April 6, 2024
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Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Maya flourished as a highly advanced civilization in Mesoamerica. They mastered astronomy, developed a complex written language, left exquisite artifacts and built imposing monuments and cities. For all these reasons, the collapse of this culture is a subject that still intrigues researchers.

On the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, in southeastern Mexico, we find the mysterious and powerful walled city of Tulum, originally known as Zamá, which means “dawn” and represents one of the last bastions of the Mayan culture. Tulum is one of the best preserved Mayan coastal cities. The ruins are located on a 12-meter cliff overlooking the spectacular Caribbean Sea.

A wall to protect the home of the Descending God

The word “tulúm” in Mayan means “enclosure” or “wall,” and the walls around the city made it possible to protect it from attack. Apparently this name was given when the city was abandoned and began to be covered by the surrounding jungle. It is said that the buildings of Tulum were constructed in the Postclassic period between 1200 and 1550 AD.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

Given the numerous images (including frescoes) of the Descending God, it can be assumed that Tulum was an important center for the cult of this deity. The conquistador Juan Díaz visited it during Juan de Grijalva’s expedition of 1518, referring to it as a city as big as Seville.

The abandonment of this city had already begun before the arrival of the Spaniards. It was completely abandoned at the end of the 16th century. The city was emptied and forgotten, but until the beginning of the 20th century some neighboring towns used to visit the site to bring offerings, but the continuous flow of tourists put the practice into disuse.

The rediscovery of Tulum

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

In 1841 Tulum was rediscovered by American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and English traveler Frederick Catherwood, and they made the first detailed description of the ruins published in 1843 in the book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatán”.

The first building they saw that impressed them greatly was the Castillo. They made accurate maps of the ancient city and its walls and sketched structures with photographic precision. In addition, Stephens and Catherwood found a stela, known as Stela 1. This stela and the so-called Structure 59, indicate that the settlement may have been older, perhaps Early Classic from 400 or 500 c.e., so it is not yet known with certainty how old it is.

Highly organized architecture connected to the cosmos

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

The architecture of Tulum is typical of the Mayan cities on the east coast of the peninsula. An architectural style similar to that of the nearby city of Chichén Itzá was used, only on a smaller scale.

Tulum’s strategic location made it become one of the main Mayan cities, in fact, artifacts have been found from several regions of the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America, which tells us the importance of this Mayan city for the trade of Ancient Mexico.

At least 60 Mayan ruins can be found throughout the ancient city, which is fortified by three walls; on one side, Tulum was protected by steep cliffs that separated towards the sea, and on land by a 3 to 5m high wall and two watchtowers. The fortress wall was about 8 m thick and 400 m long with a parallel coastline. This impressive defensive wall makes Tulum one of the most famous Mayan fortified cities.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

In the Mayan culture, importance was given to the planning of construction according to cosmology, and the construction of Tulum is based on the concept of the “four corners”, which refers to the cardinal points and which in turn arises from the ancient cosmic pattern of five points. The city as a quadrilateral represented an orderly, rational world, made for gods and men alike. At each corner or entrance balames, protectors or guardians of the people, were installed. In the interior, behind the House of the Chultún is the House of the Columns or Great Palace, located in front of the House of the Halach Uinic or Great Lord, which preserves a great amount of carvings and paintings.

The Castle

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

A large platform provides access to the city’s best known structure: El Castillo, standing 7.5 m high, which is located in the central area. Modern theories suggest that the Castillo’s prominent central structure acted as a lighthouse to direct canoes and boats to safety from a potentially dangerous coral reef offshore. Two windows in the Castillo face the sea, one is perfectly square and the other a vertical rectangle. During sunset to the west, these windows are lit one at a time, depending on the traveler’s location near the reef. They could also be illuminated with torches at night.

This building has a wide exterior staircase that leads to the Temple of the Initial Series that is crowned with another temple in which it has been found in one of its niches a great sculpture that is very similar to the one found in the front of the Temple of the Descending God and that seems to be related to the Setting Sun.

On the other side of the Caribbean beach on top of a large cliff is the Temple of the Wind, and very close to it there is a path or sacbé that leads to the Cenote that provided drinking water to the city and that led to the House of the Cenote.

Temple of the Frescoes and art in Tulum

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

Another of the buildings in the city is the Temple of the Frescoes, which was used as an observatory to follow the movement of the Sun, consisting of two small galleries, on the first and second floor. The statues in niches representing the Mayan “descending God” are found on the façade of the temple.

The frescoes on the eastern wall are also preserved. The mural painting of Tulum is of an enormous complexity in its execution and religious content; its most outstanding feature is the presentation of figures in profile, both human and animal, and the objects are presented from the front.

According to some authors, the symbolic content of the Tulum paintings is related to cosmogonic themes linked to rebirth and the passage of beings from the underworld to an intermediate world, where the human and the mythical are united, and where stars such as Venus and the Sun play very relevant roles.

The reliefs and symbols of the works of art represent scenarios that are very similar to those found in the Paris Codex, and also in the Bible.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

Some of the paintings in particular, according to some, seem to tell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which makes this site even more enigmatic. Researchers believe that Tulum is a very important site in Mayan history for the worship of Kukulcan, god of the winds, also known as the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, to the Aztecs.

The temples of Tulum were built “inclined and well aligned”, in the direction of the movements of the sun, the moon and the planets, which follow an imaginary band that goes from east to west and is known as the ecliptic; which for the Mayas was a two-headed serpent.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

For centuries, the Mayas oriented structures, temples and pyramids with different stars in the firmament that are still perfectly aligned to this day.

On March 21, the spring equinox manifests itself in a surprising way in Tulum, just behind El Castillo, while the sunset on the same day occurs just over the exit door in the west of this archaeological site of the Mayan culture. This phenomenon is repeated year after year and in a precise way since ancient times.

Ancestral astronomy

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

In the Yucatan peninsula, the pre-Columbian Maya invested many resources and time in the study of the stars, and the mathematics they revealed in their particular movements in the sky, without having to assume for their calculations that the earth was a rotating ball, because they knew what is the real shape of our world, their rigorous operations, calendrical computations and precise planetary movements, confirm it.

For the Maya, astronomical considerations when choosing a place to erect their cities were of special importance. This resulted in the construction of large buildings that reveal the exact position of the most important celestial bodies throughout the year.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

Great evidence of this is also recorded in the different codices and tables that are preserved as in the “Dresden Codex”, where it is expressed that the Mayan astronomers used several formulas and methodologies for the prediction of eclipses, among them “The Saros”. Known in the old world and attributed to the Chaldeans.

Also the triple Saros cycle was known and used by the Mayas for their calculations, among other interesting techniques and data revealed in the codices. Almost a thousand years after the elaboration of the Dresden Codex, it still works for the calculation and forecast of eclipses.

Naia, a 13,000 year old young woman.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City
Las cuevas donde fue encontrada Naia, alguna vez estuvieron secas.

Also in Tulum, Quintana Roo, other studies have been carried out such as the “Hoyo Negro” cenote project, of Underwater Archaeology, inside what was once a large cave that is now flooded, which is part of the Sac Actun cave system, where a female human skeleton known as “Naia” was found, which turned out to be the most complete and oldest found so far in America.

It corresponds to a young woman between 15 and 17 years old who lived 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. The bones of the young woman were found at a depth of 30 meters by three speleodivers, members of the Tulum Speleological Project.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

The remains of 44 animals were also found, five of them extinct species. Among the species found were an ocelot, a puma, giant sloths and a saber-toothed tiger. What does this discovery tell us? That there were already people living in this region more than 10,000 years ago. Because this was something that was not known until a few years ago.
Although we are told that Naia was probably nomadic, later populations may have settled in the area, giving rise to some ancestral civilization. This leads us to wonder if the remains of the Mayan cities could be older or if there were other civilizations in this place before that also disappeared and inherited the fascinating Mayan culture.

For a long time people have been trying to understand the history, secrets and everything related to the Mayas, but to this day, as more is discovered, more questions arise and everything remains a great mystery. For unknown reasons, the ancient Maya civilization supposedly collapsed more than a thousand years ago.

Tulum (Zamá): unraveling the secrets of an ancient Mayan City

The number of people decreased catastrophically, to the point that when the Spaniards arrived they were no longer the great civilization, only remnants of an ancient splendor remained, such as what is found and can be observed in the archaeological zone of Tulum.

Thanks to new laser technology, it is being discovered that there are many ruins of Mayan cities covered by the jungle, which indicates that there is still much work to be done in the investigation of this subject. But we are still wondering: What caused the collapse of the ancient culture that created all these monuments and cities? With this we realize that we really know very little and of course there is much to study, we continue to explore and new things are appearing, what was thought before is replaced by new ideas, theories and paradigms, because there is still much to discover.

Meanwhile Tulum will continue to be there, facing the Caribbean Sea, welcoming visitors and hiding within its buildings and frescoes the secrets of a great culture.


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