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March 10, 2014


Tulum: The ancient Mayan city

McALESTER — Where can you explore the only magnificent Mayan city built on the sea? Eighty-one miles south of Cancun, the Great Temple (“El Castillo”) of Tulum stands right at the edge of the high cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

El Castillo is the centerpiece of a Mayan city composed of other temples, a city square, and surrounded by a great defensive wall. Built somewhere near 564 AD (after the Maya abandoned Chichen-Itza), Tulum’s heyday was 1200-1521 AD.

Tulum was a major link in the Maya’s extensive trade network. Both maritime and land routes converged there. Artifacts from central Mexico to Central America have been found there. Copper rattles and rings from the Mexican highlands; flint and ceramics from all over the Yucatan; jade and obsidian from Guatemala and more.

Juan de Grijalva and his men were probably the first Europeans to see Tulum as they sailed the coast in 1518. The Spaniards would later conquer the peninsula and bring Old World diseases that practically wiped out the native population.

The Mayans living in Tulum had a lifestyle that contained many unique customs. For example, a young man could not marry a girl from his own village, but must choose one from a neighboring village. The new husband then lived with his bride’s family. The family of the bride had five years to decide whether he was suitable for their daughter. They could dismiss him after five years and select a new husband for her.

The Mayans were also very different from the Aztecs and Incas in that they respected private property. When a man died, his property and lands were divided among his sons.

Justice was served according to a severe law that punished every crime with blood, although the death penalty was used only in the most extreme cases.

Mayans were a peaceful people, and in the event of war they were poorly defended. Their shields were made of cotton cloth soaked in salt, and they had flint-tipped spears. Later, under the Mexican influence, they utilized wooden swords and arrows with propulsors.

The clergy was divided into hierarchical orders and were governed by a chief priest. They concerned themselves with magic and medicine and traveled from village to village, reading the entrails of animals, and performing ceremonies and rituals. They also assisted in the not infrequent human sacrifices at the major temples. A very select group of priests concerned themselves exclusively with science, not for love of science, but in so far as it could serve religion.

The Maya have a very imaginative Creation Story. The gods created men from wood, who were so wicked that the objects these men used rebelled against them and killed most of them. The few who lived were the ancestors of monkeys. In the meantime, the gods created better men, from corn cobs, and it is from them that all the peoples of the Americas are descended.

A tour through Tulum should include a federally employed guide who will tour the grounds with you and elaborate extensively on the history of the ruins, and the people who built and occupied them. It is a beautiful location and a fascinating experience.

Joy Gawf-Crutchfield owns The Joy of Travel. Contact her at

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