Treasure Seekers: Code of the Maya Kings

Director(s): Ann Carroll

Code of Maya Kings

They would tantalize explorers

for hundreds of years,

ruined cities lost in the jungles

of Central America and Mexico.

Inscrutable faces etched in stone.

Mysterious writing.

Who had left these messages

from the past?

It would take more than a century to

unlock the secrets of the ancient Maya.

Two extraordinary people

would lead the way.

Separated by 100 years,

they would unveil one of the greatest

mysteries of archeology.

Code of Maya Kings

Chichen Itza, Mexico 1842.

An American lawyer named

John Lloyd Stephens

wanders the empty ruins

looking for clues.

He knows what he wants to find.

It has kept him going

through two harrowing journeys,

exploring the desolate jungles

of Central America.

Kept him pushing on

through mud and malaria,

poisonous snakes, and insect-plagued

nights under the stars.

Stephens, the lawyer,

was looking for proof,

undeniable evidence that these ruins

were not built by the Egyptians

or the Phoenicians or the Lost Tribes

of Israel.

And here at Chichen Itza he thinks

that he's found it at least.

Writing unlike that of

any other civilization he knows.

The same writing he'd seen at other

ruined cities hundreds of miles away.

Proof of an ancient empire

of Native Americans

more sophisticated than anyone

believed possible.

Stephens himself was a product of

the New World.

He was born in 1805, the son of

a wealthy New York merchant.

The city wasn't much more than

a Dutch village,

but it was the hub of a new nation.

Stephens grew up

along the Hudson River

watching the ships come in

from around the world.

After reading law,

he opened a practice on Wall Street.

Soon he got into politics,

campaigning vigorously for

Andrew Jackson for President.

But months of shouting to the crowds

gave him a serious throat infection.

His doctor prescribed a common remedy

for wealthy young men-

a grand tour of Europe.

The ancient ruins of Italy and Greece

only piqued his curiosity.

Stephens went on to Egypt,

and spent three months

floating up the Nile,

visiting the temples and monuments

along the way.

Only a decade before a Frenchman

had deciphered the hieroglyphs,

revealing the rich history

of Egypt's kings and queens.

Stephens was fascinated,

and he still wasn't ready to go home.

He'd seen pictures of

a fantastic ancient city in Arabia,

lost for century to all

but the Bedouins.

Everyone told him the journey was too

perilous for an unaccompanied American,

so Stephens disguised himself

as a Turkish merchant

and took the name Abul Hassis.

In 1836, John Lloyd Stephens

was the first American to set eyes

on the ruins of Petra.

In Roman times it had been one of

the greatest cities of the East.

Stephens still found it dazzling:

"A temple delicate and limpid,

carved like a cameo

from a solid mountain wall,

the first view

of that superb facade

must produce an effect

which will never pass away."

Stephens letters home

were so vivid and imaginative,

they were published

in a monthly magazine.

Soon, he was writing books recounting

his exotic adventures around the world.

The lawyer had become

a literary sensation.

He was a seasoned observer,

he was an incredible observer.

In fact, Herman Melville

of Moby Dick fame, recalled one time

when he was in church,

Herman Melville was, he was a kid.

He heard that Stephens

was in the front row.

And when Stephens left,

Melville writes,

"I thought this man must have great

huge eyes that bulged through his head,

he was such a good observer,"

because Melville had read his stuff.

Back in New York the life

of a sedentary lawyer

no longer held any charm for Stephens.

Instead, his mind was filled with

thoughts of another journey,

not so far away, but even more

remote and daring.

On his way home through London,

he met an artist named

Rederick Catherwood

who'd spent ten

years in the Near East.

They shared their interest

in exotic travel.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Catherwood

had showed him a curious book

about a lost city in Central America

hidden in the jungle.

The book's authors thought

the fabulous ruins of Palenque

had been built by Egyptians,

Carthaginians, maybe even

the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Anyone but the Native Americans.

There was sort of a racism in here

that said that

everything great had come

through the Greeks, the Egyptians,

through the European tradition.

And anything different

appeared relatively

to be a bunch of naked savages

wandering through the woods.

In 1839, no one believed

the Native Americans

capable of building

a sophisticated civilization.

Stephens' own government

had little use for them.

Only a year earlier

they had uprooted thousands of Indians,

sending them westward

along the infamous Trail of Tears.

The thought of a great ancient

civilization in Central America

seemed even more preposterous.

A few travelers had reported

sighting ruined cities like Palenque,

but Stephens could find

none of them on the map.

It was a travel writer's dream,

but only this time

he would have to bring back

evidence of whatever he found.

But who better to accompany him

than the artist Frederick Catherwood,

now practicing architecture

in New York?

Only one small problem remained,

the newly formed

Central American Federation

was fighting a bitter civil war.

Using his political connections,

Stephens secured a post

as a Confidential Agent.

He figured his diplomatic coat would

protect him in dangerous territory.

So in October 1839,

Catherwood bid farewell to

his wife and two young boys,

and now they were here,

deep in the jungles of Central America.

The ruins of Copan was

their first goals.

But when they found

the little village of the same name,

no one there had ever head

of nearby ruins.

Finally, a knowledgeable Indian

offered to guide them.

But that was hours ago.

Now they were beginning to think that

the ruins were nothing but a legend.

When suddenly, there they were,

grander than their wildest dreams,

the Ruins of Copan.

Pyramids rose majestically

out of the jungle.

Great stone faces peered at them

from intricately carved monuments,

twice the size of a man.

Stephens noticed hieroglyphs

and judged them

to be as fine

as any he'd seen in Egypt,

yet his experience told him

that these carvings were unique.

The silence of the once

majestic city overwhelmed him:

Copan lay before us like a shattered

bark in the midst of the ocean,

her masts gone, her crew perished,

and none to tell whence she came.

I think the description of Copan

is the single most poetic description

of a place he visits,

for it is though he is walking

around inside the Titanic,

and he's looking at the shipwreck

of a civilization.

He walks from monument to monument.

It is through he's looking into

the faces of those

who have recently been

ruling this place:

America, say historians,

was peopled by savages.

But savages never reared

these structures,

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Ann Carroll

Ann Carroll is a camogie player. twice an All Ireland inter-county medalist and the outstanding personality in the first decade of the history of the All-Ireland Senior Club Camogie Championship winning medals with both St Patrick’s, Glengoole from Tipperary and St Paul’s from Kilkenny. She played inter-county camogie for both Tipperary and Kilkenny and Interprovincial camogie for both Munster and Leinster. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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