Kabáh – Lord Of The Strong Hand

Travelling through the dense jungle along the hilly Ruta Puuc, the first of our four Mayan sites of the day, Kabáh, presented itself suddenly to either side of the road. We drove into a dusty car park with a small ramshackle ticket office, paid our 70 pesos entry and then wandered off into the site – again, free to roam and clamber at will. We had a slight scare on arrival as there were two large coaches in the carpark with dozens of students crawling in their uniform jeans and white polo-shirts over the ruins, but they bored quickly and piled back on board, leaving just us, the swirling buzzards and the occasional iguana alone to explore. 

Kabáh was probably first inhabited around the 3rd Century but what remains today is from 750 to 900 AD, like most sites along the Ruta Puuc. Also, along with neighbouring Uxmal, Kabáh was mysteriously abandoned by its people in 950, though many of its less-wealthy residents continued to live in the surrounding area for up to 200 years, eventually leaving it to be consumed by the jungle until, in 1841, our friends  Stephens and Catherwood rediscovered the city and, in Catherwood’s case, captured what he saw in extremely detailed illustrations (a complete set of which are exhibited in a very modest but delightful museum in Merida).

Catherwood illustrated the Arch of Kabáh which still stands in a jungle clearing that would have been a gateway to the city from the Mayan road or Sacbé, a white stone causeway linking Kabáh with Uxmal, some 22 kilometres away. In another illustration, the large stone mound is what remains of the great pyramid, now, as then, completely consumed by the jungle. Incredibly, this scene is remarkably unchanged since Catherwood’s time, seemingly unexcavated with large carved rocks scattered across the jungle floor.

It was completely eerie standing at the foot of this unexcavated pyramid with the sound of insects, birds and the wind in the trees around me. It really felt like I was standing in the very footsteps of Catherwood back in the 1840’s, discovering a long-lost Mayan city in the jungle for the first time. 

But there’s a lot of excavation and restoration going on at Kabáh, where INAH, The National Institute of Anthropology and History (responsible for the protection and conservation of Mexico’s heritage) is in the process of painstakingly cleaning and restoring the entire site. Right in front of the pyramid lay newly cleaned platforms, altars and temples – some of their stones still numbered from re-assembly – but everything an alarming bright clean white, which completely jars against the wild jungle all around it and even more so with the unrestored pyramid. They haven’t got around to the pyramid yet, but that’s next on the agenda (a huge job!).

We learnt that the extensive work being undertaken at Kabáh is due to the forthcoming arrival of El Tren Maya and the hoped-for influx of day-tripping tourists, so it was disappointing to see much of the main structures here covered in tarpaulin and worse, in my mind, almost bleached clean.

The fabled Codz Poop (rolled mat) Altar of Glyphs, which I’d read up on and really looked forward to seeing, was in places under wraps and in the process of being ‘restored’ – which, from what I can tell, means (in some cases) removing each piece of carved stone, numbering and recording, cleaning (bleach blond clean), then restoring them to their positions using a form of mortar, possibly the same composition and mix that the Maya used. But thankfully, there were a few areas that hadn’t been retouched so heavily, so you could see the 300 masks of Chaac, the rain god or sky serpent in almost original condition (though with most of their characteristic curled-up noses having been hacked off over time by looters). Around to the side is a stunning façade of intricate geometric patterns, glyphs and two human figures, one headless, the other with a jaguar mask, but alas (to my mind), these had also been over-cleaned, stripping away the patina of millennia. There was a group of INAH workers taking some time out to have a snack and a chat – all around them were carved blocks of stone, sections of intricately patterned pillars, and salvaged Chaac noses, awaiting reattachment.

We’ve seen quite a few Mayan sites over the past couple of years but never this type of heavy restoration. I understand this is to protect the structures from further erosion and damage but then again, perhaps it’s also the desire to present a squeaky-clean, tourist-ready Mayan experience, complete with newly built shops, restaurants and a visitor centre. But I guess this was inevitable given the marching beat of mass tourism in this country. And the lure of the tourist dollar. Chichén Itza, the site closest to Cancun, has already been overwhelmed by visitors, with over 2 million in 2022! By comparison, Uxmal by far the largest site on the Ruta Puuc received a fraction of this number of tourists.

In my opinion, the charm of these ancient Mayan sites is the patina – the mouldy dark stone with indiscernible carvings, the jungle ever present if not encroaching over the structures. If all this is cleaned and cleared away, then I fear for the integrity and the very soul of these places. 

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