“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
This was how Apocalypto starts, Mel Gibson’s discussed movie. Warriors from a powerful Maya city kidnap the protagonist five minutes later. Jaguar Paw, a jungle tribe member, is parted from his wife to be offered as sacrificial victim to the gods.
But let’s move a thousand years forward. During our journey on the Panamericana we arrive at Copan’s Maya ruins, Honduras. During its golden age Copan hosted about 30,000 people, not that many compared to Tikal in Guatemala or Palanque in Mexico, but in Copan are to be found the most impressive sculptures of the Maya civilization.
I walk on the yellowish field in the square. It’s half past eight in the morning, the site it’s still empty but for a couple of street cleaner and a photographer with his tripod. We walk past a four storey pyramid surrounded by celebratory stones, where the king is always depicted with a snake in his hands. Cosmology exerts a strong influence over the Maya civilization, it shapes their view over the world and inspires arts and architectures.
The Maya universe is developed through three planes: paradise, realm of sun and planets, of gods, fallen heroes and ancestors who successfully underwent their travel through the underworld: the world of livings, encircled by cyclic time but ever flowing (the end of a cycle, as for december 21, represents change and rebirth); and the underworld, realm of the god of death and starting point for all who died.
The pyramids follow the same pattern. The tunnels represent the underworld, the stairs point to the terrestrial axis. On the last floor it is possible to communicate with gods.
In the movie, Jaguar Paw is dragged on the peak of the highest pyramid. The heads of his companions bounce on a steep staircase and reach the ecstatic crowd at the base. A sudden eclipse saves him from being beheaded.
The hieroglyphics’ staircase is Copan’s most important find. It wasn’t used for human sacrifices, but represents a graphic history of the ruling dynasty. After the kidnapping and killing of the thirteenth king, the following ruler ordered its construction to comfort the people and reestablish his legitimacy.
We come across two French tourists in the “Maya-ball” field, the common sport for that time, bear chested and sporting wide tribal tattoos. My disapproving gaze doesn’t seem to get through my sunglasses, since the couple waves at me. A thought crosses my mind: me and Hezio could challenge them on the field as they used to do once. Games until the last man against war prisoners. Weakened by detention, the guest were fated to defeat in a reminiscent fight between good and evil, followed by their beheading.
The game took place in a narrow and long field, with sloping walls and three vertical rings at each side. The goal was to throw the four kilo ball through the rings, without using hands or feet. Unfortunately, we kept no scores of Maya-ball League, but somehow I figure out many nil draw without much excitement.
We get out through the site’s exit and we are thrown in our New World. The small village of Copan Ruinas, an obliged starting point to visit the site, takes us in a new reality. A grid of alleys, short coloured houses and a population wearing cow-boy hats. No Colts in their holsters, but long machetes with black blades.
Totally a different movie.
Where is Copan?