Sunday, June 8, 2008


Yesterday Betsy and I joined up with a group of volunteers to visit the ruins of the Mayan city of Xunantunich. The area was first settled as a simple village around 600 AD, then quickly developed into a thriving and important city over the next two hundred years. Then, seemingly just as quickly, Xunantunich began to regress along with the rest of Mayan civilization until it was abandoned completely around 1000 AD.

It is pretty amazing to visit an ancient city, and to climb to the top of its tallest temple and look around. To us it is merely a curiosity rising up majestically out of the jungle; and yet, to the people who inhabited this land 1,200 years ago the stone buildings and court yards that so many gringo tourists pay money to see were the center of civilization. If they could have known what would become of their great cities in the future, would they have chosen to live as they did?

The most astounding things about Mayan civilization weren't so much their successes as their failures. They once had a thriving, sophisticated culture which included many of the modern concepts of statehood: heads of state, bureaucrats, division of labor, large-scale agriculture, markets, writing, a calendar, art, language, public buildings, etc. And yet it all disintegrated in a shockingly short period of time. By the time the Europeans showed up to rape and pillage what was left of Mayan culture, cities like Xunantunich had already been consumed by the jungle, only to be rediscovered by foreign archaeologists hundreds of years later.

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