city at night

city at night

Thursday, August 28, 2014


In 2008 I visited the Spanish city of Salamanca, which is located about 125 miles to the west of Madrid.  The city is filled with history and outstanding architecture, and in 1988 the "Old Town" was declared a UNESCO "World Heritage Site".

The city is very ancient.  It was founded by a Celtic tribe in pre-Roman times.  When the Romans took over Spain, Salamanca became a fairly important commercial center located along the "Vía de la Plata", the Roman road which connected the northern and southern parts of the province.  The Roman bridge, which crosses the Tormes River, dates back to the 1st century B.C.  It was a part of the "Vía de la Plata", and is the principal remaining Roman monument in the city from that era.

On the bridge is a crude stone carving of an animal, perhaps a bull, which predates the Romans.  (It is now elevated on a pedestal, but it used to stand on the span of the bridge.)
This ancient sculpture figures prominently in a famous work of Spanish literature "Lazarillo de Tormes".   "Lazarillo de Tormes" was written in 1584, and is one of the first and the best known works of a literary genre known as the "picaresque novel".   The protagonist of these novels is a "pícaro", a rogue of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.  To this day the authorship of "Lazarillo" is unknown.  Because of the novel's criticism of the Church, the writer remained anonymous to avoid persecution by the Spanish Inquisition.  The hero is a young lad from Salamanca named Lazarillo.  His mother, unable to support her family, finds employment for Lazarillo as a guide and servant for a blind beggar.  The blind man mistreats his servant terribly.  In one incident, they are on the Roman bridge.  The blind man tells Lazarillo that if he puts his ear against the statue of the bull he will hear sounds from within stone.  While naïve Lazarillo has his ear against the sculpture, the blind man gives him a blow across the head.  Eventually, Lazarillo gives the beggar his comeuppance, flees his master, and goes on to have more misadventures. 
At the end of the bridge is a modern statue depicting Lazarillo and the blind man.
From the bridge, there is a fine view of Salamanca's "Old Town", dominated by the tower of the Cathedral.


Salamanca actually has two cathedrals.  The old cathedral was built in the 12th century, and adjoining it is the "new" cathedral, built between the 16th and 17th centuries.

The New Cathedral displays a number of architectural styles, ranging from Late Gothic to Baroque.  The facades at the entrances are excellent examples of the "plateresque" style.  "Plateresque" (which means "in the manner of a silversmith") was a style popular in Renaissance Spain, and is characterized by its ornate decoration.  Salamanca contains some of the finest examples of "plateresque" architecture anywhere.

The interior of the Cathedral

Not far from the Cathedral is the 15th century "House of Shells".  The walls of this mansion are decorated with 350 carvings of shells.  (The scallop shell is the symbol of Santiago... St. James... the patron saint of Spain.)

The "Plaza Mayor" (Main Plaza) is one of the most beautiful town squares in Spain.  It was built in the 18th century, and is surrounded on all four sides with baroque buildings.

The plaza is filled with sidewalk cafés.
All the way around the plaza, between the arches, are round, carved medallions which commemorate people famous in Spanish history.

The church and convent of San Esteban is another outstanding work of architecture.  Although this Dominican monastery was founded in the 13th century, the present structure was built between 1524 and 1610.  Its façade is another outstanding example of "plateresque" architecture.

The interior of the church
The cloister of the monastery
It is said that Christopher Columbus took lodging in the monastery when he came to defend his proposed voyage before the professors of geography at the University of Salamanca.

The University of Salamanca is the city's greatest gem.  Founded in 1130, it is one of the oldest centers of higher learning in Spain.  It reached its height in the 16th century when it was considered one of the greatest universities in all of Europe. 
The main classroom building is perhaps the greatest work of "plateresque" architecture.


As the political and economic fortunes of Spain declined, and as the Inquisition stifled intellectual freedom, the university's academic reputation declined.  However, today the University of Salamanca is once again considered one of the country's leading centers of learning.  It has an enrollment of more than 36,000 students, including more than 3000 foreign students who come here to study Spanish.

The list of people who studied or taught at Salamanca is a "who's who" of Spanish history and literature.  Among those who attended the university were the great writer Miguel de Cervantes and Hernán Cortés, the "conquistador" of Mexico.

One of the professors at the university was the scholar and writer Fray Luis de Leon. 

In 1571 he was arrested by the Inquisition for heretical opinions.  He was imprisoned until 1576 when he was cleared of all charges.  He returned to the university, and legend has it that he began his first lecture, "As we were saying yesterday..." 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Into the Mayan Jungle

The last time that I was at Palenque, I went to a tourist agency in the town and signed up for a tour.  Generally I avoid tours; I much prefer to see a place on my own, at my own pace.  However, this tour was to visit an area that would be very difficult to see on one's own... the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak located in the tropical rainforest near the Guatemalan border.

At dawn a van arrived at my hotel for the trip of over two hours.  The van was very cramped.  Not only were there tourists heading to the Mayan ruins, but also passengers who were using the van as transport to reach the border of Guatemala. 

There is a single ribbon of paved highway leading into this remote region of Mexico.  The highway has led to settlement in the area, and that has led to deforestation of the virgin wilderness. There are small villages and farms along the road.


We stopped at a hut along the highway for breakfast.  The meal was simple but tasty, and in spite of the primitive conditions, I suffered no intestinal problems as a result of the breakfast.


We continued on to the end of the road at Frontera Corozal, a rather squalid town of 5000 people situated on the banks of the Usumacinta River which forms the border with Guatemala.  There are no roads to the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán.  From here we took a launch to take us down the river to the archaeological site.

Looking at the Guatemalan side of the river from the boat
We finally arrived at Yaxchilán.  There is no dock.  The boats simply pull up along the beach.


We hiked a short distance into the forest to the archaeological zone.  We could hear, and occasionally see, howler monkeys in the trees.  The cry of the howler monkeys is incredible.  They sound like lions roaring.

Yaxchilán was at its height during the Late Classic Period in the 7th and 8th centuries.  Its greatest king, Shield Jaguar, ruled for more than six decades.  Under his rule Yaxchilán became a major Mayan city state that dominated much of this part of the Usumacinta basin.  After A.D. 800 the city was abandoned to the forest.

Yaxchilán is noteworthy for its carvings, particularly the sculpted lintels above the doorways of its temples.  The carvings venerate the royal dynasty of the city.

Two of the most famous carvings from Yaxchilán are now located in London's British Museum.  When I was in England this summer, I had a chance to see them.
The first panel shows King Shield Jaguar with his favorite wife, Lady Xoc, kneeling to his side.  Lady Xoc is performing a bloodletting ceremony.  She has pierced her tongue, and is pulling a rope of thorns through it.  Her blood drips onto paper in a basket at her knees.  The paper will then be burned as an offering to the gods.

The second panel shows the aftermath of the bloodletting ceremony.  Upon burning the blood-soaked paper, Lady Xoc (who would probably have taken a hallucinogenic drug prior to the ceremony) has a vision of a dead ancestor rising from the smoke.

The remains of a great stairway lead up a mound to the most impressive of Yaxchilán's structures.

This temple is simply known as Structure 33.  The building is topped with a "roof comb", a decorative feature typical of classic Mayan architecture.  The niches in the roof comb would have contained sculptures.
The steps at the base of Structure 33 are also decorated with carvings and hieroglyphics.  A huge number of hieroglyphic carvings are to be found at Yaxchilán.  They proved very useful to archaeologists who eventually were able to decipher the Mayan writing system.
Unfortunately, we had a limited time at the ruins.  There was much more to see, although I'm not sure that I would have wanted to wander the paths through the jungle to see some of the other groups of buildings.
We returned to the launch, and headed back upstream to Frontera Corozal.  There we had lunch at a simple restaurant.  Again, the food was basic but tasty.  We then got back in the van which was now less cramped since several of the passengers had left on to Guatemala.  We headed down the road to the ruins of Bonampak.  The last section of the trip was along a bumpy, dusty, dirt road.
Bonampak was a smaller Mayan city which was subject to Yaxchilán.  The archaeological site is rather small, and not very impressive, but it was here that one of the greatest finds in Mayan archaeology was made.
The structure at the extreme right hand side of the photo above is known as the Temple of the Murals.
In 1946 an American, Charles Frey, was living in the rainforest and made friends with the indigenous natives.  One of them took him to a secret spot, the ruins of Bonampak, where the locals still held religious ceremonies.  There Frey found the three room building whose interior was covered with mural paintings.  In 1949 archaeologists were called in to study the structure.  The paintings were covered with deposits of calcium carbonite from rainwater seeping through the roof.  The archaeologists cleaned the walls with kerosene to reveal the brilliant colors of the murals.  Photographs were taken of the paintings.  However, the kerosene resulted in flaking and decay of the artwork.  Fortunately, we have the photographs of the extraordinary murals, and an exact replica of the temple was built on the grounds of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  


The murals of Bonampak constitute the greatest example of Mayan painting anywhere, and give us an unparalleled glimpse into their life.  It also contributed to a reevaluation of Mayan culture.  In the first half of the 20th century archaeologists tended to idealize the Mayas as a peaceful tribe of intellectuals who, unlike those bloodthirsty Aztecs, did not perform human sacrifice.  But the murals at Bonampak show scenes of battle, bloodletting ceremonies, and the torture and sacrifice of captives.  As archaeologists unraveled the Mayan hieroglyphics and were able to read the carved inscriptions found throughout their ancient cities, it was confirmed that the Mayas were indeed a very warlike society, and that blood sacrifice was an integral part of their religion.
After a brief visit to Bonampak, we made the long trip back to Palenque.  It was after dark by the time I returned to my hotel.  It had been a very long and, at times, uncomfortable day, but it was a very rewarding trip to see places where only the most intrepid tourists venture.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


One of the most beautiful archaeological sites in Mexico is the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque.  Palenque is located in the tropical rainforest of the state of Chiapas. 

In the 7th century, Palenque was at its height, and was one of the most powerful city states in the Mayan world.  The archaeological site is relatively small, but contains some of the most outstanding architecture and carvings produced by the Mayas.  Furthermore, what the visitor sees is only a fraction of the entire city.  Archaeologists guess that they only explored 10% of the ruins, and that thousands of structures are still covered by jungle.
I have visited Palenque twice.  The first time was back in the 1980s on a summer vacation to Mexico.  The second time was in the winter of 2010.  On the first trip, even though it was during the rainy season, the weather was better than on the second trip.  On my second visit, the skies were overcast (as you can see by my photos), although it did not rain.
The most impressive building at Palenque is the Temple of the Inscriptions.
This pyramid was begun during the reign of Palenque's greatest king, Lord Pakal, and completed by his son.  In 1952, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz was studying the temple at the top.  He noticed that one of the stones in the floor of the temple had holes in each corner, as if it had been lowered into place.  The stone was removed and revealed a stairway, filled in with rubble, that descended into the heart of the pyramid.  Ruz and his team laboriously cleared the rubble and found that the stairs led to a burial chamber where Lord Pakal was interred.  This was the first time that a burial had been found within a Mexican pyramid.  (Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the primary purpose of the Mesoamerican pyramids was to elevate their temples closer to the gods.)
The king's tomb was covered with an intricately carved slab of stone.  The carving shows a man in a reclining position.  Some crackpots have theorized that it depicts a ancient astronaut at the controls of his spaceship!  However, any archaeologist familiar with Mayan iconography can tell you what the carving represents...
(image from the web)

The carving depicts Lord Pakal at the moment of his death as he is poised between heaven and the underworld.  Above him is the tree of creation with the celestial bird perched at its top.  Beneath him are the jaws of the underworld.
When the huge slab was removed, it revealed the sarcophagus containing the bones of Pakal.  The jade jewelry that was buried with him was still in place. (To the Mayas, jade was more precious that gold.)  The jewelry, including Pakal's jade burial mask, are now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
(image from the web)

When I first visited Palenque, I was able to climb the pyramid and descend into the burial chamber.  Now, however, with increased tourism to the site, visitors are no longer permitted to climb the pyramid.
Across from the Temple of the Inscriptions is the Palace.  It was built atop an artificial terrace in the fourth century.  Lord Pakal enlarged and beautified the complex.  The thatched roofs were replaced with stone roofs, and the palace was adorned with stucco ornamentation and bas-relief carvings.

The Palace features a number of open courtyards, and a unique four-story tower, which may have been used as a watchtower or as an astronomical observatory.
In some places you can still see traces of the original stucco decorations.
A number of carvings show kings in submissive poses.  These may depict lords of enemy cities who were captured in battle.
In this gallery of the palace you can see the corbelled arches which were used in Mayan architecture.  The Mayas, for all their great skill, never developed the true arch.

Beyond the Palace is another group of temples.  This group was built by Lord Pakal's son, K'inich Kan B'alam, to commemorate his accession to the throne.  Climbing of these pyramids is still permitted. The Temple of the Foliated Cross looks as if it is about to be consumed by the rainforest behind it.  (Indeed, if the site were not constantly cleared by workers, the jungle would overtake all of Palenque again.)

Next to it is the Temple of the Cross.  It contains bas relief carvings depicting Lord K'inich Kan B'alam.

From the top, you can look down at the other smaller temples in the group, including the Temple of the Sun, to the left.

A view of the Temple of Inscriptions and the Palace from the Temple of the Cross.

In 711, Palenque was sacked by the army of the enemy city of Toniná.  The king, the grandson of Lord Pakal, was taken prisoner.  He was hauled off to Toniná, probably to be sacrificed.  Palenque's golden age came to an end.  There was no new construction in the city after the 8th century.  An agricultural population may have continued living there amid the glories of the past for a few generations.  Eventually, the city was completely abandoned.  The forest took over, and the great city remained hidden for centuries.

Friday, August 22, 2014


From the posts that I have written here, you may have the impression that I travel only to Mexico and Europe.  In fact, I have traveled fairly extensively within the United States.  In the summer of 2007, a friend and I took a lengthy road trip from Ohio all the way to the Pacific coast of Washington.  One of the places that we visited along the way was Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone was established as a national park in 1872, and was the first national park in the world.  It is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, with small portions of parkland crossing the borders into Montana and Idaho.  Much of the park is within the Yellowstone Caldera, the remains of an enormous super-volcano.  The last major eruption of this volcano occurred 640,000 years ago with a force 1000 times greater than the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.  Smaller eruptions have occurred since then... the most recent was 164,000 years ago.  It is still considered an active volcano, and the magma dome is what has created the geothermal features for which the park is so famous.  There are steam vents, hot springs, mud pots, and, of course, geysers.  Yellowstone contains two thirds of all the geysers in the world.

At Mammoth Hot Springs you can see terraces formed by calcium carbonate deposited as the hot water cools at the surface.


Scenery along the Upper Loop Road

Not far from the Upper Loop Road is a lookout for Tower Fall.  This waterfall is 132 feet high, and is near the confluence of Tower Creek and the Yellowstone River. 
The road continues on to lookouts where you can see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  The canyon, which is 1000 feet deep, is carved by the Yellowstone River.  The yellowish shade of the rocks is due to the presence of iron ore.
The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone drop 308 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  That is twice the height of Niagara Falls.
The hottest geothermal area in the park is the Norris Geyser Basin.  The bizarre landscape is dotted with geysers, large and small, and hot springs.  The tallest geyser in the park, Steamboat Geyser, is here.  We did not see it erupt since its eruptions are infrequent.  The longest period of time that passed between eruptions was fifty years!


The Golden Gate Canyon... the road passing through the canyon was a major engineering feat.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America.
Of course, no visit to Yellowstone would be complete without seeing Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world.  Its eruptions are no longer as regular as they used to be, but it generally erupts every ninety minutes.