Tags: Izamal, Mexico

Date: April 25, 2022

After leaving Panama City we went to Mexico for a month. Bjarne spent most of the time cave diving but we also found time for a short trip to Yucatan state to vist the town of Izamal.

Izamal (originally Itzmal) supposedly means "Dew that falls from the sky" in ancient Maya. It is a contemporary Yucatec town with almost 20,000 inhabitants as well as the archeological site of one of the largest pre-hispanic (Mayan) cities in the Yucatan peninsula estimated to cover at least 53 square kilometers. After the Spanish conquest, a colonial city was founded on top of the existing Maya one. However, instead of leveling all the large Maya structures as happened in many other places, the Spanish limited themselves to placing a Christian chapel on top of the greatest pyramid and founding a monastery on top of the central Mayan acropolis. Many of the remaining Maya structures were left as they were found and their ruins are lying undisturbed within the town.

Izamal is known in Yucatan as "The Yellow City", since a lot of its buildings are painted yellow:

Driving around in one of the not-so-yellow streets was this truck with a megaphone on the roof. We have seen this set-up many times in Mexico and Central American states. Before local elections, politicians drive around encouraging people to vote for them and at other times it may just be the guy who picks up trash or wants to sell something driving around playing loud music and yelling:

We tried to visit as many of the Maya ruins in town as possible. Unfortunately, most of them had been closed down during the Coronavirus pandemic and no one had gotten around to opening them up again. Here is a view of the Habuk ruins photographed through the locked fence:

Luckily, the largest ruin complex in town was accessible and had no entrance fee. It covers 8,000 m2, taking up several blocks in Izamal and is topped by a large pyramid in ten levels dedicated to the Maya Sun god, Kinich Kak Moo (Macaw of the solar fire face).

Izamal was founded in a period spanning 750–200 BC but the most active construction took place later, up to 800 AD. Izamal developed particular architectural characteristics involving use of megalithic carved blocks and rounded corners as seen in the photo below:

Views of the large complex seen from the surrounding streets

Looking down the steps leading from the gated entrance at street level to the platform on which the pyramid stands:

Top of the ten-level Kinich Kak Moo pyramid as seen from the platform:

The Christian chapel erected by the Spanish on top of the great pyramid is no longer present.

View over the outskirts of Izamal from the top of Kinich Kak Moo:

View of the Franciscan monastery built in the center of town on top of the central Mayan Plaza:

The Fransiscan monestary of San Antonio de Padua was built in 1561 on the site of the destroyed Ppap Hol Chak Mayan temple and using the stones from the temple as building material. It is one of the oldest Catholic monasteries on the American continents and its atrium is supposedly second in size only to the atrium of St. Peter's Church in Rome — in any case it is the largest atrium in the Americas. Here is a view of the atrium with the church's facade in the background:

Wall painting next to the entrance to the church:

Interior of the convent church:

View from the monastery towards the covered market:

Izamal is very much a tourist town with the obligatory colorful sign spelling out the city’s name, in front of which many selfies are taken and it also has a whole fleet of horse-drawn carriages to drive the tourists around. Most of the horses carry a hat coordinated to the color of the carriage:

Close to the monastery is a statue of Brother Diego de Landa (1524-1579):

Diego de Landa was one of the first Franciscan friars sent to the Yucatán, arriving in Izamal in 1549 and becoming the second bishop of Yucatan in 1571. He worked mercilessly to convert the indigenous Maya to Catholicism, including starting his own inquisition involving physical abuse, torture and the burning of Maya religious artifacts. Particularly, he was responsible for the burning of a very large proportion of known Maya written records, the so-called codices. Only three or four have survived to this day; the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex, all named after the place where the codex is stored and the Maya Codex of Mexico, discovered as late as 1965 — its authenticity still being disputed — and kept at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. These records, had they not been burned, might have been used to help decipher the Maya glyphs as well as provide knowledge of Maya religion and civilization, and the history of the American continent.

Paradoxically, Diego de Landa is the author of a manuscript titled "Relación de las cosas de Yucatán" where he described the Maya religion, Maya language, culture and writing system, including a list of Mayan Glyphic symbols matched to their (supposedly) corresponding letter in the Spanish alphabet. Later studies showed that the Maya glyphs do not correspond to letters but rather to whole syllables. Nevertheless, de Landa's work is one of the only near-contemporary sources of knowledge about the Mayas that exist today and it has been suggested that ninety-nine percent of what we today know of the Mayas is directly or indirectly due to de Landa's writings.