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by Margaret Deefholts
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Mention the word "Yucatan" and friends immediately exclaim, "Wasn't Chichen Itza awesome?" I have to confess that I didn't visit it. Puzzled frowns: "You didn't?" "No," I say apologetically, then add brightly, "but I did see the Mayan ruins at Edzna." Nobody has heard of them, so eyes cloud over and the subject gets changed.

Not surprising because Edzna in the State of Campeche, isn't on the usual tourist itinerary; on the day that friends and I visited it, we were the only foreigners among groups of Mexican families who were exploring their ancient Mayan heritage.

Photo 1. Entrance to Ednza
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

Beyond the entrance building where we buy our tickets, we pause to read the history of this amazing archeological treasure that was re-discovered in 1907. A pre-Columbian city of importance, Edzna, was founded as far back as 600 BC and was deemed to have sprawled over twenty-five square kilometers. According to the information tablet at the entrance to the site, "...the name may have been derived from Itzna, meaning house of the Itzaes in Maya." The Itza family is assumed to have governed the ancient city which had quite a sizeable population, between 800 and 1000 A.D.

Pathways wind through a charming tropical grove, and then suddenly, like the drawing back of a stage curtain, the trees thin out and the ruins come into view, dominating the sky line. I am so thunderstruck, that for a while I simply stand and stare.

Photo 5. View of the Great Acropolis from the Plaza
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

The Great Acropolis (as it is termed in the explanatory signage) is 160 metres at its base and towers above an open square; from where I stand at the far end, people clambering up the wide, high steps are reduced to wiggling little ants. Although the summer sun is shrouded behind fat pillows of cloud, the breeze is warm and carries the scent of dry grass and dust.

Photo 2. View of the surrounding countryside from the top of the Great Acropolis
Photo: Rick Weatherhead

Photo 3. Buildings on the terrace of the Great Acropolis
photo: Rick Weatherhead

Photo 4. Steps leading up the Great Acropolis
Photo: Rick Weatherhead

Across from the massive Acropolis and great open air plaza, a structure with tiers of steps running its entire length has a couple of youngsters jumping from step to step up to the top and racing each other down to ground level. The afternoon is filled with the sound of their laughter and rapid chatter. Perhaps an echo of the past where in 800 AD an audience might have sat on these very steps, applauding and cheering sports teams, or athletes performing astonishing feats. Behind the steps a "Nohochna" or large house, functioned as administrative offices from where distribution of goods and accounting chores would have kept swarms of government minions gainfully occupied.

Photo 7. Steps Leading to the Nohochna
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

The ancient Mayans received foreign visitors of rank in the open courtyard, dubbed "The Patio of the Ambassadors". Although much has crumbled into rubble, there remains an aura of consequence in the solemn high columns and stone archways that once played host to honourable VIPs. Today, folks of a more common stripe stroll through the area, oblivious of history's ghosts.

Photo 6. The Great Acropolis
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

We cross the large square and walk between two structures that were once part of a traditional Mayan game – one that had religious and ritualistic overtones. The slanted walls of stone that formed the court of the el juego de la pelota, or the "ball game" would have echoed to the sounds of an immensely heavy rubber ball being bounced by players using any part of their bodies – usually their hips, but not their hands or arms – to the opposing team, rather like volleyball but without a net. Some tournaments were just for the sport itself, while others involved macabre human sacrifices where the loser was decapitated. The stone walls are silent now, but in my imagination, they echo with the despairing cries of those whose heads once rolled in the bloodied dust.

Photo 8. Wall of the Ball Court
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

A smaller Acropolis lies beyond the ball court, and a Mexican family of three make their way gingerly down the steps. As they reach level ground, their little boy flashes me a triumphant grin.

Photo 9. Squint-Eyed Mask
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

At the Temple of the Masks, two stucco masks portraying the Sun God carry traces of paint and display the aesthetic characteristics of the elite—squint eyes, jewelry, earrings and elaborate head-dresses. One represents the morning; the other, the evening. They stare back at us, silent witnesses to a vanished era of architectural opulence.

Photo 10. Mask with large headdress
Photo: Margaret Deefholts

Edzna's ruins, are more than just emblems of a bygone civilization. These edifices once embodied the hopes and ambitions of a people who sang, played, laughed, wept and worshipped in this place. Do their phantoms still linger in the shadow of ancient trees, and in the corners of crumbling archways? Perhaps.


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