Izamal: Trinity on the Yucatan Peninsula
Itzamná, supreme Mayan deity in Northern Yucatan, is credited not only with founding the grandiose ceremonial center that later became the Peninsula's greatest monastery. He also founded religion and the priesthood. He discovered the cultivation and application of henequen fiber, for the ropes, mats and clothing on which the local economy was based. "He invented books and writing," according to Mérida scribe José Díaz Bolio, "the names of Nature and the places of the earth, and to him is attributed the custom of polcán ("Serpent's Head"), so every Mayan child could appear in the image of the great and powerful rattlesnake. In those days men were tall, brave and powerful, able to throw down a deer, swipe a pheasant from the trees or trap a monkey with one hand."
Twenty structures still remain from the apogee of the site in the Classical period, most of them clustered around the mammoth Kinich-Kak-Moo ("The Sun as the Red Macaw"). But the city originally stretched toward the horizon of Yucatan's flat green landscape until it merged with other cities, where the pale green of the Gulf of Mexico meets the jeweled Caribbean.
Today's Izamal, all yellow and white ("the sacred colors of corn"), lies just 70 kilometers east of Merida, population around 40,000. The Kinich-Kak-Moo is still the center of never-ending archaeological rescue and reclamation. Its huge mass is the most voluminous, though not the tallest, Mayan structure in Yucatan. Its dimensions - 195 by 173 meters along the base, with a two-tiered height of 17, plus the 17 of an independent structure on the upper platform, total 34 meters - barely suggest its grandeur, or the pomp and splendor played out under its shadow. Bishop Landa, a bit envious, described the processions along the sacbe or "white highway" between Izamal and Ake to the southwest, but far more joyous and precise are the pages of Diaz Bolio, boundless with bright feathers, rhythmic drum beats, conch horns and flutes.
Izamal managed to capture the concept of the trinity, an ancient tradition, long before the imposition of Christianity. Itzamna was simultaneously himself - a Mesoamerican Zeus in a Man/Feline symbiosis - as well as Kukulcan and Quetzalcoatl.
And when he died, just as the Buddha in South and Southeast Asia, key body parts were interred in three different structures, to underline their holiness and to encourage pilgrimage. His head and teeth were presumed embedded in the Kinich-Kak-Moo, while his hands were placed in the Kabul, in this case not the capital of Afghanistan but the structure now covered by today's market and municipal offices, whose original masks and magnitude were fortunately captured by British architect-draftsman Frederick Catherwood.
His heart, meanwhile, was consigned to the Itzamatul, second largest of the ancient structures, with construction phases in the Early Classic, the Classic and the Late Classic. Little enough remains. The basement now serves as the setting for the local botanical garden.
It was natural then, that the restless Franciscan missionaries, when in 1549 they built their vast monastic complex over the pre-Colombian Ppac-Hol-Chac - still buried under the courtyard - should imbue their December Virgin of the Immaculate Conception with a triangular identity. In February she changes gowns and becomes the Canlemas, while in August she wears blue-and-white and is transformed into the Asuncion.
Virgin of Yucatan
The Convent temple still houses the image of the Virgin, crowned "Queen of Yucatan" in 1949 and elevated to "Patroness of the Peninsula" in 1970, visited by Pope John Paul II in 1992. The city was, in fact, the region's capital in 1860, and was still known then as the "City of the Three Cultures" or "City of the Twelve Hills" (pyramids, or more properly, ziggurats), just as Landa had heard it told in the 16th century.
The imposing limestone monastery, built between 1553 and 1562, was dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. "For its edification," wrote Antonio de Ciudad Real, "stones of great size and weight were moved one by one, until many of the mul (man-made hills) were flattened. The friars lived in the ancient structures, of admirable quality it may be said, until the cells, offices and churches of the Mission could be completed."
Even today, the outstanding feature of the Colonial complex is the atrium or courtyard, with its 75 arches or four chapels in each of the four corners. In addition, there were open-air chapels for "local" worship, an orchard, a library, and of course the church of the Virgin, whose image, Landa claimed, had been brought from Guatemala.
To this Virgin are attributed many miracles, but none so astonishing, says one local boy, as the outcome of the theft of her crown by another local boy. He tried to sell it for the intrinsic worth of the metal. "Not only was the crown recovered intact, but the thief and his family made additional restitution, and that is a very large miracle indeed."
From Carol Miller's "Travels in the Maya World."
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