Friday, May 14, 2010

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges, Part 2 -- Stones

There are places in Mèrida, Yucatàn, where once an elaborate archway welcomed people, and now there is a wall. Where once an important structure stood, now there is open space. I wrote in March about some of the unheralded bits and pieces of history that can be found in this city, evidence that tells stories about how
things were, and how places and spaces have changed over time. Sometimes the parts of the structure still exist, but in new arrangements. It is an interesting puzzle that I love to contemplate.

Many of the buildings in Mèrida Centro were constructed by the Spanish. Starting in the 1500's when they occupied the Mayan city of Th'o (sometimes spelled T-hò) on the site, they began demolishing the Mayan buildings in order to use the stone for constructing their new city. A large number of these early colonial structures still exist, although after hundreds of years of use, remodeling and reconstruction, many have been dramatically altered.

The style of this balcony window on a downtown Mèrida building (above) is one popular in Mèrida from the late 1800's into the early 1900's. During this period, when the city was rolling in money from the hennequen trade, many new structures were built and many older ones, like this building, were modernized to keep up with architectural tastes. The piece of an earlier Spanish colonial arch visible to the right of the window, possibly 400 or more years old, was uncovered when the facade was restored a few years ago. It strongly resembles the doorway on an unaltered colonial-era facade a few blocks away (above right). The "disappeared" colonial second-story window of what

originally was a home may have protected the honor of señoritas of the household from the gazes of rough men on the street, and their sensitive skin from the burning rays of the hot sun, while providing light and air to the home's interior. Now looking down on a congested, noisy street, this appears to be space that is unused, or perhaps devoted to storage, above what now are small storefronts on the street level.

When the Spanish arrived here, they discovered a sizeable city with a pyramid at its center. That pyramid was situated on space that is now Mèrida's Plaza Grande, or central square, also known as the zocalo. The Spanish conquerors dismantled the pyramid, stone by stone, quarrying its materials to build many of the structures that now surround the zocalo, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, which still dominates the scene.

I am told that it is possible to see original Mayan carving on some of the stones in the cathedral. Although I have walked around in and outside the cathedral in search of them, I have yet to find these stones. I'll have to ask someone who knows more about the building where to see them.

Another interesting feature of the cathedral is the presence of slits in the facade, which would allow defenders to shoot down on the approaches to the front doors. From time to time, from the conquest up until the late 1800's when The Caste War, La Guerra de las Castas, finally fizzled out, violence erupted in Yucatàn between the indigenous people, who mostly lived in the countryside, and the descendants of the conquistadores, who mainly lived in a few larger towns, the most important of which was the capital city of Mérida. In case of serious conflict, one of the defence tactics was for the population of take refuge in some of the stronger central buildings, including the cathedral. Many of these structures in the center of the city are connected by a series of tunnels. Some of these were re-discovered only in the past few years.

More Mayan stones, which quite possibly also came from the pyramid, can be seen here, partially exposed in the facade in another original 1500's building, just across from the Cathedral and the zocalo, which otherwise has been greatly changed over the centuries.

It's fascinating for me to think that most of the original pyramid of Th'o actually still exists in Mèrida. It's like an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have been scattered and mixed up for close to 500 years. The pyramid's footprint is evident in the form of the zocalo. It's a bit late and entirely impractical to think about putting the pieces back together, but it's interesting and comforting in a way to know that although we don't generally recognize it, the great pyramid of Th'o is still with us. In fact, when we walk in the vicinity Mèrida's zocalo, it practically surrounds us.


  1. You've perfectly evoked the feeling I have standing in the city of Merida: It seems so ancient, I can't help but be aware of the countless lives that have stood in the same place before me. Each of those lives was surely as rich and fascinating (to me, of course) as my own, and yet they are gone. It makes me feel inconsequential, but in a good way, as if there is some powerful force in charge of the world and it's okay to just be here for the small amount of time I'm allotted. All will be well. Something like that. Or maybe I just need a nap :-)


  2. I've never found the Mayan carvings on the cathedral either. Has anyone told you where they are since you posted this?
    I had never noticed the slits in the cathedral. I will have to look for those and point them out the next time I am giving friends a tour of the Plaza Grande.
    And do you know how the Mayan name of the city... T'ho... is pronounced?


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