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Mystery of the Maya

“Dzibiltun, Campeche, Mexico” 2016 by William Frej. (Courtesy of the artist)

Copyright ┬ę 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The mysteries of the Maya swirl amid strangling vines and slashing machetes carving paths through the footsteps of time.

“Maya Ruins Revisited: in the Footsteps of Teobert Maler” bookends the 19th century German explorer/photographer with more recent images by Santa Fe’s William Frej.

Produced by Peyton Wright Publishing, the 292-page book and accompanying exhibition compares the past with the present, documenting changes occurring across the intervening century.

The Maya lived throughout Mesoamerica from roughly 600-900 B.C. to 900 A.D., when they vanished. They produced the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system in pre-Columbian America. The Maya were also celebrated for their art, architecture, mathematics, calendar and astronomical system.

Theories about the civilization’s collapse vary widely.

“That’s the big mystery of the Maya,” Frej said. “That keeps anthropologists and archaeologists busy.”

Speculation ranges from extended warfare to drought to shifting trade routes and overpopulation.

“They didn’t disappear; they just dissipated into the jungle,” Frej said.

Today, 10 million Maya remain in Mexico and Guatemala, most still speaking their native language.

Frej grew enamoured of the Maya after seeing Maler’s photographs while he was studying architecture. He first visited Mayan ruins in the 1970s. He committed himself to the camera after retiring from the U.S. Agency for International Development, a job that took him across the globe from Poland to Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. He has visited more than 180 Maya archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, more than half of which were first photographed by Maler.

“He was one of the most extraordinary expeditionist photographers that ever lived,” Frej said. “I’ve always been intrigued by his history of coming to Mexico as part of Maximilian’s army.”

Archaeologists believe the structures both men photographed were used for religious purposes or palaces.

Climbing their many pyramids and temples entangled in jungle growth kindled Frej’s sense of awe and respect for the Mayans as architects, scientists and iconographers. He hired Mayan guides in order to reach the remote sites. Many of the trails were the same paths used by Mayan beekeepers.

Maler’s 1887 photograph of “Sabacche, Yucatan, Mexico, East Facade” nearly mirrors Frej’s 2014 image of the same site.

“It’s so similar; there’s been very little reconstitution of the structure,” he said. “There’s a mask on the front of the facade that’s quite unique. Some call these ‘chac masks’; it means rain.”

Other experts doubt the designation, saying they may be passages to the underworld, Frej added.

“They all have very long noses and googly eyes.”

Both Maler’s and Frej’s images of “Tantah, Campeche, Mexico” are similar, despite the 131-year time difference.

Maler described Dzibilchalt├║n in Campeche, Mexico, as “a ruined city concealed in a thicket.”

When Frej traveled there on rugged beekeeper roads in the back of a pickup, he bushwacked through the high grasses. When he arrived, the grasses surrounding the buildings were neck high.

With its dramatic serpent head “Venus Platform” at its base, Chichen Itza’s towering El Castillo (the castle) is the second most visited archeological site of Mexico today. The full name means “at the mouth of the well of Itza.” Founded in the ninth century, its residents abandoned it without explanation in 1250. The main building is a three-dimensional calendar.

The Nocuchich Tower is one of the few such structures in the Mayan world.

“We attempted this three times and finally got in on the third try,” Frej said. “Maler photographed another one about 200 yards away; that tower is now gone. It could have been a lookout tower. It’s a mystery.”

The building of these structures in a culture without the wheel or pack animals adds yet another mystery to these ancient sites. They were built largely of limestone, although few quarries were nearby. The builders used obsidian to slice the stones.

“Can you imagine what that took to build?” Frej asked. The people used slaves captured during warfare; others likely were laborers loyal to royalty.

Frej’s next book will be “Seasons of Ceremonies” highlighting 14 Indigenous groups in Mexico and Guatemala, to be published by the University of New Mexico Press.

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