North Group temples, Palenque, Mexico. Image (13 Feb. 2012) © A. Evans, National Geographic.
National Geographic travel writer Andrew Evans is currently continuing his tour through the Mexican ruins of Mayan civilization (previously mentioned here) to get to the bottom of the 2012 Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy. His latest post is a poignant and touching commentary on what it really means for civilization to end, yet keep on living; to endure a massive revolution in time, and come out the other side; to persist past catastrophe, and endure with that traumatic legacy across millennia. Everyone should read his commentary on Palenque, as he ponders the haunting fact that the great Mayan 900-year-old society came to a sudden end within the span of a year or two; and no one really knows why:
Wandering among the limestone ruins of temples and palaces of the past, I could not help but wonder how such a smart and sophisticated society could crumble into ruin.
The Maya of Palenque had aqueducts of running water, intelligent architecture, intricate artwork, ball courts and residences that will last much longer than most of the chipboard-walled homes built in America today.
Just as traveling in foreign places makes you reconsider home, standing atop a ruined civilization makes you reconsider your own. Palenque was built around 100 B.C. and was abandoned around 800 A.D. That’s 900 years of civilization that came to an abrupt finish.
In historical terms, our own civilization has yet to stand the test of time. New York City is not even 400 years old—I thought about New York because I spent the morning at Palenque estimating the expanse of the ruins in terms of Manhattan city blocks. I wondered: What would America’s biggest city look like if it were abandoned for the next 1,400 years? Which buildings would stay standing for the long haul, and which ones would crumble and fall? Even in my own relatively brief lifetime, the New York City skyline has changed in a major way.
... [V]isiting Palenque showed me that a world can disappear without actually disappearing.
For the ancient Maya of Palenque, the world most definitely ended. Their city and society ceased to function, and the grandeur and knowledge of their age fell into ruin and forgetting. And yet the Maya are still here. Millions of Maya still live in Mexico today—they live quite a different reality than they did 1,400 years ago, but the people themselves have not disappeared.
Also, the ruins of Palenque still stand—just as they were part of an ancient civilization, they have become part of our civilization today. They are a tourist attraction that inspires the whole world in myriad ways.
Yesterday, resting on the Pyramid of the Cross ... I observed the different visitors interacting with the strange and exotic archaeological sites around them. ... And I, observing these New Age manifestations in silence, found myself in agreement with American explorer John Lloyd Stephens, who in 1840 described Palenque’s “mournful effect.” While their ancient civilization is long finished, the mystery of the Maya is alive in the ruins of Palenque today.