Friday, March 26, 2010

Campeche: Mayas, conquistadores, and pirates

Cathedral of San Francisco de Campeche is wonderfully floodlit at night. Carole and I visited San Francisco de Campeche, the capital of Campeche State in the Yucatan Peninsula, during our 8-day tour of southern Mexico. Campeche is named after the ancient Maya kingdom of Ah Kin Pech, which means, roughly, "place of the serpents and ticks." There is archaeological evidence of occupation back to 300 AD. The local Mayans drove off the first two Spanish expeditions to visit, beginning in 1517, but eventually succumbed after Hernan Cortés defeated the Aztecs and then sent expeditions of conquest in all directions. Campeche ultimately became one of three Mexican states, including Yucatan and Quintana Roo, which occupy the Yucatan Peninsula.

I confess we had low expectations of Campeche, but on arrival we were utterly charmed. The colonial town is surrounded by 17th Century walls and fortifications erected to protect against hundreds of years of pirate raids. The old city within the walls is sparkling clean and painted with pastel colors that glow warmly in the late afternoon sun. At night, the whole plaza of El Centro is beautifully floodlit. Campeche's first church was built by Conquistador Francisco de Montejo and was a humble structure of lime and pebbles with a palm frond roof. In 1650, construction began on the church shown above and was completed in 1760. However, it wasn't until 1895 that Pope Leon VIII designated the church as a cathedral.

Our chariot on the tour. Our tour company, Caravan, used one of these buses. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the US. The seats were well cushioned and much more comfortable than airline seats. The views from the large, well-cleaned windows were spectacular. There were several drop-down "in-flight" screens along the aisle, so we could watch movies and videos on the long stretches between overnight stops. In addition to an on-board restroom, the bus service provided bottled water and sandwiches for our comfort. Most people from the US think "grubby Greyhound" when they think of long-distance public buses, and consider them the last resort when there are no other options. In Mexico, there are several excellent long-distance bus companies which provide regular service all over the country, as well as charter tours like ours. In this respect, the Mexican transportation system is light years ahead of its northern neighbor. Since there are no "show up 2 hours early" rules or security checkpoints, or interminable waits for baggage, you can actually get there faster than flying in some cases, and the buses are certainly much cheaper and more comfortable.

Brown Pelican cruises for lunch just off shore at Champotón. We stopped for lunch at this small city about 20 miles south of Campeche. El Timon restaurant extended right over the water, and we were able to watch both pelicans and human fishermen mining the fishy treasures of Campeche's Gulf Coast. Brown Pelicans can be found on both the Gulf and Pacific Coasts of Mexico. Unlike the White Pelicans that visit Lake Chapala in winter, the Brown Pelicans dive dramatically and are quite entertaining to watch. They share the White's tendency to appropriate any available anchored boats as perches. After 39 years on the Endangered Species list, the Browns seem to be recovering.

Shrimp hardly gets more fresh than this. I found this pair of Mexican women cleaning freshly caught Gulf shrimp just outside El Timon Restaurant. These would no doubt grace someone's plate in a short time. The women seemed a little mystified--but pleased--that someone would think their commonplace task worthy of recording on film.

Campeche, as it looked in the 17th Century. This old map shows the layout of Campeche, and the fortifications that were constructed to protect it from pirate raids that began almost as soon as the town was founded. The Cathedral seen in the first picture of this posting is located inside the walls just to the left of the sea gate, known as the Puerta de Mar, in the center of the wall facing the Bahia (Bay) de Campeche. There are 8 bastions, or forts, separated by long stretches of high wall topped with ramparts and sentry boxes. For a map of modern Campeche and the Gulf Coast, click here.

Puerta de Tierra, or Land Gate, faces the modern city outside the walls. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, Spain was the pre-eminent military power in the world based on its successful conclusion of a 700 year war to expel the Moors from Spain, and on the fantastic wealth pouring in from Spanish colonial possessions in the New World. The fortifications of Campeche have been described as the finest example of military construction of this kind in the Western Hemisphere. In the photo above, you can see part of the moat that surrounded the walls of the city. The walls extending out in a "V" shape are part of the defenses of the main city gate. Note the rifle slits along the walls which would give defenders excellent cover as they mowed down attackers attempting to cross the water-filled moat. Just inside the gate, two cannon stand ready to blast any attempt to force a way through.

The main line of defense was on the walls above the gate. As you can see, a cannon in this position would easily command the main gate and the enclosed yard in front. Attackers who make it this far will be penned in the yard and hit by rifle and cannon fire from several directions.

The walls of the main gate are extremely thick. Above the gate is a bell to alert the town of the approach of strangers. On the parapet along the top of the wall are more gun ports for either rifles or cannon.

Huge and powerful cannons awaited attackers. Carole walked through my photo just in time to provide some sense of scale. This is a very large gun. This particular cannon was probably originally situated on the seaward side, since it had the kind of range needed to fend off pirate ships in the Bahia. Note the royal crest on the upper part of the backside of the cannon.

Parapet walkways provided cover for soldiers moving between the bastions. Carole is walking toward the bastion known as the Baluarte de San Juan.

Baluarte de San Pedro: how it looked to approaching pirates. There are only traces left of the moat that protected the base of the bastion. You can see cannon protruding from some of the embrasures (openings in the wall along the top of the parapet). From the base of the moat to the top of the parapet was a distance of about 18 feet. And, of course, anyone falling into the moat would probably drown, particularly if they wore any armor.

Sentry posts provided shelter from weather as well as gunfire. This one is placed about 1/2 way between the Puerta de Tierra and the Baluarte de San Pedro. The sentry inside could fire through a slit out the front, or through slits on either side, while being afforded almost perfect protection. The side slits allowed fire down the length of the wall at anyone attempting to climb over.

Baluarte de San Pedro, as a Spanish defender would have seen it. The bastions, or baluartes, were 4-sided, with 2 sides facing along the walls in either direction. Cannon like those you see above, or soldiers with rifles, could sweep the walls of attackers.

Interior of Baluarte de San Juan. The walls of the baluarte once echoed with the sound of Spanish boots pounding up the stairs, as soldiers were called to arms. These baluartes were forts in themselves, capable of independent defense even if other parts of the fortifications were overcome. The circular object at the bottom is a well. The heavy wooden gate leads out into the city.

Spanish soldier whiles away his free time with a bottle of rum. Spanish soldiers were highly disciplined and respected the world over as tough fighters in their time. As you can see, life was spartan in an outpost like Campeche. Quarters were small and shared with others. You can see a bunk bed in the back, and a few simple possessions.

A well was a vital part of the defense. One of the most critical issues in defending a fort is an ready supply of water. This is particularly true in a tropical climate like that of Campeche. With adequate water, food, and ammunition, defenders could hold a fortress like Campeche indefinitely against the most determined attackers.

The lot of a prisoner was grim. Here a prisoner is shackled with chains to a stone wall. He has no way to lie down or get comfortable for the hours, days, and weeks ahead. Is he a captured English pirate? Is he a Spanish soldier punished for too liberally using his allotment of rum? There was no sign to indicate, so it is left to our imaginations.

Sounding the alert. When he let us into the fortress, the museum guide said he would unlock the door to let us out when we rang the bell. We assumed this meant an electric buzzer of some sort. That was a bit too high-tech for Campeche's fortress. The only bell available was this one, used for centuries to alert the town of enemies at the gate. It clanged loudly and served its modern purpose as well as it did in past ages. In the photo above, I am wearing my new hat, acquired courtesy of Carole's sharp eye for a bargain.

Inside the grim fortress walls, a beautiful and cultured city. Here we are looking down the eastern side of the plaza in El Centro. To the right are the traditional portales, or columns separated by arches that support the covered walkway. Upstairs is Casa Vieja de los Arcos restaurant, while the downstairs is lined with shops. To the left is the plaza and in the distance are the spires of the Cathedral. The streets inside the walls are all paved with stone. While the one above is fairly wide, most are quite narrow.

A rooftop restaurant, perfect to catch a breeze off the bay. I took this photo from the parapet of the fortress. Part of the restaurant is under a set of portales, while the rest is directly across, almost at eye-level. Campeche possesses a large variety of interesting and attractive restaurants.

Another shot from the walls of the fortress, this time of ruins. Although the houses above looked intact from street level, from above I could peer into their interiors. You can see the holes for the ancient wooden beams, and the old stone walls covered by innumerable coats of plaster applied over the centuries. One of the rooms above is beautifully draped by bougainvilla.

Stately streets of Campeche glow in the afternoon sun. Second story wooden doors lead out onto iron balconies. Leaving the doors open would let in a welcome ocean breeze, and perhaps allow the Spaniard in residence to step out and view the activity in the street below. The whole of the old city seemed to be painted in lovely pastels.

Local public transportation. I found these motorized trollies parked beside the plaza. For a small fee, one could board for a tour of the city.

Cathedral spires glow over the city walls as evening approaches. I had made friends with Patrick, another guy on our tour who is a talented photographer. We decided to go out with our cameras and see what Campeche at night might offer. We were not disappointed in the least.

Puerta de Mar at night. The Sea Gate looks down an old and gently lit Campeche street. The goods of the Campeche province interior poured out this gate to waiting galleons, and through the same gate expensive Spanish imports poured into the city, no doubt passing each other in the streets.

Cathedral, plaza, and kiosko are lit up beautifully in Campeche's El Centro plaza. The kiosko (bandstand) is one of the more unusual I have found in a colonial town or city. The usual bandstand structure is there, but a roof extends out all around forming space for a restaurant/bar in the round. The flood-lighting of the Cathedral was gorgeous, the best I have seen in Mexico, and it made night photography almost too easy. Almost.

Campeche is absolutely worth a visit if you happen to come to the Yucatan peninsula. I hope you enjoyed this posting as much as we enjoyed Campeche "in the flesh." Please feel free to leave a comment in the section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comment section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Olmecs: "Mother of cultures"

Colossal head known as "The Young Warrior" is part of Olmec heritage. The Omecs, a people who inhabited the Gulf Coast area of Mexico south of Vera Cruz, are best known for carving colossal basalt heads weighing as much as 55 tons. After visiting Carnaval in Vera Cruz, our Caravan Tour proceeded south along the low, swampy Gulf Coast plains to Villa Hermosa, in Tabasco State, where we visited La Venta Park. The huge basalt boulder used to carve the head above was hauled from the volcanic Tuxtla Mountains more than 50 miles away. Scientists estimate that it took up to 1,500 men 3 to 4 months to get the stone to the Olmec city of La Venta, during the period approximately 700-600 BC. La Venta lies outside modern day Villa Hermosa. One must remember that this society possessed neither the wheel nor draft animals, so the feat they accomplished just moving the stone was extraordinary. The head was sculpted wearing the typical "football helmet" of colossal Olmec heads, and with the usual flat nose and full lips which suggest to some a West African influence.

La Venta Park was created as a showplace for the Olmec culture. Carlos Pelliger Camara (1897-1977), creator of the park, was a famous Mexican poet and patron of archaeology. After its excavation, the original site of the Olmec city of La Venta was mostly destroyed by the development of the oil industry in the area. However, Pelliger Camara brought many of the most important artifacts from La Venta and other Olmec centers here to be displayed when La Venta Park opened in 1958. The park is remarkable because the great stone sculptures are displayed along wandering paths surrounded by dense jungle inhabited by a variety of creatures. The effect is magical. For a map of La Venta Park, click here.

One of the stars of the show, ancient and modern. This jaguar was one of several of these big cats we found in large habitats interspersed through the park. The Olmecs considered the jaguar sacred, and the animal appears in numerous sculptures and relief carvings in the park. A jaguar, the major predator of the jungle, appears to represent strength, leadership and sometimes victory in battle. Some of the most interesting sculptural representations are the "were-jaguars", half-human, half-jaguar, usually in the form of children or babies.

Altar of the children. This large stone may have been either an altar or a throne. Its original orientation in La Venta may have been associated with the sun's trajectory. As with several of the other altar/thrones we saw, this one shows a figure emerging from a cave while cradling a sleeping, unconscious or possibly dead child. On the sides are relief carvings of figures who hold extraordinarily active were-jaguar children. The meaning of the cave is complex and is thought to be associated both with death and re-birth.

Kids can be a handful. A seated Olmec wearing what appears to be a top hat struggles to control a were-jaguar child. There were several other lively carvings of Olmecs engaged in similar activity on other sides of the altar/throne. Were-jaguars nearly always appear as children with snarling faces and cleft heads. There are a wide variety of archaeological interpretations of the meaning were-jaguars. Some archaeologists believe they represent a mythological mating between a male jaguar with a female human. Other scientists note that some of the were-jaguar's characteristics resemble the effects of various human deformities such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, and encephaloceles. Still others have postulated that were-jaguars represent victory in battle and conquest. Mexican artist, archaeologist and ethnographer Miguel Covarrubias made a strong case that were-jaguars were related to the Olmec rain god. Why the Olmecs would need such a god, in this rain-soaked and swampy coastal plain, is a mystery to me. Possibly they needed a deity to help make it stop.

Classic Olmec head. This particular head has probably been photographed more often than any other. Several years ago it was deliberately defaced on the right side, an action equivalent to a similar attempt to deface the Mona Lisa. The Olmecs are one of the most mysterious of ancient cultures, although they are also one of the most important. They flourished from approximately 1400-400 BC, making them contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Written glyphs on their monuments have never been deciphered, and we don't know what they called themselves, or their cities, or what language they used. "Olmec" means rubber and is a name given by later people. It refers to their development of the rubber ball used in the Olmec culture's ritual games. The ball game was passed on to virtually every other important Meso-American culture that followed them for centuries, down to the Aztecs. The Olmecs also bequeathed stepped pyramids, large-scale farming of maize, the 365 day year, wide-spread trade networks, the invention of zero, many of the deities worshiped by later cultures, ritual blood-letting, and human sacrifice. They have certainly earned the title "mother of cultures."

The Olmecs at La Venta are distinguished by their massive offerings. The mosaic above, created sometime between 900-700 BC, measures about 10 feet wide by 15 feet long. It is constructed from flat blocks of serpentine stone. The design, which represents the face of a jaguar, was deliberately buried by layers of dirt and adobe after it was laid out. Several similar mosaics have been found, as well as many deliberately buried caches of jade and obsidian jewelry. I found it quite extraordinary that anyone would take the time to design and create such a large and beautiful mosaic, and then bury it forever, or at least for the nearly 2000 years it took for archaeologists to find and uncover it.

Olmec tomb, constructed with basalt blocks. These long blocks are a natural product of volcanic activity. They were often used by the Olmecs to form boundary fences around important sites. In this case, they were used to form a tomb, built above-ground and then covered with earth.

Inside the tomb, an altar. When found, the broken limestone altar seen through the basalt blocks was covered by offerings including jade, serpentine, obsidian, manta ray spines, shark teeth, and hemetite. All these were covered by a red powder. On the floor of the tomb were the bodies of two juveniles, wrapped in vermillion painted cloth. It is possible that the juveniles were born badly deformed, resembling were-jaguars, and were therefore accorded special treatment in burial. The tomb is from the period between 700-600 BC.

Colossal head and a small friend. This head is called 'The Old Warrior," (700-600 BC). The helmet contains carvings representing the claws of a harpy eagle, an excellent night hunter of the jungle. It is possible that the statue represents an actual person with those attributes. Scuttling around the base of the head was a coatimundi, an animal with a long ringed tail and a pointed nose. There were whole packs of these friendly little animals trooping over the trails and through the jungle. Since the males are generally solitary, most of those we saw were probably females with their young.

Can you spare a cookie? These little guys ran around our feet, obviously hoping for a handout. We refrained, because the signs said not to feed them. Their behavior indicated that not everyone obeyed the signs. Coatimundis, or just coatis, are related to raccoons. They normally eat lizards, birds, and fruit, and use their long snouts to grub for insects. Coatimundis are sometimes raised as pets in Mexico. Since he was alone, this one was probably male.

Stela of the Bearded Man. One feature almost unique to Olmecs in Meso-America was the beard. Many of the relief carvings and some of the statues depict men with full beards, a fashion rare among other Meso-American cultures. The Stela of the Bearded Man (700-600 BC) shows two male figures on the bottom half of the stela, facing each other. They are wearing clothing and jewelry that indicate high rank. Floating above them are several figures, two of which have jaguars on their backs.

Detail of Bearded Man Stela showing seated man on right. Note the clothing and elaborate headgear typical of important Olmecs. The outstanding quality of the relief sculpture, and the naturalism of its portrayal of human subjects, is characteristic of Olmec work. The sculptures and other beautiful objects produced by the Olmecs are considered some of the finest of any culture in the world, and unequalled by anything in the Americas except some of the Classic Maya art. On the other hand, this culture introduced human sacrifice on a large scale, and evidence of butchered and charred human bones at some sites indicates cannibalism may have played a significant role.

Large crocodile floats quietly in the central pond in La Venta. We didn't even notice this fellow until our guide pointed him out. He was about 12 feet long, average for his species. The ability to imitate a floating log is one of the great hunting advantages of the crocodile. The nostrils, eyes, and ears are all situated on the top of the head so the rest of the body can remain submerged. A croc of this size could take down a cow, and a gringo tourist wouldn't be much more than a light lunch. There may be about 1000-2000 of these crocodiles living in the coastal areas of Mexico and Central America, but skin-hunters may have endangered their population. The presence of these reptiles along the swampy rivers and coastal areas must have made life interesting for the Olmecs.

Detail from the side of the Dialogue Altar. On the front of the Dialogue Altar (700-400 BC) is a seated man. The figure is much eroded and may have been deliberately mutilated in ancient times. However, the most interesting feature is on the side of the altar. You can see above, somewhat faintly, two seated men in animated discussion. This highly naturalistic relief sculpture gave the altar its name. The deliberate mutilation of some of the monuments in ancient times has led to theories of an internal uprising. Around 400 BC Olmec society went into an abrupt decline. By 350 BC Olmec population centers were gone, but major cultural innovations they developed continued to spread geographically and through the centuries.

Stela of the king demonstrates a need to portray important historical events. Stelae were used by the Olmecs as a public record, a practice copied by many later Meso-American civilizations,. Here, a very important person is portrayed in the lower center of the stela. Above him hover six other figures in a protective stance. This stela was produced in the last stages of Olmec culture, 700-400 BC.

Detail from the Stela of the King. The figure wears an elaborate headdress and clutches a carved staff of office. Everything about this figure radiates power, hence the name of the stela. However, "pride goeth before a fall." In a few centuries, Olmec society was gone, and its cities and great pyramids disappeared under the jungle for 1500 years.

The Governor, another powerful figure. This figure, with a princely scowl and seated as if holding court, is richly dressed in a tall headdress, intricate earrings, and an elaborate cape. Clearly this was a very important person in La Venta.

The Triumphal Altar. The Governor of the previous photo may well have seated himself upon this throne. A human figure emerges from the sacred cave, clutching a rope that runs around each side of the throne to seated figures who may be assisting him, or may be tethered slaves. Above the human figure are eyes and crossed bands symbolizing the jaguar, another powerful symbol.

The Quadrangular Altar. Caravan Tour Director Mauricio explains the significance of the Quadrangular Altar. This was one of the earliest representations of a figure emerging from the underworld, a recurrent theme not only in Olmec culture but throughout Meso-America. Mauricio is not only an excellent tour director, but he works hard at learning everything he can about cultures we visited. He borrowed one of my books, the classic "Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs" by Michael Coe, so he could copy down information which would help him get his own copy.

Monkey looking at the sky. While this sculpture of a monkey (700-400 BC) was placed in the park looking skyward, it could just as easily have been placed in an horizontal position originally, leaning on its elbows.

The Grandmother, kneeling with an offering. This figure (700-400 BC) possesses a strange hairdo and wears a cape over her back. Some archaeologists believe this may actually represent a dwarf.

The Walker. This bas-relief figure is of a bearded man carrying a pennant. His features are considered unusual for an Olmec man. Immediately in front of him are three glyphs in Olmec script which have never been deciphered.

Mauricio and the Young Goddess. The goddess stands in the open jaws of a jaguar. She is naked to the waist and wears a short skirt and a helmet with a medallion and earflaps. This is one of the few representations of a woman among Olmec artifacts. The statue is dated 700-600 BC.

Indian craftswomen work on folk art to sell to park visitors. These women may be very distant relatives of the Olmecs who produced the wonderful art of La Venta Park.

I hope you have enjoyed exploring Olmec history and culture with us. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE make sure you leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim