“Don’t they all look the same? Do you have to got to each one of them? Isn’t seeing one like seeing them all?” My friend, who I will not name, asked.
I stared at him in disbelief. Upon being inquired, I was excitedly showing him all the Mayan pyramids and temples I was planning to visit during our trip to Guatemala. I searched for a suitable answer but all I could remember is a story I had heard when I was a kid. A man confessed to a English professor that he had never read Shakespeare’s work. The professor, aghast, promptly responded. “Dear sir! That in itself is your punishment!”
At first glace, the Mayan temples and pyramids can look similar. But each pyramid, every temple has a unique history, a different story. I was going there to visit the stories, not just the ruins. [Do all the Russian turtles look alike? Ask my eleven year old and expect a 15 minute discourse on how different her two turtles are.]
In Uaxactun, our archeologist-guide, Roxy drove us to a structure complex not too far away from the principle ruins. We walked through the jungle between a myriad of mounds, each, apparently, an unexcavated historical ruin. We cleared the jungle and came to a massive Mayan pyramid. We rested a while on the steps munching power bars and gulping down ice cold water while Roxy told Rhea the most amazing story of Lord Smoking Frog.
In Linda Shele’s own words, “Located less than twelve miles away – not even a day’s walk – Tikal and Uaxactun were perhaps too closely situated for both of them to become kingdoms of the first rank. Their competition was resolved in A.D. 378 by means of an innovative type of a warfare we call Tlaloc-Venus, or sometime simply ‘star wars.’”
In the Mayan hemisphere, in the 4th century of the common era, the war was of gigantic proportion, probably comparable to the nuclear decimation of the Japanese cities by the United States in WWII. So gigantic that the Maya continued to describe it on their monuments for 125 years after the war.
In their time, Maya fought wars to capture their enemies and bring them back in order to sacrifice them, for they believed sacrificing royal blood promised the easiest passage in the afterworld. This war was different, and hence important, in more than one ways.
Tikal was ruled by a powerful ahau called Great-Jaguar-Paw. Uaxactun had an illustrious ruler too; sadly his name has been lost in the passage of time. We do not know what triggered the war: Was Uaxactun needling Tikal by repeatedly trespassing ? Or was Tikal itching to use the weaponry she had acquired through recent association with the western empire of Teotihuacan? We will never know. What we know is the precise date, Jan 11 378 CE, when Tikal obliterated Uaxactun and we know exactly how.
While the two armies took a break after a fiercely fought session of hand to hand combat, such a break being the norm of warfare, Tikal pulled out a deadly surprise. A fresh battalion had been hiding in the nearby jungle armed with atlatls. Flaunting the rule of “peace at break” and using the hunting spear, Tikal quickly brought Uaxactun down on their knees. As was the ritual, the entire royal family was subdued and packed off to Tikal to face the sacrificial axe. The city was sacked. Every male over the age of 5 was killed.
Breaking another tradition of leaving a vanquished city to rot, Lord Smoking Frog, the commander of Tikal’s battle forces, assumed the role of the ahau of Uaxactun. Hence Uaxactun is the first known city to be annexed in the Mayan civilization.
The pyramid we climbed is Lord Smoking Frog’s throne-temple. We wandered through the very room Lord Smoking Frog must have walked. We sat on the exact terrace he sat, a spot from where, over the canopy of the tropical jungle, he could see the roof combs of the temples of his beloved Tikal. Lord Smoking Frog ruled Uaxactun for several years. Great-Jaguar-Paw, the ahau of Tikal, died within two years of the war, but his clan wielded supreme clout for hundreds of years to follow. Later in our trip, Rhea and I, explored Great-Jaguar-Paw clan’s palace in Tikal that, both, invading enemy armies and ruling emperors of Tikal, did not dare destroy or build over.
I climbed the pyramid in Uaxactun to share the same space as Lord Smoking Frog for a few hours. After all that is how close I can come to meeting him.
[P.S. The amazing modern day detective work that unraveled the lines that connect all the dots in this story, especially establishing Lord Smoking Frog as Great Jaguar Claw’s brother, has to be read in Linda Schele’s own words, for she is the detective.]