edzna was ablaze with golden light, creating a spectacle that forced me to linger until closing. I sat quietly on the steps and watched the light turn down, as if someone were dimming the sky with a dial. Fidgety iguanas posed in the buttery glow of the sun, then disappeared into cracks and holes in the ruins, suddenly afraid.

One kin was coming to an end, just like the sun has set 1,871,694 times since the beginning of the Maya calendar.

Once again, a ruin had made me pensive about time passing, concerned with the up and down cycles of creation and destruction—civilization versus chaos.

And what of our civilization? Are we in our Classic or Terminal Classic period—or worse, are we Post-Classic? Are the good times gone forever? Do we not find ourselves in decline? Are not war and overconsumption real threats to the balance of our global civilization today? Traveling through Mexico’s world of the Maya forces a kind of soul-searching and deep reflection that I have not experienced in other countries. If anything, Edzna is one more reminder that even the mighty can fall. No society is invincible.

I left the ruins before it got dark—before the time when the jaguars awake in the jungle and begin their nightly hunt. The animals are extremely rare, but they are still quite real.

I failed to attend the laser light show that was advertised, but I will still repeat the billboard’s admonition: Do not miss the light show at Edzna. It is entirely free. It rises in the morning and sets in the evening, just as it has for millions and millions of years.

It is impressive and worthwhile.

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