Written by Lydia Jones
Everybody goes to Chichén Itzá to see the famous Kukulkán pyramid. But while your guide is explaining how it represents the ancient Maya calendar and their sophisticated cosmology, look around you and imagine. Imagine these bare stones covered in brightly painted stucco, and people walking among them. People in feathers and masks, but people like ourselves.
The story I will tell you is a legend of passionate love and revenge, which caused the collapse of the city. Yes, it was not just warfare, climate change, inequality and lack of resources that destroyed the Maya civilisation. I also blame love, revenge and politics. And the greed of man. To keep things simple, I will cut out all the maybes. We may never know the facts in full, but as they say in the movies, 'This is based on a true story'.
The four brothers
Over 800 years ago, in the late 12th century, Chichén Itzá was jointly ruled by four brothers. They each controlled a quarter of the city, and we must imagine them sitting in the Council House in their glorious masks and feathered headdresses, each representing the colour of their quarter: Sac of the north, the white dove; Ek of the west, the black crow; Kan of the south, the golden eagle, and Canek of the east, the red pheasant. Canek is our Romeo.
When Canek was 21, with the agreement of his brothers, he was crowned overall king of Chichén Itzá. Elite nobles were invited to the ceremony from Chichén Itzá's satellite cities and the other powerful city states with whom Chichén Itzá had an uneasy alliance: Uxmal and Mayapán.
Hunac, the gruff old warrior who led Mayapán, had a particularly rocky relationship with Chichén Itzá. At one point he had been thrown into their sacred cenote (it's still there) as a sacrificial victim. The priests and nobles turned away from the dark waters and went back to their beds by torchlight; gods appeased, job done. But Hunac somehow survived. They found him next morning, floating in the now green sunlit water. As a result of this 'miracle', Hunac became lord of Mayapán, despite his humble background. And, as a result of his experience, carrying his own very personal reasons for wanting to break up the alliance and make Mayapán the leading power of the peninsula.
Love at first sight
I imagine young Canek and old Hunac eyeing each other warily as they made their formal Maya bows and then embracing each other with the widest political smiles they could muster. But then, among the throbbing drums and the wailing conch shells of the ceremony, through the smoke of the rushlight torches, Canek saw a girl of 15, his Juliet.
He fell instantly in love before he even knew who she was: Sac Nicté (White Flower). Daughter of Hunac. She was equally passionate. They spoke. They kissed. They made love somewhere in a secret corner of the palace. And then Sac Nicté revealed the awful truth. Her father Hunac had promised her to Ulil, prince of Izamal. The wedding was to be in 37 days.
Talk to the dwarf
While the young lovers were making their escape, we now have two princes with reasons, both personal and political, for bringing Chichén Itzá to its knees. Revenge! Ulil joined forces with Hunac, and between them they attacked the kingdom without a king. I don't believe the nobility put up much of a fight; I think they hid in the enormous network of caves around the city and then scattered to safer cities. Whatever happened, the great city of Chichén Itzá was abandoned by its rulers and lost its power.
The lovers escape
Canek and Sac Nicté fled to their ancestral home, a country that must have been little more than a tribal memory – the stuff of legend – for both of them. 800 years before our story begins, back in the fourth century, the Itzá people were driven north from Lake Petén, in the deep jungle of what is now Guatemala, in search of water. That's where the young lovers fled. Perhaps they shared a view of a romantic land, without politics, without wars, where they could just be happy in each other's company and raise children in peace.
How did they get there? No one knows. Perhaps they ran north to the Gulf coast and disguised themselves as traders for the long dangerous voyage around the horn of Yucatán and down the Caribbean coast. I see them huddled together in an open canoe, the waves breaking on the coral reefs, terrified of an ocean which neither of them had encountered, and praying to their gods that they would live to experience their impossible dream. The legend is that they did somehow make it to Lake Petén and set up a new kingdom called Tah Itzá (Place of the Itzá People) among the ruins of the old. And lived happily ever after among their laughing children. What we do know for sure is that their realm survived until 1697 and it was the last Maya kingdom to fall into Spanish hands, nearly 200 years after the Conquest.
Footnote: the Tutul Xiu
I wonder if the young couple and their descendants ever heard rumours through the sea traders of what happened after they ran away? Old Hunac died, and his descendants were not content with the expanded power of Mayapán. They wanted total control of the peninsula, and they bought it with mercenary soldiers from Tabasco. They succeeded, and stayed in power for 250 years.
But then they got their come-uppance. In 1461 their whole dynasty were slaughtered by the Tutul Xiu. This dynasty was originally from Uxmal, so although they later moved to Maní they held an ancient grudge against Mayapán, which had betrayed their triple alliance with Chichén Itzá. Everyone died, except one young man who happened to be on a trading expedition to Honduras that day. When he got back, and discovered what had happened, he settled with family in nearby Sotuta, and very sensibly disappeared from history.
Power and love
The beauty of Maya myth and legend is that so much is known, but so much is unknown, so you can let your imagination run riot. These ruined cities are still there: not just Chichén Itzá but charming Mayapán, massive Uxmal and the yellow city of Izamal. People them with your dreams. Or gaze out over the Caribbean night from your balcony and hear, above the sound of the waves, the cry of a frightened young woman in an open canoe, in the safety of her lover's arms. Or was it a gull?