Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Discovery and Conquest of Yucatan

In Chap. I., pp. 23 and 24, we made allusion to a great empire which once existed in Central America, and the fact of whose existence gave support to the theory that our American Indians were autochthonic—native to the soil. In an epoch which it is impossible to fix, but which undoubtedly was long before the beginning of the Christian era, there flourished here a powerful theocratic empire, called by its enemies Xibalba, of which it is thought Palenque  was the capital, now in ruins, the most magnificent of any on this continent.

This was destroyed (it is thought) by Nahuatl tribes from beyond the River Panuco. The dispersed inhabitants sought refuge in Yucatan, Guatemala, Darien, and even spread to Peru. The conquerors founded a city near Ocosingo (state of Chiapas), which they called Tulha, or Tula. Following a sacred historical book of the Quiches, called the Ah Tza, it is conjectured that the most ancient inhabitants of Yucatan, the ItzaesAh Tzaes—are the direct descendants of the inhabitants of Xibalba.

Strange as it may seem, that the natives of Yucatan at the period of its conquest all spoke one tongue—the Maya—Yucatan shows traces of having been inhabited by three distinct peoples. These were the Itzaes, the Mayas, and the Caribs. The first invaders of which there is any tradition are the Itzaes, who established themselves in the eastern and northern portions of the peninsula, and founded the cities of Chichen, Itzamal, and T'Ho (Merida).

[A. D. 580.] The Mayas followed soon after, and in the sixth century came the Tutul Xius, who settled in the country to the southwest, about Uxmal, and gradually spread north and east.

At the conquest, the Mayas allied themselves with the conquerors, but the Itzaes, preferring ostracism to servitude, retired to Peten, buried deep in the great forests on the confines of Guatemala. Towards the end of the tenth century the Tutul Xius had acquired great strength, and commenced to persecute the Itzaes to the last extremity, causing this afflicted people to return to the first city they had established in Yucatan—Chacnovitan—in which they had laid the foundation of their religion. [A. D. 1180, or 1200.] The growing power of the Tutul Xius so alarmed the Prince of the Mayas, residing in Mayapan, that he treated with the military chiefs of Tabasco and Xicalango for troops. About this time, consequently, there entered into Yucatan a strong body of Mexican, or Toltec, soldiers, which were used as a garrison for Mayapan. Dissensions and jealousy followed this introduction of foreign troops. A century later the chief of the Tutul Xius marched upon Mayapan, and after a bloody conflict with its defenders destroyed it.

[A. D. 1450.] It was in this epoch that the Itzaes abandoned their city of Chichen and secluded themselves in the great wilderness. Their traditions relate that their prophets predicted the coming of the Spaniards, and, tired of war and bloodshed, they retired to a point where they could be at peace. The country was then divided into numerous independent states. According to some writers the people were afflicted with famine, floods, and pestilence; but it is doubtful if any event of importance occurred between the middle of the fifteenth century and the landing of Cordova in Yucatan territory, in 1517.

The Ruins of Yucatan

In a geographical sense, Yucatan does not belong to Mexico, but as it is a political province of the republic it must be included in a history of that country. In its physical features it is radically different from Mexico proper, being a vast plain of coral rock with but few elevations. Its ruins indicate that it was once inhabited by highly civilized aborigines. There is nothing like them in other parts of America, and only a few others that approach them in magnitude, in grandeur, in beauty of original design, construction, and embellishment.

We have not space to describe in detail these magnificent structures, only to mention a few, conspicuous from their great beauty and from the vastness of their remains.

Lying on the borders of Yucatan are the ruins of Palenque, supposed to have been the capital city of that great aboriginal empire of Xibalba. It was only discovered by the Spaniards in 1750, although Cortez and his army passed near it in the unfortunate march to Honduras. The principal structure here, called the "Palace," is twenty-five feet high, two hundred and twenty-eight feet long, and one hundred and eighty deep. Its walls are stone, laid with mortar and sand, covered with stucco nearly as hard as the stone itself and painted. Ranges of stone steps thirty feet broad lead up to it, flanked by gigantic statues, nine feet high, carved in stone, with rich necklaces and head-dresses. The characteristic feature of these ruins is the stucco  ornamentation, the facades of the buildings being covered with it, and the corner-pieces with hieroglyphics.

We cannot pass these ruins by without especially mentioning one piece of sculptured stone that has excited a general interest the world over. This is the famous "Tablet of the Cross," so faithfully reproduced in the accompanying engraving. Many have argued from this that the Indians of America were acquainted with this symbol, and hence once had listened to the preaching of Christianity by one of the apostles. All agree that it indicates great antiquity for these ruins.

No one has yet been able to decipher the hieroglyphics that surround this symbol, nor has any one yet interpreted satisfactorily the meaning of the central picture. Figures of the cross have been found in other places in Central America, Europe, and Asia with such surroundings as give a greater antiquity than is usually ascribed to it.

Copan, in Honduras, though situated beyond the province we are examining, is worthy of description. Carved idols and sculptured altars are there profusely scattered throughout the forests.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


To return to Yucatan. We find the largest "city "in Chichen, about thirty miles west of the present city of Valladolid, occupying an area about two miles in circumference. A conspicuous ruin there is called the "House of the Nuns," very rich in sculpture. The grandest building is called the "Castle," though the names these structures bear now are those bestowed by a later generation than the people who built them. The ornaments carved in the white limestone and the hieroglyphs are rich and wonderful; all attempts to decipher the latter have proved fruitless. Among the mural paintings that adorn these walls are many that are beautiful, even from an artistic standpoint. Some represent warriors in battle, casting javelins and spears, while others portray events in the lives of the successive rulers of Chichen. Around the cornice of one building is a procession of tigers, or lynxes. In another building, to which one explorer gave the name of "the gymnasium," are great stone rings set in the wall. Similar ones have been found in Mexico, and it is supposed that they were used in games of ball. They are four feet in diameter, and thirteen inches thick, with a sculptured border of entwined serpents.

Among these ruins, which are the remains of the once rich and flourishing capital of the Itzaes—Chichen-Itza, the Itza city—men have labored for years striving to discover the secrets they contain. The celebrated explorer, Dr. Le Plongeon, here discovered a beautiful monolith, the largest statue ever unearthed in this country. It was called by him Chaac-mol, and now reposes in the museum at the capital of Mexico, an object of curiosity and speculation to the student of American archaeology. The same intrepid explorer and his devoted wife have made tracings of the mural paintings and photographs of all the hieroglyphs, occupations which cost them years of labor.

The ruins of Uxmal ( pronounced Oosh-mal), situated about fifty miles south of the present capital of Yucatan, Merida, are not less famous and interesting than those of Chichen-Itza. There are many magnificent piles scattered over a large area. The most conspicuous building is that called the "House of the Governor," standing on the uppermost of three ranges of terraces, the first of which is five hundred and seventy-five feet long. The front wall is towards the east, and is three hundred and twenty-two feet in length; the facade is smooth and without ornament to the tops of the door-ways, but the cornice above is one mass of rich and elaborately sculptured ornaments. It forms a perfect sculptured mosaic, with the added interest that each stone contains a history; for these sculptures are hieroglyphs, and preserve an allegory or part of a historical record. Eleven doorways open into a double series of rooms, the principal ones being sixty feet long and with arched ceilings twenty-three feet high. This, in brief, is a hasty description of the great "Governor's House "—Casa del Gobernador—of Uxmal. The engravings will convey more faithful pictures than pages of text, and to them the reader is referred.

But this is only one of the ruined structures that abound in Uxmal. On one of the terraces supporting this ruin is a smaller one, known as the "House of the Turtles"—Casa de las Tortugas—from a beaded cornice containing a row of stone tortoises of large size.

Chief of the structures is the "Palace of the Nuns," an immense quadrangular building, its high and elaborately chiseled walls surrounding a great court two hundred and fourteen feet wide by two hundred and fifty-eight feet long. The interior facades are mazes of wonderful sculpture, and on one will is a representation of the deity, Quetzalcoatl, the symbolical "feathered serpent," stretching its plumed body across the entire length of the court.

Other buildings lie in ruins, and heaps of stone alone tell where many others formerly stood. The "House of the Pigeons" is one, the "House of the Old Woman," and the "Nameless Mound," all lie within sight of the central structures. There is one pyramid here, crowned by a long narrow building called the "House of the Dwarf," which is reached by one hundred steps, each one foot high. The entire mound is eighty-five feet high, two hundred and thirty-five feet long by one hundred and fifty-five wide, and the crowning structure is seventy-two feet by twelve.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


All around Uxmal are ruins, the surface being literally covered with them, showing that this region was at one time densely inhabited. This section was that in which dwelt the Tutul Xius, last immigrants to Yucatan before the Spanish invasion. South and southeast of this are many more vestiges of cities, once inhabited, but now silent and desolate. Such are Labna, Kahbah, Nohpat,  and many others. Some are celebrated for the simplicity of their architecture and grandeur of proportions, while others excite the wonder of the few travellers who have seen them by the profuseness and beauty of their ornaments. Not the least interesting of these is that ancient capital of the Maya empire, Mayapan. Of all the groups of ruins it is the nearest to the present capital, Merida. The mound at Mayapan is sixty feet high and one hundred square at its base. Upon its summit is a stone platform fifteen feet square, and sculptured stones are scattered all about.

To go into the details of these remarkable structures, scattered so profusely throughout the wilds of Yucatan, would, with our present space, be impossible. The curious and studious reader should consult such works as Stephen's valuable volumes: "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan." This indefatigable traveller and pleasant writer discovered, a little over forty years ago, forty ruined cities. His pages are replete with valuable descriptions and interesting sketches of travel in that most fascinating land of ruined cities. Since Stephen's time many valuable additions have been made to the list, and much has been brought to light that was not then even dreamed of. The learned Brasseur de Bourbourg spent many years studying the hieroglyphs and Maya manuscripts. Monsieur Charnay procured many photographs, and the United States Consul, Mr. Louis H. Ayme, is at present (1882) industriously engaged in a thorough examination of monuments of aboriginal skill wholly unknown to our early archaeologists.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


The attention of the country is being directed towards that long-neglected peninsula, and its future seems to contain almost as many possibilities as its past. We may, perhaps, count upon more, for it yet remains for us to discover the key to those hieroglyphs that adorn the silent walls of those dead cities, and which may contain, locked up within their mystic characters, the secret of the race that carved them. He who shall discover this will be certain to have his name engraven high upon the walls of the temple of fame.