Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, the Maya built beautiful buildings and had an advanced system

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The author stands in front of a Maya ruin in Mexico.For thousands of years the ancient Maya lived in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. They were farmers living in villages and towns and raising corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers. Around 2,500 years ago, in a burst of creative energy, they started building large and beautiful cities. In the center of these cities they built pyramids dedicated to their rulers and gods.

The Maya used highly developed systems of astronomy and mathematics, and they recorded their history with the New World's most sophisticated writing system.

After flourishing for more than 1,500 years, the Maya civilization started to decline, and they abandoned many of their cities. Why this civilization collapsed is still largely a mystery.

It is dawn at the ruins of Chichén Itzá, one of the last of the great Maya cities. I am standing in front of a pyramid that rises seventy-five feet into the air. On top is a temple dedicated to the god Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent. Kukulcan's image—represented by gigantic stone rattlesnakes—flanks the main staircase leading to the temple.

My heart pounds when I look up. The stairs rise at a frightening angle. The steps are narrow and high, but I start to climb, scrambling on all fours.

Halfway up, I stop, breathing hard. I think of the Maya laborers who built this pyramid. Dragging stone blocks weighing hundreds of pounds to the top must have been dangerous, slow, and extremely difficult work.

Above me the stairs seem like a vertical wall, but I continue upward, my fingernails digging into the cracks between the stones. At the top, I get to my feet cautiously, my body pressed against the side of the temple. Less than a yard from the edge, I can’t see the stairs I just climbed. It’s like standing on a cliff.

I sit on the ledge with my back against the temple wall. My heart rate slows. Venus, the symbol of Kukulcan, hangs like a lantern in the eastern sky. The Maya knew exactly when Venus would appear in the morning or evening sky. Skilled astronomers, they could accurately predict the movement of many stars, planets, the moon, and the sun across the heavens.

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza is a stepped platform with Kukulcan's temple at the top.The eastern sky glows pink and orange. The sun peeks up, blood red. It rises ever so slowly until it is a perfectly round, fiery ball balanced on the edge of the earth. I feel the presence of someone else on the ledge. I turn my head, expecting to see an ancient Maya welcoming the sun god back from the underworld, but no one is there.

As the sun lights up the world, I look out over the ruins of the city. The beautiful temples and buildings in the plaza below are deserted. A thousand years ago, tens of thousands of people lived in Chichén Itzá. But by the time the Spaniards arrived in southern Mexico five hundred years ago, Chichén Itzá, like most Maya cities, was abandoned. Why?

The jungle that stretches before me is broken by a patchwork of cornfields. In ancient times, as now, corn was a staple food of people in this area. But the soils of tropical forests are fragile. Too much farming can wear them out. Archeologists, who study the lives of ancient people, believe environmental damage may have caused the destruction of the old Maya civilization. Perhaps Maya farmers were unable to supply enough food for the growing populations in the cities.

I gaze across the plaza below to the Temple of the Warriors. Battle scenes carved and painted on the walls of some Maya temples show that the ancient Maya were warlike. Perhaps war caused the destruction of their civilization. Some archeologists think invaders from the west conquered the Maya. No one knows for sure.

I inch my way carefully along the ledge to the main entrance of the temple and step inside. The stone walls of the chamber are cold. A shiver runs down my body. Against the back wall, a dark doorway leads to the inner sanctum. As I approach it, my footsteps sound unnaturally loud in the ghostly silence. I stop short when I hear a sound from within. There is something moving in the heart of Kukulcan's temple! Could it be the ghost of a Maya priest? Kukulcan himself? Then I hear a squeak. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I spot them high in an alcove—bats—making themselves comfortable for their day’s sleep.

Back on the ledge, I think of the climb down. Fear churns in my stomach. Crouched low, I put one foot over the edge, searching for a step I cannot see. I dislodge a pebble, and it clatters to the ground. My foot finally finds the first step, then the next. Slowly and carefully, I work my way to the bottom.

I look back up at the pyramid and its temple. They tell of the genius of the ancient Maya but are silent on the fate of the Maya. Where did the Maya go when they abandoned the magnificent cities to the bats?

On the way back to my hotel, I pass a man on the road. He smiles, and we each say, “Buenos días.” He has the same prominent nose, high cheekbones, and bronze skin as the images carved and painted on the ancient Maya monuments. In his face, I see the answer to my question. The Maya kings and priests are gone, and the great Maya cities abandoned. But in southern Mexico and in Central America you can still meet Maya people today. Most of the five million Maya still farm in much the same way as their ancestors did and carry on their traditions.

The Maya wrote in hieroglyphs, a type of writing with pictures or signs. Here are two ways to write balam, the Maya word for jaguar. The first is pure picture writing because it looks like a ferocious jaguar’s head. The second uses phonetic, or “sound,” symbols, much like our alphabet. The Maya wrote both ways and sometimes combined them.