Mexico City Magic: A Night At The Museum
Earlier this year I once again had the wonderful opportunity to lead GeoEx’s exhilarating exploration of the Chiapas region of Mexico. As on my previous journeys there, highlights of the trip included a mind-opening morning at the syncretic cathedral in San Juan de Chamula, an illuminating — and delicious — culinary adventure at Belil in San Cristóbal de las Casas, and immersions in textile and ceramic artistry in San Cristóbal and the village of Amatenango del Valle.
Of all the region’s riches, the most affecting for me were the four archaeological sites we visited: a jungly ruin in Metzabok, extraordinary murals in Bonampak, the atmospheric expanses of Yaxchilán, where we could walk right up to ruins with elaborate carvings and remains of murals, and finally Palenque, one of the crown jewels of Maya civilization, where the past came vividly to life in the grassy ceremonial plazas and stony, stepped temples.
Happily, on this trip the group had opted to include the four-day extension to Mexico City, and there many more spectacular travel adventures awaited. One was visiting Frida Kahlo’s poignant home-studio of Casa Azul; another was viewing Diego Rivera’s stunning mural work. But the most thrilling of all was an exclusive nighttime visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.
Our group of eight was welcomed at the sprawling museum entrance by the Assistant Director of the museum. Then we were led through the silent, empty halls to focus on two galleries devoted to the Aztec and the Maya. The Aztec exhibitions included iconic sights such as the famed “calendar stone,” but the real frissons for me awaited in the Maya room.
These began when we examined lintels from Yaxchilán, the very site where we had walked in misty splendor just a couple of days before. I felt goosebumps when I studied the elaborate limestone carvings and knew exactly where they had originally been placed. I remembered standing in that very doorway at the ruin, touching the rough stone walls and wondering at the intricate artistry of the carved symbols that still remained, as a light rain slicked the stone and the screeches of howler monkeys echoed from the surrounding green branches.
The climax of our museum visit came when we approached the tomb of Pakal the Great. We had stood outside the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque as our guide Roberto told us the tale: Explorer-archaeologists had spent decades examining and excavating the site, then in 1949 Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier began working there. Lhuillier postulated that there might be a hidden chamber in the temple, spent four years removing debris to reveal a staircase, and finally in late 1952 discovered the burial chamber at the bottom of the staircase. Then, in one time-stopping moment, he and his assistants lifted the heavy stone lid of the sarcophagus to reveal the figure of Pakal lying in bejeweled splendor.
All that came rushing back to me as we approached a reproduction of Pakal’s burial chamber in the museum, peered down the dark descending stairs, and glimpsed the glimmering treasures at the bottom. Moving beyond the reproduction, we turned a corner and — Pakal! His green jade death mask glowed, the obsidian eyes shining; long jade ornaments protruded from his ears, and a dazzlement of jade necklaces, bracelets, and rings adorned his body. Pakal!
For a moment the stony structures of Palenque rose again around me. I was alone at the top of the palace, the air redolent with copal, the trills of flutes and thrums of drums riding the breeze, the plazas brilliant and bustling with figures in plumed headwear and bright robes gathering for a ceremony. The copal swirled around me, the drums pounded, voices rose from the plaza below.
“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” the Assistant Director said — and I returned to the quiet chamber in one of the grandest museums in the world. Nothing had changed; everything had changed.
When our group talked about the experience later, everyone agreed that it had been one of the absolute highlights of the entire trip: To have seen Palenque first and then to see the treasures of Pakal’s tomb brought the whole story together.
Sometimes travel bestows these unexpected gifts. We stand in a darkened museum in Mexico City and an electrical connection surges up our spine. We smell the copal in the air, hear the distant drumming, see the brilliant robes gathering below. We raise green bracelets to the sky; the necklaces sway, ancient, shining, in our mind.
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