Thursday, May 23, 2024

Top 5 hidden Maya ruins with pyramids near Mérida

Our knowledge of the ancient Maya civilization is like a narrow flashlight in a darkened room, only allowing sight of some artifacts while hiding others. Yet, at the peak of Maya power and influence around the sixth century, hundreds of sprawling cities with colossal pyramids dotted the Yucatán Peninsula. Today, the lush jungle surrounding the state capital of Mérida still hides numerous ancient pyramids and other secrets waiting to be uncovered.

Dominating most of Mesoamerica for 3,000 years and without metal tools, wheels or beasts of burden, the Maya transformed hostile jungle landscapes into a network of major cities with interconnected road systems and mass agriculture. They formed an intricate religious system that involved ritual sacrifice, often in sacred freshwater sinkholes known as cenotes that lay close to their metropolises. Some archaeologists compare the complex social and political structures of the Classic Maya to those of Ancient Rome, including their eventual collapse.

While most visitors to the southeastern state tend to visit the world-famous Chichén Itzá archaeological site, many other ancient cities were just as important throughout different periods of history. With that in mind, here is a list of the top five hidden Maya ruins with pyramids near the colonial city of Mérida.

Yaxunah: An ancient powerhouse that built the 100-kilometer-long Great Sacbe (Maya Road) 

Caught in a power struggle between two major city-states, Yaxunah was embroiled in a bloody war that would determine the ultimate ruler of Yucatán. Archaeologists believe that around 900 A.D., Chichén Itzá succeeded in crushing its main competitor, Cobá, to claim complete control over the peninsula and its trade routes. With the longest road in the ancient empire, measuring around 100 kilometers long, the capture of Yaxunah would have been a significant prize for the would-be rulers of Chichén Itzá. According to a study by American archaeologist David A. Freidel, Yaxunah may have been a mercantile border town between Cobá and the cities of the Puuc region for some time before it became embroiled in a war with Chichén Itzá.

Freidel said the rulers of Cobá commissioned a great sacbe (Maya road) directly in response to Itzá penetration from the coast into the central interior of the northern peninsula.

“While the allies of Cobá, including inhabitants of Yaxunah, put tremendous effort into the construction of the masonry road, their main objective, once they had thus declared the frontier with Chichén Itzá, was to establish an effective perimeter of satellite communities and prosecute the war against the Itzá,” the academic paper said.

Xcambó: An experience of a lifetime surrounded by swamp and sea

Xcambó was the main and largest commercial port on the north coast of the Classic period. (INAH)

A major trade port and salt production center, archaeological evidence found in pottery fragments suggests Xcambó imports and exports included regions as far as Veracruz, Belize and Guatemala. According to a 2014 study by Mexican archaeologist Thelma Sierra Sosa, many burials in the location contained ceramic vessels imported from areas outside the Maya sphere. Xcambó is a marvel of ancient Maya engineering, sitting on top of a natural mound artificially expanded and raised above sea level by its settlers during the Classic period. There are also remnants of smaller sacbes demonstrating ample communication with inland communities and a pier connecting the city to the seaside marshland and the open sea.

“The site shows unquestionable evidence of the cultural influence of the Petén region in Guatemala, which was manifested in structures found all around the Maya region,” Sierra Sosa said.

Aké: A place where the ancient and modern worlds collided

Allegedly the site of the first major battle between the Spanish conquistadors and Indigenous Maya, Aké played a significant role in pre- and post-Columbian history. In 1528, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo, who founded the ‘White City’ of Mérida, made his first move into the interior of Yucatán only to be met with fierce resistance. A report by colonial historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo described the event from the view of the conquistadors, where Montejo had anticipated the surprise attack of the Aké warriors. It was a massacre on the Maya side, which Spanish sources from the time say was soon followed by a call for peace.

“Those from Aké came for war, and as their advance came with a warning, he — Montejo- anticipated the defense like a good captain and right-hand man, causing great destruction to his opponents, who all perished,” Oviedo claimed. “Many chieftains and ambassadors were sent to ask him for peace and his friendship, and he granted it and gave them what he had, and from then on there was no more encounter or battle.”

Acanceh: A city brimming with fascinating ancient art and masonry

The pre-Columbian pyramid stepped on an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Acanceh, a small town in Yucatan. (Daniela Constantinescu/Shutterstock)

Giant stone masks measuring more than three meters high and friezes carved in minute detail suggest Acanceh was a cultural and religious hub for the Maya. Little is known of its pre-Columbian history, yet it was believed to have been founded in the Maya Pre-classic period (700–50 BC), making it one of the oldest cities on the peninsula.

The Acanceh masks are framed by two ear flaps, with three main designs repeated on each one. According to the Mexican Ministry of Culture, these designs consist of knots shaped like corn leaves that could represent plant elements related to fertility and abundance. A headdress divided into three boxes with small scrolls inside rests on their foreheads.

“The main feature of the Acanceh masks is their animal-like heads which are decorated, modified and surrounded by symbolic elements that are related to the solar god (Kinich Ahau),” the Mexican Ministry of Culture said.

Mayapán: Known as Chichén Itzá’s little sister and the last Ancient Maya stronghold

Evidence suggests that Mayapán, the last Maya capital in Mexico, was another international cultural center that traded with cities far and wide, resembling the might of Chichén Itzá. A mixture of art inspired by Mixteca-Puebla, Puuc and Itzá heritages makes it a goldmine for archaeological study, and discoveries at the site have challenged traditional narratives about Maya history. There is still disagreement among academics on the real reasons behind the dramatic collapse of one of the largest and most prosperous empires to rule Mesoamerica.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, drought may have led to an increase in civil conflict followed by political collapse in Mayapán. Low rainfall levels could have impacted food production levels, which led to human migration, warfare and shifts in political power, but the Maya never disappeared completely and their descendants today number in the millions.

Mark Viales writes for Mexico News Daily.

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