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A Suspension in Belief
It has long been believed that Europe had the most advanced and longest suspension bridges in the ancient world, completely overlooking any of the Western hemisphere's early achievements. But it appears that one very important piece of Maya history appears to be simply omitted from many tour books and written overviews of an ancient site in the Lacandon Rainforest between Mexico and Guatemala.
This is the 'Bridge of Yaxchilan' ~ now, 13 hundred years later, little more than a few large piles of stones left in the river itself. Most people just don’t know that the longest suspension span on a bridge in the world, until 1377, was not in Rome, China or the Middle East. It was in what is now the southern Mexico Mayan city of Yaxchilan.
The ancient name for the city of Yaxchilan (pronounced YahSHE- Ian).was 'Pa’ Chan', meaning “cleft (or broken) sky” but the Mayan name, Yaxchilán, means “green stones.” It's location is unique, built within the Omega, or oxbow shaped loop of the Usumacinta River. which was, for all intents and purposes, a natural 'moat' for protection. Only a small area on the south side of the site is exposed to land and is steeply mountainous.
Although settled in the early 300's, during the height of its power in the 700's the Maya built gleaming white temples, pyramids, and luxurious palaces clustered along the Grand Plaza that extended along the shores of the wild Usumacinta River. But the drastically changing water levels paralyzed the city throughout part of the year as the tropical river seasonally varies in height by as much as 40 feet from January until June, which left Yaxchilan totally isolated on an island for those six months every year. In order to survive and operate efficiently as the seat of power, the city required an all weather passageway to provide an uninterrupted flow of traffic across the treacherous river on a year-round basis in order to gain access to their vast farmlands and smaller settlements to the north of the river.
The only solution to this problem was a bridge. But what a bridge it turned out to be!
It had a fairly level deck and extended from a platform (structure 5) on the grand plaza of Yaxchilan to cross the river to the northern shore, thereby connecting their ceremonial center with their agricultural domain in what is now Guatemala.
Built in the seventh century, and what our modern day suspension bridges are modeled after, this pre-Columbian bridge was a 535-foot, (535= 13) braided hemp-rope suspension structure with two piers, two pylons, and three 'spans'. The walkway was 72 feet above the river during it's 'quiet' time, and still about 32 feet above it when it turned into a raging river. The hemp rope had to be replaced every year because of the climate. It had two 164 foot spans, one on each end, (164 X 2= 328 = 13) but the 207 foot long center span remained the longest suspension span in the world for 700 years, until the construction of the Italian Trezzo sull’Adda Bridge in 1377
It all began in February 1989, with a pile of rocks in the middle of the Usumacinta River deep in the rain forest between Mexico and Guatemala- the site of the ancient Mayan kingdom of Yaxchilan.
Approaching these ruins by dugout canoe, a man immediately realized the significance of the rock formation. “That’s a bridge pier!” he declared. The rock pile was 13 feet high and 35 feet in diameter and was part of a masonry structure. Aerial photos taken three years later revealed the remains of the second support pier on the south side of the river, which was almost completely submerged.
The man was James O’Kon, (see *1 below) and he had made a startling discovery: The Mayans had built the longest bridge span in the ancient world! Both piers were constructed with an interior of cast~in-place concrete and an exterior of stone masonry, Forming a circle and filling the inside with cast-in-place concrete, they built the pillars the same way they built their pyramids and temples. Identification of the bridge abutment
that led to the city’s grand entrance was the final piece of the puzzle necessary to reconstruct the complete ceremonial function of the bridge. A platform situated in an ancient plaza area and located on the center line of the bridge appears to be a classic bridge-approach structure. This is Structure 5 on the map. A stairway leading to the top of the platform and covered in hieroglyphics was also discovered. These stairs were the ceremonial gateway to the city. Carved stone devices have been found which are believed to have been guide-ways for the rope-cable suspension bridge.
There are more than 120 structures in the central area of Yaxchilan that make up three complexes: the Great Plaza, located in the lower part parallel to the river; the Grand Acropolis; and the Small Acropolis.
All of these areas are skillfully adapted to the contours of the limestone hills and attach to each other with the use of terraces, stairways, and platforms. Highly decorated temples, pyramids, and luxurious palaces clustered along the grand plaza extend along the shores of the Usumacinta River.
The highlight of the buildings are the stelae, lintels, alters, stairs, bas-relief stucco carvings, and mural paintings. Almost every building has a doorway decorated with carved lintels that tell a story through some of the best preserved carvings in the Mayan world.
Many huge architectural structures, both temples and pyramids can be seen at Yaxchilan and it is famous for the sculptures that have been found there. Sadly most of them have been removed, but can be found and seen in museums around the world.
The Lacandon Maya are a group of indigenous people that call themselves the Hach Winik or “true people.” Their ancestors hid in the Usumacinta rain forests to escape the Spanish conquest and the near total ruination of the beautiful gleaming white city and bridge. From then it wasn’t until about 50 to 60 years ago that major contact with them was made. Now known as the 'guardians of the rainforest' they don’t allow anyone to enter or drive in the area without a Lacandon escort. Even today, some Lacandon Maya still make pilgrimages to Yaxchilan to carry out rituals to the Maya gods. The settlement existed since circa 350 A.D.. From 681 to 742, the city remained relatively small but grew to a regional capital that lasted into the early 9th Century. 740 AD was the building heyday when the famous lintels were carved and created. It is these architectural details that tell the story of Yaxchilan and enable archaeologists to unravel the Mayan history in the area.
*1. James O'Kon is a former chairman of the forensic council of the American Society of Civil Engineers that has turned to modern technology to help prove a bridge existed, a technique he has used before. He is president of O’Kon and Co., an Atlanta engineering firm that has conducted such forensic engineering investigations such as the deadly walkway collapse at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Mo., in the 1980s. Now he is using modern technology and forensic engineering techniques to uncover the mysteries of a vanished Mayan civilization. That was his first visit to the Mayan ceremonial center of Yaxchilan Archaeologists had been studying this site for more than 110 years, and the mound of rocks had been dismissed as a minor mystery and possibly explained as a once-dry part of the city engulfed by a shifting river. He compiled field information collected at the Mayan site and used computers to integrate archaeological studies, aerial photos and maps to develop a three-dimensional model of the site and determine the center line, discovered the location of the bridge abutment and then hypothetically constructed the bridge.
Researched and written by Joani Jiannine