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The Extraordinary Mayan City of Edzna

December 30, 2015 , , Richard Quinn


Edzna? I’m afraid so. And it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled: Edz-nah. Edzna. Sounds like the name of the blowsy waitress at that ethnic diner down by the docks. Foreign, but not really what you’d call exotic? Certainly not beautiful, or particularly mysterious, but hey, don’t be too quick to judge: the real Edzna, the Mayan city by that name? That Edzna? That place is a certified marvel! The Mayan Edzna is nothing less than epic, lyrical poetry, an extraordinary sonnet comprised of temples and palaces carved  in stone that have stood, in regal grandeur, for more than a thousand years. In the Mayan language Edzna means “House of the Itzás”. And yes, those would be the same Itzás who went on to found the rather more famous Mayan metropolis known as Chichen Itzá, arguably the most powerful city in the entire history of the northern Yucatan. Those Itzás were quite a big deal in the Yucatan of their day, and Edzna, it would seem, is where they got their start.

The place was first settled about 600 BC, and it took, oh, around about 800 years before it came into its own. By 200 AD? Edzna was flourishing, ultimately becoming home to some 25,000 people, spread across an area of 25 square kilometers, or nearly ten square miles. This was a center of significant influence in the Late Classic era of Mayan civilization, from 400 AD to 1000 AD. The Itzás, who ran the show in Edzna for centuries, were smart enough to ally themselves politically with the powerful Lords of Calakmul, the rulers of the lands to the south and east. That alliance helped keep them safe–and it helped keep them in power.

Edzna’s well-preserved architecture is of the Puuc style, even though the city is located a fair distance from the Puuc Hills, where that style of building nominally originated. Far more intriguing is the layout of the ceremonial center at the heart of this city, which mimics, albeit on a smaller scale, that of the great ancient metropolis of Teotihuacan, northeast of modern day Mexico City. There was never any direct connection between the Teotihuacanos and the Maya at Edzna. The builders of these two centers came from entirely different cultures, and the construction took place in different eras, hundreds of miles and mountains apart. And yet, the acropolis at Edzna follows the same basic plan, the same configuration, the same precise alignment with the cardinal points of the compass as it’s older, larger inspiration. There’s surely more to that story than meets the eye–yet another mystery, to be added to the growing list of things we’ll probably never know about the ancient Maya.

Edzna, it would seem, was a bit of a mongrel, borrowing elements from far and wide, but putting their own stamp on them, and achieving a level of perfection that is nothing short of astonishing, even to this day. Like virtually all the important Mayan ceremonial centers, Edzna was abandoned long before the Europeans arrived with their superior weaponry and their deadly diseases. One more piece of the imperfectly understood puzzle: how could a civilization as complex, as widespread, and as long-lived as that of the Maya just disappear? Blame climate change for breaking up the high density population centers, but the people didn’t all die off or move away. They pretty much stayed. Just smaller numbers of them. What disappeared was all the high drama, the pomp and the grandeur, the art, the architecture, the priesthood, the warrior caste, and the pampered nobility. They had no further need for those big-ass pyramids, so they just let the jungle swallow them up. Good riddance.

Edzna was probably the least crowded of all the major ruins that we visited. As I’ve mentioned before, the density of crowds in the Yucatan is inversely proportional to the driving distance from Cancun, and since Edzna is close to six hours each way from the beaches of  Margaritaville, it’s outside the radius, and blissfully devoid of visitors. But that doesn’t mean that it’s hard to get to. Quite the contrary! This wonderful Mayan site is only 60 km–less than a one hour drive–from Campeche, the Mexican port city on the gulf coast of the Yucatan. I should point out that Campeche is a pretty wonderful destination in its own right–a charming colonial city, steeped in history and alive with a carefree Caribbean ambiance.  For now, I’ll leave it at that, because Campeche will be the subject of a separate post to this blog, at some point in the very near future.

There are a number of tour operators in Campeche who will be happy to transport you to Edzna and guide you ’round the ruins for a fee. It’s also fairly simple to do it on your own, by catching an inter-city bus that will drop you at the turnoff to the ruins, just off Mexico Route 261. Ask around at the bus terminal, and double check with the driver before you actually climb aboard any buses, because Edzna isn’t a destination so much as an optional stop along the route. If you have a car, as I did, it’s a very easy drive on good paved roads, and there is ample, reasonably secure parking at the ruin site. No matter how you get out there, this is a very easy day trip from Campeche, and well worth your time. If you’re starting from Merida, I would recommend making Edzna a two day excursion.  On the first day, take Mexico Route 180-D, the toll road, all the way to Campeche, and then on to Edzna on Route 261. You’ll have half the day, and all of the afternoon to wander at your leisure, and you won’t feel cheated for lack of time. Return to Campeche and find a room there, enjoy live music and dancing on the plaza almost any night of the year. The next day, take Mexico Route 261 (sometimes referred to as the Puuc Route) headed north, and visit a few of the half dozen or more less-well-known Mayan sites that you’ll pass on your way back to Merida. (See my upcoming post, The Puuc Route, for information on several of those). Note that traveling on Route 261 will take at least three times longer (time-wise) than the equivalent distance on the toll road (the Cuota). What you have to remember: it’s not just a road, it’s an adventure!  If I was to give you a single bit of advice where it comes to driving in Mexico, it would be this: watch out for the topes (speed bumps)! On every secondary highway in Latin America, the topes are a hazard that simply can’t be ignored–and you can’t let your guard down, even for a second. That’s a lesson learned the hard way: when I got done with my recent road trip through Mexico, I had my Jeep thoroughly checked over by my mechanic. Slight problem with the front end (big surprise)! Replacing both control arms and rebuilding my front end set me back more than a thousand dollars, and a large part of the reason why can be summed up in a single word: Topes! It’s all part of the price you pay. For me? It was still well worth it.

(Click photos below for an expanded view)

The aptly-named quadrangle known as the acropolis:

Mayan City of Edzna

An open plaza, dominated by the Castle of the Five Floors:

Mayan City of Edzna

The castle has–you guessed it–five separate stories, the last a smallish temple, topped by a roof comb. This building looks like nothing so much as a petrified wedding cake, with an enormous staircase providing access to all of it.

Mayan City of Edzna

The stairs were different from any I’d seen at other Mayan sites. They were supported, not by the steps of a pyramid, but by arches built from stones and a thin platform cast from cement (and yes, the Mayans did use a primitive form of limestone based cement):

Mayan City of Edzna

I suspect that these arches have been reinforced, as part of the site’s restoration, but they don’t want you climbing on those stairs, and there are prominently posted signs to that effect. There was no one around to enforce those rules–we had the whole place to ourselves, and I’m sure the view from the top of the castle must be spectacular. But even so, I wasn’t, um, inclined to tempt the fates.

What else is out there? The obligatory ball court, with the stone goal rings tragically broken off (frankly, it’s a miracle that any of those things have survived):

Mayan City of Edzna

The temple of the masks, which features two over-sized. extremely delicate stucco masks that still have some of the original paint on them. Talk about miraculous survival, these things take the prize. Then again, they weren’t exposed to the world, or to the elements, until that portion of the city was finally excavated in 1988. One of these deities faces east and represents the god of the rising sun, while the other faces west, and blesses the sunset.

Mayan City of Edzna Mayan City of Edzna

There are dozens of fascinating structures in the ancient city of Edzna. Click the thumbnail (below) to access a gallery of photos from this remarkable site. Remember to click the “i” at the lower right (whenever you see one) to bring up the captions, with additional information about these photos. (Note that the captions are a work in progress).

Mayan City of Edzna

Click the thumbnail (above) to a view a gallery of photos from Edzna.



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