Out Of The Archives:


The unlit path leading through the jungle and up to Chichen-Itza was crowded with a processional of people walking up to the archaeological ruins. The focused quiet of everyone as they walked suggested a mood of solemnity. The darkness made everyone overly cautious of their steps as they walked with their heads bowed, watching the path as they stepped over tree roots, rocks, and little holes on the dark and dusty earth. Our first view of El Castillo, or The Great Pyramid, was in the unlit darkness. The giant structure seemed to appear out of nowhere through the leaves and branches of the trees. As we walked, the full moon rose in the clear, cool, night sky behind El Castillo, lending an even more mysterious aura to the ancient site …

Early the next morning I returned to Chichen-Itza, the heat already threatening to swell my fingers and feet, and the sun was taking its time to burn my skin to a crisp. This ancient site was the first and most developed archaeological site that I was to visit in The Yucatan and I wanted to take it slow, to savor the experience, to really get a sense of this mystical place. By the time I arrived, there were already a few enthusiastic climbers on top of El Castillo, taking in the views across the site and the jungle before the crowds arrived for the day.

Chi is the Maya word for mouth, Chen is Maya for well. When the word Chichen is pronounced, both syllables are emphasized as if they were two different one syllable words. Itza is the name of the people who, it is believed, conquered the original inhabitants of Chichen and then held power there for over 300 years. Chichen-Itza, which means Mouth of the Well of the Itzas is named so because of the sacred cenote that exists on the edge of the archaeological site, and the Itzas that came to live and rule in the city.

Water was at a premium in the Maya cities when they were inhabited at full capacity, especially those in the hot inland areas of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was also thought that the name could mean Mouth of the Well of the Water Sorcerers, since the ancient Maya – of which the Itzas may have been a part – worshiped and paid tribute to the Rain God Chaac at the sacred cenote.

As I walked along the dusty paths from building to building, it became increasingly clear how valuable a resource water would be here. I thought that I myself might even be praying to Chaac before I left Chichen.

Walking along, each building or complex I explored gave me more of a sense of just how developed and advanced this culture was. To put it into a white European art historical perspective, these buildings arose while the Romans were losing power in Europe and North Africa. The Roman’s greatest architectural achievements were aqueducts, paved roads, and temples. During this same time while Europe slunk into the Dark Ages, across the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula in what is now Mexico, the Maya people of Chichen and those all over the Yucatan peninsula, were building observatories, temples, nunneries, ball courts, administrative buildings, stone-paved roads, and marketplaces. Their culture was full of life and ceremony, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and mystery. And they were obsessed with the concept of time.

Chichen-Itza is probably the most famous ancient archaeological site on the Yucatan peninsula, next to Palenque. It was certainly the most impressive ceremonial center in southeastern Mexico when it was an active and alive city. It seems to have had three major development periods:

  • Chichen was founded in 435 AD by the Maya, with the first structures being built between 495 and 625. Their religion was centered around Chaac, the Maya Rain God.
  • Around 900 AD the Itzas arrived, bringing their worship of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a new architectural style and a new name, Chichen-Itza. It is unclear as to where the Itza came from. Some think they came from the Toltec region of Central Mexico, while others think they were Mayas from Chompoton, or even from the Peten region of Guatamala.
  • 1200 – 1400 AD brought internal conflicts to the Itzas when Chichen was conquered by the Cocom, when the Mayapan Alliance fell apart, effectively expelling them and ending their long rule. This was the period in which many buildings in the Toltec military style were built. The city was abandoned for unknown reasons after 1400.

El Caracol, or The Observatory, is one of the the many interesting, and one of the most important, buildings in Chichen-Itza. From here the Maya astronomers recorded the lunar and solar cycles as well as the cycle of Venus, a planet that greatly interested them. They understood the equinoxes and solstices, as well as lunar and solar eclipses from their observations. The Maya studied the constellations, especially Tzab, the one we know as The Pleiades, and plotted the paths of many heavenly bodies. From their observations and exquisite mathematics, they also developed the two Maya calendars, the Haab and the Tzolkin. The Haab being the everyday calendar, made up of 365 days, with 18 months consisting of 20 days each, and 5 empty days. The Tzolkin was a ritual, or astrological, calendar, used in conjunction with the Haab, that could be used to define the destiny of an individual.

Maybe because of the Maya obsession with the concept of time, they also seemed to be obsessed with the concept of death. There are reminders of death all over Chichen-Itza, from the skull carvings on the wall of El Tzompantil, The Ossuary, the possible rules of the ball games played on the Ball Court, to the stories of human sacrifices made in the Sacred Cenote.

The Temple of The Warrior holds the famous sculpture of Chac Mool which sits between two sculptural columns of the feathered serpent Kukulcan. The Nunnery has beautiful lattice work and sculptures on the outside on its walls. The Thousand Columns are a mystery. The Bath House, The Platform of Venus, every building in Chichen-Itza has at least one unique detail to look at, something to learn, something to discover, something to think about, and possibly, something to remember.

Visiting the Site
Think about going to the light show the night before touring the ruins as being within the compound at night gives a haunting sense of the site. The best time to view Chichen-Itza is early in the morning before 11am. The site opens at 8AM and is fairly easy going until about noon when the tour buses start rolling in and the temperature rises dramatically. Plan on spending anywhere from two hours to two days exploring this incredible place, depending on your level of interest in ancient archaeological sites.

Chichen-Itza is a World Heritage Site

What Is Culture?

The other day, someone asked via twitter “What is culture?” It was asked in the context of travel, in the sub-context of cultural travel.

artist-at-large is all about cultural travel, but even though I can define culture for myself and how I travel, and in terms of this site, the question has had me thinking about the definition of culture, specifically how Americans today think of culture. How deep do they go when they travel for cultural reasons?

The etymology of the modern term “culture” has a classical origin. In English, the word “culture” is based on a term used by Cicero in his ‘Tusculan Disputations’, where he wrote of a cultivation of the soul or “cultura animi”, thereby using an agricultural metaphor to describe the development of a philosophical soul, which was understood teleologically (they involve aiming at goals) as the one natural highest possible ideal for human development. Samuel Pufendorf took over this metaphor in a modern context, meaning something similar, but no longer assuming that philosophy is man’s natural perfection. His use, and that of many writers after him “refers to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human” — Wikipedia

The idea of culture is complex and both broad and simplistic at the same time. It can be defined by one unifying and defining detail of a group – such as language, or diet, or even the landscape where the group resides. Or it can be broad in the sense that it is a common characteristic of all of humanity.

In the sense of cultural travel though, the idea is traveling to really experience the culture of a place – food, language, art, archaeology, history, education, community – not only how people in a certain place live in that moment, but how they have evolved or devolved over time, how they got to where they are.

What does culture, or cultural travel, mean to you?

Out Of The Archives: Photo Of The Day: The Temple Church Ceiling Mandala

This little church is not easy to find, and I stumbled upon it while walking the nooks and crannies of London. The Temple Church is 800 years old, was built by the Knights Templar, and I found it, or maybe it found me since I have an eye for all things Templar, by wondering onto the Benchers Entrance off of Fleet Street. There are a number of other entrances into the area, off of Middle Temple Lane or Tudor Street, both reachable from the Victoria Embankment.

This image is of the ceiling inside of the Round Church. I think what struck me the most about the architecture of it was the use of wood, and how clean it was. The design of it is very clean and simple and beautiful:

The Round Church was consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem. It was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is a numinous space – and has a wonderful acoustic for singing. The Temple Church