Essays

Mayan Architecture: Tulum

The entire Mayan Civilization lasted about 3000 years, but the peak of the Mayans was between AD 300 and AD 900. In the Mayans history there were five main periods of Mayan Civilization according to Caren Caraway: the Pre-Classic Period (1500 BC AD 200), the Early Classic Period (AD 200 AD 625), the Fluorescence Period (AD 625 AD 800), the Late Classic (AD 800 AD 925), and finally the Post-Classic Period (AD 925 AD 1540) (Caraway 2). The Mayan Civilization consisted of 16 major communities ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 people in each.

Mayan territory spanned from Southern Mexico to Northwestern Honduras but was mostly concentrated within the Yucatan Peninsula (“Maya (people)”). Through the ages of the Mayan Civilization, the migration of the Mayan people went from Southern Central Mexico to the Southeast side of the Yucatan peninsula and some parts of Northern Belize and Guatemala. The Mayans were also a very advanced in the field of science. They had their own system of written language (hieroglyphics), their own unique astronomical observations, their unique (and first in the world) 365 day calendar, and most importantly to this report, their own unique architecture.

The Mayans, unlike other European cultures, did not borrow ideas of religion, culture, art, or architecture from other civilizations (outside of the Yucatan Peninsula). Although other peoples from the Central American area influenced them, they did not steal architecture like the Greeks did from the Tuscans, the Romans did from the Greeks, etc. The Mayan Civilization started to decline around AD 900 when most of the southern Maya started to abandon their cities. When the northern Maya were finally integrated into the Toltec society by A. D. 00, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some smaller cities continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century (Ruddell). Mayan Architecture Tulum lies on the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, which is on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Tulum is different from most of the other Mayan cities because of its location, its defenses, and its time period. The name Tulum means wall, although that was a name given by Mayan descendants much later. The name Zama was most likely the original Mayan name. It comes from a modification of the word Zamal (morning), associated with the dawn (Mureiko).

My visit to Tulum in the early morning was quite an experience and an amazing view. It is no wonder they named the city morning. The meaning of Tulum stands true however. The city is surrounded on three sides by a fortified wall that reaches heights of 16 feet at the doorways. The fourth side is a 40-foot high cliff that overlooks the Caribbean reef and ocean. Because the city was constructed on a cliff, Tulum was/is the only large and significant Mayan coastal city. Tulum was constructed during the Post-Classic Period (AD 925 AD 1540), and was one of the last cities built by the Mayan people.

It was constructed around the 12th century AD, which was almost a thousand years after the peak of the Mayan Civilization. Spanish conquistadors gave reports that Tulum was still occupied by the Mayans in the mid-1500s. The first Europeans to come ashore at Tulum were seventeen survivors of a Spanish ship that hit the reef and sank in 1511. All were either captured and sacrificed or died of disease with two exceptions: Brother Geronimo de Aguilar and seaman Gonzalo Guerrero, who were kept as slaves. Eight years later, a passing ship ransomed Aguilar. Guerrero, by then married and the father of three, chose to stay.

Guerrero told Aguilar: “My face is painted (tattooed), and my ears are pierced. And how can I leave these three beautiful children” (Holden). Ironically, when Hernandez de Cordoba attempted to land a Spanish force on the coast, Mayan troops under the command of Chief Gonzalo Guerrero drove them off (Holden). Tulums site is definitely the most breathtaking out of all the Mayan cities. It overlooks the reef and Caribbean Sea from a 40-foot high cliff and has a beach between the peaks of the cliffs to swim in. But it was not just for swimming. The beach served as a port for trade by ocean.

This leads to the idea that Tulum was a very wealthy city because of its savvy trading with other peoples. Tulum farmed corn, beans, and squash, but their major export was honey. The Mayan civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A. D. 200-900. The inhabitants of Tulum were divided into three social strata: the ruling class, who devoted themselves to government, religion, war and trade; the middle class, which included the assistants of the ruling class and craftsmen, and the lower class, consisting of farmers, fishermen and hunters.

The members of the first two classes lived inside the walled area, where there are also differences in the buildings, since these range from luxurious palaces to simple houses. The lower class, which was the largest, lived outside the wall. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. (Mureiko). This could have been one of the reasons Tulum collapsed as a society.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found many of the ruins overgrown with forest. The Maya who lived in the countryside claimed to have no knowledge of the writing, math and astronomy learned by the educated class that once inhabited Tulum. This is why some scholars believe that a massive peasant uprising overthrew the ruling class” (Kroll). Since Tulum was constructed so late in the Mayan civilization, its architecture was probably influenced by the Toltecs because of the Toltec-Mayan migration to the east (Stierlin).

The Toltecs started invading the Yucatan Peninsula around the turn of the first millennium, but did not entirely saturate the area. Mayan existence on the Eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula was, for the most part, not directly affected by the Toltecs (with the exception of architecture). The Spanish conquest through Mexico helped eliminate the remaining Mayan Civilizations. Almost all Mayan structures were built of stone and faced with stucco, and although today the ancient ruins look to be of a dirty pale gray, they were once very colorful.

When, in 1518, Spaniard Juan Daz (who was on Juan de Grijalvas exploratory expedition) spotted the painted red, white and blue buildings of Tulum, he noted that the city was so impressive “that Seville would not have appeared larger or better. ” Many buildings had multiple colors from the colored adornments and sculptures on the facades. There are six main buildings within the walls of Tulum: El Castillo, the Temple of Frescos, the Temple of Wind, the Temple of the Descending God, the House of the Haiach Uinic, and the Temple of the Initial Sense.

They each have their own function in the City, but the most studied and, as a result, important are El Castillo and the Temple of Frescos. The first, and the most important, is El Castillo. El Castillo is Spanish for Castle, and was named that by the Spanish conquistadors who later discovered the ancient Mayan ruins. The Spanish gave the name El Castillo to all the large Mayan temple structures. El Castillo was the place for worship and maybe even for sacrifice. At the top of the 60-foot staircase is an altar with a table to function in rituals and religious ceremonies.

The most interesting and unique purpose of Tulums El Castillo, however, is that it was a coastal landmark and a lighthouse. Archeologists believe that a fire was put in a small opening on the western side of the eastern wall, and would guide ships and other sea vessels safely in through a narrow passageway that the Mayans made by cutting through the reef. The El Castillo in every Mayan city is always the highest with the idea that: the higher you build, the closer you are to god or gods. The Mayan city is built much like Washington DC. Nothing can be higher than the capitol, which to the city is the center or the most important building.

The Temple of Frescos is the most modified of structures in Tulum. There were several additions made at different times and reveal very different influences. The original structure was a one story, small temple that would soon be turned into interior rooms. On its outside were the black, yellow, and white murals depicting an old woman (Mureiko). No one is sure what it means, but it is probably a reference to a modified god unique to Tulum. The second addition was made around 1450. It is the outer four-columned porch that has stucco carvings of a diving god which is a reference to Ah Macehcabob (bee keeper) and/ or Xux Ek (wasp star).

Either way this could be symbolic of the importance of honey or a statement to the conflicts and war that were happening at the time. The third addition was put on soon after and is the top level and the stairs leading to it. To the North of El Castillo, and atop a very high cliff, lies the Temple of Wind. This is a small one-story box with an incredible view of the shoreline to the North and to the South; actually, it offers a great view in all directions. Im not certain of its exact purpose, but I can guess it could have been a place for solitude and meditation, a look out and observation deck, or a structure used in sacrifices.

The three others are miscellaneous buildings. The Temple of the Descending God, located North of El Castillo, also has stucco carvings of the descending god. Tulum was, for the most part, the center of worship to the descending god. The descending god was worshiped in other cities both on the coast and in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula. Opposite the Temple of the Descending God is the Temple of the Initial Sense. In there, several artifacts were found from the Early Classic Period (AD 200 AD 625), hence the name the temple was given.

The House of the Haiach Uinic has much in stucco carvings, and has a two-column entrance. The caretakers of Tulum have put a straw and wooden canopy over the stucco deity to protect it form the sun and rain. In conclusion Id like to say I very much enjoyed spending time on this report. I seemed to put a little more into it I think because I was actually at Tulum not too long ago. I think Tulum was and still is very beautiful, I think the architecture no matter how tainted it is from other civilizations is still magnificent, and personally, I loved the people there, most of whom were direct descendants of the ancient Mayans.

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