Sunday, March 14, 2021

Notebook: Stephens at Palenque

From 1839 to 1841 the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and the British artist Frederick Catherwood traveled throughout Mexico and Central America exploring and meticulously describing Mayan antiquities, which were then barely known to the English-speaking world (and even to many living in the region). Here Stephens relates his thoughts as they leave the site in Mexico known by the Spanish name of Palenque.
There was no necessity for assigning to the ruined city an immense extent, or an antiquity coeval with that of the Egyptians or of any other ancient and known people. What we had before our eyes was grand, curious, and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown. The links which connected them with the human family were severed and lost, and these were the only memorials of their footsteps upon earth. We lived in the ruined palace of their kings; we went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power. In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect, with its terraces and pyramids, its sculptured and painted ornaments, grand, lofty, and imposing, and overlooking an immense inhabited plain; we called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feathers, ascending the terraces of the palace and the steps leading to the temples; and often we imagined a scene of unique and gorgeous beauty and magnificence, realizing the creations of Oriental poets, the very spot which fancy would have selected for the "Happy Valley" of Rasselas. In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it. Apart from everything else, it was a mourning witness to the world's mutations.
Unlike many early observers who attributed the ruins to a civilization originating in the Old World, Stephens ultimately concluded, correctly, that the builders were the ancestors of the same Maya people who still inhabited the region. I visited several of the sites, including Palenque, in 1980, by which time conditions for travelers, distinctly rough in 1840, were vastly improved. The fine Dover editions of the four volumes of Stephens's travels are still in print.

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