American Egyptomania Search


Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan

New York: Harper and Brothers, 1848

John Lloyd Stephens was the most famous and popular American travel writer of the nineteenth century. Born in 1805, wealthy son of a Manhattan businessman, highly educated and well-connected, Stephens was the model of the nineteenth-century white American gentleman adventurer: he traveled extensively in Europe, north Africa, and the Arab world, as well as Central America, and was author of numerous best-selling volumes describing his discoveries. And discoveries there were: together with British illustrator Frederick Catherwood, Stephens was one of the first white men to visit the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, and if for nothing else would still be remembered today for his initial excavations of that and similar sites on the Yucatan peninsula in the 1830s and 1840s.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan is especially important for the study of American Egyptomania in ways illustrated by the excerpts provided here: the discovery of the remains of ancient civilizations in Egypt in the 1800s sparked enormous interest in similar remains all over the world, and this was especially true in the case of ruins, those most visible reminders of past cultures lost to the sands of time. America was frequently thought of by Europeans as being “the new world,” and historically populated only by “savages,” native tribes with no visible evidence of “higher” civilization such as large-scale architecture. With the discovery of the ruins of the Inca, Aztec, and Mayan empires in the early 1800s, much of this changed: historians and early archaeologists suddenly had to explain how such a situation could have existed. This was especially pressing since one of the dominant architectural forms focused on by archaeologists of early America was the pyramid; to interested observers currently fascinated by Egyptian pyramids, such a connection between Egypt and America seemed hardly coincidence. Pyramids, then, became objects of study across continents, cultures, and time itself: to study one in one location was to study others in others. Egyptian archaeology thus often overlapped with American archaeology, and more than a few rather remarkable claims were made. Stephens is no exception; his investigations of the pyramids of the ancient Yucatan inevitably invites comparisons with those of ancient Egypt, and from his archaeological adventures he speculates on the nature of different races and the whole history of the world.

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Rancho of Jalal.—Picturesque Aguada.—Excavations made in it by the Indians. — System of Aguadas. — Journey resumed, Lose the Road.—An Effort in the Maya Language.—Grove of Orange Trees.—Ruins of Yakatzib.—Dilapidated Edifice.—Stony Sierra. —Village of Becanchen.— Hospitality.—Sculptured Stones. — Wells. — Running Stream of Water.—Derivation of the Word Becanchen.—Rapid Growth of the Village.—Source of the Water of the Wells.—Accident to an Indian.—The Party separate.—Aguadas.—A Trogan.—Hacienda of Zaccacal.--Visit to the Ruins. — Stone Terrace. — Circular Hole. — Two Buildings.—Garrapatas.—Black Ants.—Return.

AT seven o'clock the next morning we started, and at the distance of a league reached the rancho of Jalal, from which we turned off to the aguada to water our horses. The plate opposite represents this aguada. When we first came down upon its banks it presented one of the most beautifully picturesque scenes we met with in the country. It was completely enclosed by a forest, and had large trees growing around the banks and overhanging the water. The surface was covered with water weeds like a carpet of vivid green, and the aguada had a much higher interest than any derived from mere beauty. According to the accounts we had received at the rancho, ten years before it was dry, and the

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