Temples in the Sky
Kenneth Treister
(University Press of Florida)
People interested in Maya Architecture can go to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or Belize to view the many ruins. According to Kenneth Treister, there are some 6,000 of these 1,000 - 2,000 year old temples.

The Maya can thus be seen as builders of the first order, or perhaps even overbuilders. Once they got started, they couldn't be stopped, all done without benefit of horse, donkey, bull, cart, wagon, cement-mixers, wheel or Lehmann Brothers-inspired bank financing. These masterpieces were built by slave labor alone.

The remains we see now, especially in Tikal, Copán, Uxmal, Tikal or Olmec provide good exercise for the visitors. First to get to these out-of-the-way places, one must actually find the site. To enjoy it, one must climb through rock-strewn hills, and then, once entra murus, mount a staggering number of worn steps, in some cases, 200 - 300 in number, each with an achingly high rise.

Having made it up the stairs, one can then consider the vast, barren wastelands that surround these now-abandoned temples and, then, even worse, consider making the killing journey back down the very same 200 - 300 steps, panting and wheezing all the while. Best left to the kids.

The ruins themselves are often nothing but blocks of disintegrating stone, flaking, falling apart. turning grey-green with lichen, heaped with detritus. Even more discouraging is the weather. Most of these pyramids are found in overly humid, sticky, soul-wasting, sweat-inducing, gnat- and snake-infested areas, making one think that the archeologists of a century ago had it right: instead of fixing up these tombs to encourage tourists to visit, disassemble them and move them lock, stock and barrel to areas with better climate control, like London, Berlin or the Cloisters in New York City. When visitors are not being besieged by heat and humidity in these tropics, there are always a few hurricanes lollygagging around to blow your mind.

Some of these structures are astoundingly beautiful. The arch at Labná or the Caracol (the snail) at Chichén Itzá, for example. For sheer grandeur, go to the Pyramid of Kukulcán --- also known as Quetzalcóatl --- with its 364 steps, one for every day of the year. Without a leap-step.

Then there is the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque with its eight layers, a giant stone cake with its impossibly high and narrow stairway and the funerary crypt above. It is supposed that when they were built, these pyramids were painted with rich colors which in the thousand or so years since have been have entirely eroded away, much like the paint that covered the statues to the gods in Rome.

Some of the stone figures to be found around these pyramids turn out to be less than scintillating. There's a plumed serpent at the Pyramid of Kukulcán that I wouldn't want to meet on a dark night, and a plump seated figure at Olmec looks like a Sumo wrestler on a bad hair day.

However, most who choose to soldier on can view statuary carvings, faces, often missing noses or ears, or figures with elaborate headbands. Erosion and fading and the staining of various funguses have rendered many of these rather freaky-looking. The Turtle at Copán is no beaut, and, says the author, can be seen to be moving "slowly, extremely slowly." So slowly it's been in the same place for a millennium or so.

The king here was known as Waxaklajuun or "18 Rabbit" which was a tribute to his breeding capacity: "this won't hurt a bit did it?" is the supposed inscription around his waist-band. Altogether it's a pity that these palaces can't get a good scrub job with a few gallons of Mr. Clean, because the rare mosaics, buildings and pyramids that show no blight are a delight to the eye.

The most stunning structure of them all is to be found at Uxmal, denoted the Pyramid of the Magician --- or Dwarf [See Fig. 1 above]. The dwarf, it was said, was born from the egg of an iguana, and created the pyramid merely by waving his hands about. You might be able to do the same if you were the child of an iguana in human form.

When I first saw a picture of it here --- the pyramid, not the iguana --- I damn near jumped on a jet to the Yucatán so I could see it for myself. It's a bomb, an oval pyramid built over a period of four centuries (between 600 A.D. and 1,000 A.D.) There are a thousand or so steps up to the top ... wide, steep, breathtaking, angina-inducing steps. What we see now is the result of extensive rebuilding by the scientific types, for when it was first seen by archeologist Jean-Frederic Waldeck in 1838 it was a total wreck. After considerable refurbishing, it now sports a height of over 100 feet, with a base 162 feet by 227 feet.

Noses are also big in Uxmal. The rain god Chaac appears with four different hooters, each one more absurd than Cyrano's (or my own). Speaking of hooters, the author makes much of the influence of these structures on American architects, in particular, Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House in Los Angeles. It does look to have been imported whole-cloth from Sayil.

It's too bad that Wright lost his love for the Maya when he undertook that ridiculous museum in New York City ... for the Caracol we see in Labná is inspired and delicate, whereas that bloated pile in Manhattan was, obviously, born of despair, if not delusion.

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There is an extended disquisition and fret in Mayan Architecture about the disappearance of the Maya: they apparently just faded out a thousand years ago without so much as a by-your-leave or a suicide note. But anyone who has been to the Yucatán can tell you why. Not only is the weather in Mérida a hot, fat, sweaty nightmare of the first water, one is besieged constantly by loopy dragging malaria- and dengue-ridden stinky stinging beesties of the worst sort. They fly in your ears, up your nose, down your brassiere and into your pants without any regard for your wit and good humor. After twenty-four hours of Mexican whip scorpions, saw-palmetto bugs, marauding ants, mosquitos, Glaucous Crackers, Crazy Ants, red-bordered stink bugs, Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, dung beetles, kissing bugs, assassin bugs, bird-eating spiders, and black Yucatán scorpions, you, like the rest of us, will probably decide to hang it up and begone. As did the wise Mayans.

--- Lisa Watters, AIA