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Public History Day Three - Chichén Itzá, Izamal, and Merida

On June 2 – our third day in Mexico – the SHSU study abroad group began bright and early at 7:00 am. Everyone met in the restaurant at Hotel Mesón del Marqués for an excellent breakfast of eggs, beans, toast, and coffee. Then, the students and Dr. Heath came to my room for a lecture on the history of tourism at Chichén Itzá. This topic proved to be one of my favorites because it enabled me to talk about early explorers John Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood, the amateur archaeologist Edward Thompson, the Yucatecan Barbachano family, and the rise of Chichén Itzá and Cancún as tourist sites.

Following our class discussion, we drove from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá. There, we had the pleasure of touring the site with our guide, Raúl Garcia, who received his Master’s degree under the direction of Dr. Rafael Cobos Palma at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. Dr. Palma is an expert on Chichén Itzá, and in 2009 he conducted an archaeological analysis of the Great Platform that lies under the plaza supporting the Pyramid of Kukulkán. Based on his study with Dr. Palma, Raul introduced our students to the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars, the Chichén Ball Court, the Sacred Cenote, the Temple of Warriors, and the Plaza of a Thousand Columns. While enduring temperatures that toped 103 degrees, the students asked dozens of great questions about Chichén, the Mesoamerican ballgame, and the significance of cenotes in Mayan culture. (Brant, mom, and I split from the group to visit El Caracol – the Observatory – so that we could see the famous building and stay out of the sun).

After our visit to Chichén, we traveled to the small town of Izamal. Situated in north-central Yucatan, the settlement of 15,000 is known as the Yellow City because most of its buildings are painted yellow. While in Izamal, we visited two major sites. One, the huge ten-level pyramid to the Maya sun god, Kinich Kak Moo, has a base of over 2 acres. It illustrated how large the Mayan population at the site must have been shortly before the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century.

Following the Spanish conquest, a colonial city was built on top of the existing Maya site. A Christian temple was placed atop the great pyramid and at a nearby site – our other stop – a Franciscan monastery was constructed atop a massive Mayan acropolis. Named for Saint Anthony of Padua, the monastery was completed in 1561 and served as one of the major conversion sites in central Yucatan. In fact, the Bishops of Yucatán lived at Izamal before they later moved to Mérida. Down the hill from the monastery, there is a large statue to the fourth Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, who lived here. Landa remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of Spanish colonization. A Franciscan monk, he arrived in Yucatán in 1549 and was placed in charge of converting the Maya. After hearing that some Maya converts to Catholicism continued to practice idol worship, he called an inquisition at the nearby town of Mani. The public event on July 12, 1562, ended with an auto de fé in which at least 27 Maya codices (or books) and several thousand Maya images were burned. Despite the destruction of these irreplaceable indigenous texts (only four Maya codices remain today), Landa also authored a book known today as Yucatan Before and After the Conquest in which he catalogued the Maya religion, language, culture, and writing.

Exhausted after a long day, we watched Cracking the Maya Code on the trip from Izamal to Merida, where we took up rooms in the Hotel Caribe about a block from the downtown square. We later went out to eat at a Mayan restaurant and a few members of our group said they were feeling run down. Brant is especially tired (and a little homesick), but hopefully things will turn up soon.

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