Mayan Tulum, a brief history.
Many of us have seen the movie Apocalypto and know that the Mayans were once a great civilisation having developed an economy, government and built vast cities and temples but many of us don’t really know too much at all.
I am I’m Mexico at the moment, for the second time, and recently visited the Mayan ruined city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast of the Riviera Maya. Having visited the ruins of Chichen Itza last year I already know a thing or two about the lost traditions of this extinct culture.
The history of Latin American Indians is so vast it goes beyond the scope of this site so I’ll be concentrating this post on the Tulum site offering a very brief history of the Mayans along the way.
Let’s get started!
The history of Zama, or Mayan Tulum as we now know it, starts late in the Mayan era. Settled sometime after 1200AD and sits within the ‘post-classic’ era, as dubbed by historians. The name Tulu’um literally means wall or fence in Mayan and has been named as such because of it’s walled nature. The site is walled on three sides with the fourth being a natural cliff and coast barrier which would have been nearly impossible to assail for a surprise attack, making the site incredibly well protected. The walls have five gatehouses , two on the north and south walls and one on the west. There are guard towers on the corners of the walls allowing for sentry lookouts.
Because of its location on the coast and it’s defensive capability Tulum was an important trade route by sea for other native tribes, be they Mayan or not. Tulum served as the main port for the vast Mayan community at Coba which, according to an historian at Tulum, was four times bigger than Chichen Itza meaning trade commerce was very important I’m sustaining a vast population.
Off of the coast of the Tulum site exists the second largest barrier reef in the world meaning that not only did it have protection from the walls, cliff and sea but bigger vessels would become trapped unable to properly manoeuvre on the reef. The Mayans had a solution for this, someway along the reef there is a channel of open sea through which trusted vessels could pass, an additional safety precaution by the Mayans, by way of a signal flare, was lit atop the cliff to guide the vessels into there port. An early lighthouse.
As mentioned this site was well fortified from every angle, this meant that Tulum regularly held nobility, or royalty, of the Mayan empire. A great palace in the centre of the lush vegetation about fifty metres in from coastline would house them in comfort and splendour.
Atop the cliffs lay two beautifully imposing stone structures, one, the Temple of the Diving Goddess (perhaps Venus as we know it), and the other the Great Temple, or El Castillo. El Castillo dominates the site sitting high above cliff giving vantage over land and sea and would have been used as a sentry post as well as a religious temple. The temple is decorated with reliefs of serpents much like Chichen Itza showing its Toltec influence. The ‘Vision Serpent’ was important to the Mayans as this was considered to be the vessel that carried the celestial bodies across the heavens.
Astronomy was important to the Mayans, at Chichen Itza the Mayans constructed a circular observatory that allowed them to map the stars and produce their calendar. A similar construct exists at Tulum all be it on a much reduced scale. The Temple of the Descending Goddess was used to track the movement of the sun, similar to a sun dial but on a grander scale. Using this they were able to predict seasons and plot dates and times in their calendar.
In the thirteenth century the Mayan civilisation was on the decline, by the time the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century Tulum was still occupied and thriving. The Spanish first laid eyes upon Tulum from sea noting its colourful appearance, decorated in red and white paint. We know that Tulum was still an important Mayan settlement after the invasion of the Spanish as there are depictions of horses at Tulum. Horses were introduced by the Spanish and the Mayans were perplexed by the animals, they thought the rider and horse were one being and worshipped the bones or Cortez’ dead horse as a god.
Inevitably Tulum become an abandoned dead city, surviving at least seventy years after the occupation of the Spanish began. It wasn’t war that laid this great fortification to rest but the introduction of foreign disease such as cholera which would have decimated Mayan numbers quickly as they had never encountered such illness before.
Today Tulum is a much visited tourist site. Until comparatively recently Tulum could only be reached by sea but today the whole site is geared for hundreds of tourists on a daily basis. It’s a bitter sweet pill that so many people visit Tulum because although beautiful and steeped in mystery and history the arrival of tourists has taken its toll on the site. Fortunately, although to my dismay, you can no longer walk around inside the buildings as the site has been deemed too fragile to risk further footfall.
Hopefully in a hundred years our ancestors will still be able to experience the majesty of this once uniquely great settlement.