Eighteen Rabbit

As someone with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, I am fascinated by all things Mayan. The Mayans had a very highly developed culture. They understood the concept of zero long before the Europeans did. They had a very accurate calendar. They performed complex surgery, accurately charted the movement of the planets, were very skilled mathematicians and agriculturalists, and possessed a very detailed written language in the form of hieroglyphs.

I would love to visit the Mayan cities of Tikal in Guatemala, Palenque in Mexico, and above all, Copan in Honduras. Copan intrigues me the most because at its height, it produced the most sophisticated art in Mayan history. This was due to the influence of one man, whom we call Eighteen Rabbit.

Eighteen Rabbit’s actual name was Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil. If you can figure out how to pronounce that, you’re most welcome to use it. Personally, I’ll stick with Eighteen Rabbit.

He ruled Copan during its height, from January 2, 695 to May 3, 738. How can we be so exact? The Mayan calendar was just that accurate, and this ruler’s history is detailed in the heiroglyphs of that city. So today is the 1,325th anniversary of the beginning of his reign. Tempus fugit.

The city of Copan really thrived under his rule. He commissioned the construction of great temples, and there was an explosion of art throughout the city. I genuinely believe that when you’ve gone beyond the purely utilitarian and are able to focus on art, you’ve reached a whole new level of advancement. Eighteen Rabbit was the biggest patron of the arts in all of Mayan history.

And speaking of history, he took that quite seriously as well. He constructed the Heiroglyphic Stairway just 15 years after he ascended the throne. The staircase is 63 steps high, and made of 1,250 blocks containing 2,200 hieroglyphs. It the longest Mayan text known to exist, and it describes the history of Copan in great detail.

It is quite evident that Eighteen Rabbit wanted to preserve the story of his people. That, to me, indicates that he believed in education, and took pride in the Mayan culture. That’s impressive.

He’d be horrified to know that many of the steps in the Heiroglyphic Stairway are now out of order. When they were rediscovered, they were a jumbled pile of blocks, due to a landslide, and when reassembled, archeologists didn’t understand the heiroglyphs as well as they do today. A lot has been corrected, but still, we only understand about 71 percent of what these stairs say. I can’t help but feel as though we’ve let Eighteen Rabbit down.

Given that, it’s all the more sad to contemplate how he met his end. While there is evidence of regional wars, ritual sacrifices and bloodletting ceremonies throughout Mayan history, and no doubt Eighteen Rabbit participated in all of the above, it is now believed that he was not waging war at the time of his death. Rather, he was simply traveling in the region.

During those travels, he was abducted by the ruler of a much smaller Mayan outpost, and this man had Eighteen Rabbit beheaded. After that, we see a notable decline in Copan’s art and architecture. It never recovered. I find this tragic.

But it makes me happy to know that, once upon a time, there was an amazing man who wanted to advance his people, and his legacy remains. Thank you, Eighteen Rabbit. You still have much to teach.

Eighteen Rabbit
Eighteen Rabbit

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It’s All So Fragile

I just read something very exciting on the National Geographic website. It seems that the Mayan city of Tikal and its environs in Guatemala were much, much, MUCH larger than we previously thought. All this time, we were thinking the area was home to about 5 million people during the Maya classic period between 250 and 900 AD, when in fact it was more likely that this civilization’s population was about 10-15 million. That’s much more densely populated than medieval England was.

How did we reach this conclusion? Scholars used LiDAR, which is a sort of penetrating radar that can look through the vegetation to see previously undiscovered structures. (Check out the photos in that NatGeo article. They’re really quite fascinating.) They were able to find the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, and elevated highways.

Holy cow, talk about a booming metropolis. To put that in context, cities about that size today include Bangkok, Thailand; Los Angeles, USA; Cairo, Egypt; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Clearly there was a lot more going on in the Tikal area than we previously imagined.

And how exciting for archeologists! It will take decades to sort through all this LiDAR data, and even longer to clear the growth off the buildings of interest. This is quite a breakthrough. We have so much more to learn about this ancient culture! There are some pyramids in there that are 7 stories high that you can’t see even when you are standing right in front of them. Now, they just look like jungle-y hills, lost in the underbrush.

That, to me, is mind-blowing. Imagine. If we abandoned Los Angeles for a thousand years, it would be so overgrown that no one would even know it was there!

That’s sobering. I mean, we walk around thinking that we are living in the realm of permanence, that we’ve made our mark and staked our claim on the earth, that our skyscrapers will last forever. In fact, from a cosmic perspective, all this stuff is fleeting. It’s here, but not for long. Not really. Someday it will be unrecognizable. The dry cleaner’s across the street will not even be there in 50 years, let alone 500 years. This moment in time won’t  be remembered, eventually.

It’s all so fragile. That makes the now seem all the more precious. I don’t know about you, but it has me looking at things with fresh eyes. Who wants to go to Tikal with me?

Tikal

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