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The recent interpretation of Maya hieroglyphs has given us the first written history of the New World as it existed before the European invasion.
In this book, two of the first central figures in the massive effort to decode the glyphs, Linda Schele and David Freidel, make this history available in all its detail. A Forest of Kings is the story of Maya kingship, from the beginning of its institution and the first great pyramid builders two thousand years ago to the decline of Maya civilization and its destruction by the Spanish. Here the great historic rulers of pre-Columbian civilization come to life again with the decipherment of their writing.
At its height, Maya civilization flourished under great kings like Shield-Jaguar, who ruled for more than sixty years, expanding his kingdom and building some of the most impressive works of architecture in the ancient world. Long placed on a mist-shrouded pedestal as austere, peaceful stargazers, the Maya elites are now known to have been the rulers of populous, aggressive city-states.
Hailed as "a Rosetta stone of Maya civilization" (Brian M. Fagan, author of People of the Earth), A Forest of Kings is "a must for interested readers," says Evon Vogt, professor of anthropology at Harvard University.
The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
Time Travel In the Jungle
Once, many years ago, when we were just beginning our adventure with the Maya, a friend observed that to cross the Texas border into Mexico was to enter a different world where time and reality dance to a different rhythm. After twenty years of moving in and out of that world, both of us have confirmed the truth of that observation for ourselves.
While the experiences of our first journey to that "otherworld" were distinctly our own, they have much in common with the thousands of other pilgrims who go to Yucatan out of curiosity and admiration. For Linda Schele that first journey came in 1970 when she followed the great arching curve of the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, around to the tip of the Yucatan peninsula. With three students and a husband in tow, she followed the narrow, potholed highway south from Matamoros through the vast, cactus-filled deserts of northern México, skirting the majestic Sierra Madre mountains. At the Gulf port of Tampico, she rode a dilapidated ferry across the Rio Panuco and with the gawking wonder of a first-time tourist entered a world that has known civilization for 5,000 years. The Huastecs, long-lost cousins of the Maya, I dwell in the mountains and the dry northern edge of this enormous region. Now we call this world Mesoamerica, a term which refers not only to geography, but to a Precolumbian cultural tradition that shared a 260-day calendar, religious beliefs including definitions of gods and bloodletting as the central act of piety, the cultivation of maize, the use of cacao as a drink and as money, a ballgame played with a rubber ball, screen-fold books, pyramids and plazas, and a sense of common cultural identity. The world view that was forged by the ancient peoples of that land is still a living and vibrant heritage for the millions of their descendants.
The first time you cross the boundary into that world, you may not have an intellectual definition for what is happening to you, but you will sense a change. If nothing else, this region is greener than the desert, and evidence of people and their communities thickens around you. As you drive south, the narrow band of land next to the sea gets squeezed against the waters of the Gulf of México by the huge Sierra Madre mountains and you see for the first time the dramatic contrast between the cool, dry highlands towering above and the hot, humid, forest-covered lowlands. This central opposition is the force that molded life in ancient Mesoamerica into a dynamic interaction between the peoples who lived in these two very different environments.
Moving through the green, hilly land of the Totonacs, another great people of this ancient world, you pass around the modern port city of Veracruz where Cortes's motley band of adventurers first established a foothold during the time of the Conquest. There you enter the flat, swampy homeland of the primordial Olmec, whose dominions lined the southernmost arc of the Gulf of México. Here amid the twisted courses of sluggish, tide-driven rivers (while carefully dodging the speeding juggernauts of modern tanker trucks that frequent this stretch of road), you see where the first civilization in North America was built. The road rises out of the swamp into a small cluster of black and mottled green volcanic mountains, the Tuxtlas, the natural pyramidal heart of this land, and you can see the flat waterworld of levees and bayous stretching to the horizon in all directions. This was the land of the Olmec, who began building cities at places like San Lorenzo and La Venta by 1200 B.C. They were the people who forged the template of world view and governance that the Maya would inherit a thousand years later when they began to build their own cities.
Southern Veracruz and Tabasco finally give way to the land of the Maya as the coast bends eastward to swing north into the Yucatan Peninsula. The narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea, which had widened out briefly into the flat expanse of the ancient Olmec kingdoms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, narrows again as you approach the westernmost Maya city, Palenque. It has always seemed to us that this swampy place could not make up its mind whether it wanted to be land or sea. Patches of dry land peek forlornly up through the flowering hyacinths that have replaced waterlilies to form the floating surface of the dark still waters the Maya saw as the source of creation.A Forest of Kings
The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. Copyright © by David Freidel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya by Linda Schele, David Freidel
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