The Plaza Grande is a really nice one block park with historical buildings on every side. As we learned on the tour, this is the center of the old town when it was established, which explains the central location and density of historical buildings. As I'll explain later this town and location wasn't chosen out of the blue or for civil engineering reasons, everything here has an historical context.
After we managed to figure out where (and when exactly) the tour started we had a few minutes to try to find a map for the inscrutable local bus system and check out the Plaza Grande on a normal weekday morning. Even though it's an historical district, it's still a major hub in the city and a lot of buses terminate here so we saw plenty of normal Meridians (?) going about there day and heading to work. Also it started to get hot.
The tour left from outside the Palacio Municipal and focused on the important buildings on each side of the square. Many of these buildings have substantial areas open to the public, which makes a huge difference when you're learning about the history of the center. The Palacio Municipal is a building for the city government of Merida, with long, open balconies looking onto the Plaza Grande through repeating arches.
|The front of the Palacio Municipal|
|The Catedral from the upper level of Palacio Municipal|
Fortunately for us, our guide was careful to do most of the stopping and talking in shaded areas. Even at 9:30 am in the shade of the balconies of the Palacio, we slowly started pouring sweat. The thing about Merida is that it is hot, and that there is very little breeze, especially when compared to the coastal Yucatan.
As we sweated on the limestone floored second level of the Palacio we learned about the history and "founding" of Merida. Limestone plays a major role. See, when the modern city of Merida was "founded," it was done so right on top of an existing Mayan city, sometimes called "the city of the five hills" because of the five pyramids the Mayans built there from local limestone. What the Spanish did when they decided to found Merida is to tear down these pyramids and use that limestone to build the historic streets and buildings we walked through on this tour.
Wikipedia says that when considering the Mayan city and the new Spanish city of Merida forced onto the same site, this settlement may be considered the longest continuously occupied city in the Americas. That's an important point and a huge driver of the history in the region - this "city" was occupied by the Mayans when the conquistadors of the Montejo family simply conquered it and started building a Spanish town.
The source of this limestone is tainted; it took the destruction of priceless Mayan buildings as its supplies, and undoubtedly Mayan slave labor was used to build these roads and buildings. It also left this beautiful town square. I'm starting to think that the reason we don't see urban areas built like this anymore is that the financial equation is quite different when you have to buy your supplies and pay your workers. Plus limestone is a pain in the ass and gets really slippery when it's polished down by millions of footsteps.
That part of the history of Merida was the major takeaway from the Palacio Municipal. Other than that I gather that it is the town hall, the seat of the government of Merida. Working counter clockwise around the square we next went to the Casa de Montejo on the south side of the square, built in 1549.
The Montejo family looms large in Merida and has an interesting arrangement. There were three Montejo men who are responsible for all of the founding work in Merida, and they're all named Francisco de Montejo. There was the father, the conquistador who initially "discovered" the site of Merida and decided to found a new city there named after Merida, Spain. There was his son, Franciso, and his nephew, Franciso. When the father grew sick and had to return to Spain, the younger two in turn carried on his work of conquering the Yucatan and building cities. The nephew actually went on to found Valladolid, the city we stayed in to visit Chichen Itza before going to Merida.
|Casa de Montejo facade. The Montejo conquistador statues are visible on the front, along with the family crest.|
Casa de Montejo is another beautiful, limestone enhanced building on the square that used to house the Montejo family but now is a cultural and historical center, and also the home of a Citibank. We weren't able to see much in here because it was mostly closed the day that we did the tour.
Moving counter clockwise to the east side of the square is the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán, currently occupying the building next to the Catedral. I didn't pick up much about this building, although apparently its function has changed many times with new governors or political movements. Today it is a free museum, but we never made it in.
On the same block is the imposing fortress cathedral Catedral de San Ildefenso. "Fortress cathedral" because at the time it was built, the Mayan population was not fully subdued and the area was not politically stable in the least, so this was both a place of worship and a fortress to withstand attacks from the resistant Mayans.
|The cathedral, you can see the slit defensive windows|
|Also the cathedral|
Melissa and I agree that while old churches are often amazing and significant, they are not a source of endless fascination for us. If we spend a lot of time in Europe, I imagine we'll see Notre Dame and a few others but have absolutely no desire to see every cathedral that took hundreds of years to build and was very important to its city. They all blend together very quickly for us.
So the nice thing about this cathedral is that it was different from the ones we studied in high school and college. It still had the cross-shaped footprint, soaring ceilings and traditional Catholic look, but it was extremely stoic and bare compared to the other notable cathedrals you might think of. It didn't have the flying buttresses that we talked so much about in high school history class like Notre Dame, but the simpler architecture meant it had absolutely massive columns supporting the soaring roof instead. It's a nice change of pace and an interesting and different interpretation of the same ideas that were in force in Europe at the time. Simpler architecture but surprisingly interesting results because of that.
|Big columns, simple interior|
One thing I'm sad we didn't get to see up close is the slit windows higher up the cathedral walls. As in a castle, these windows are very tall and narrow on the outside, maybe a few inches wide and many feet tall. On the inside they open up to the interior to provide a wide angle of viable shots on approaching enemies without exposing the shooter to much in return.
Between the museum and the church is a covered walkway called Pasaje de La Revolucion, that is currently filled with large sculptures and open to the public. The name is suggestive, but I didn't catch the full meaning behind this walkway and what has happened here.
|Pasaje de La Revolucion|
The final stop is the north side of the square, the Palacio de Gobierno, or the state government building of the Yucatan. I couldn't figure out how it was the main building of the entire state government, because it didn't seem that big and we were able to visit a lot of it.
|Palacio de Gobierno|
The highlight of this building, other than the large, pretty courtyard just inside, is the art on the walls. We spent a lot of time listening to the backstory for this art and the artists who created it and I think this is where we learned the most about the history of Merida, the Yucatan and the Mayan people during the Spanish conquests.
First, we had two massive paintings on either side of the courtyard that told the story of the Mayan people through the Spanish conquest in broad strokes. I like this kind of art, it's fairly literal with what it's trying to say and I don't have to know a lot about the symbols of the time the artist lived in. It's rather clear what is happening to the Mayan people in these pictures, from their golden period of freedom, religion and expansion, to their slavery, resistance and finally Mexico's independence.
Another giant mural surrounding the staircase to the second level depicted the Mayan world from their point of view, within the limits of the space available. Mayans considered the entire world to be divided into five parts: north, south, east, west and central, with themselves at the center. Each part has different symbols and gods associated with it, and the artist nearly gets a wall for each direction and ceiling for the center but had to condense it to just three walls.
I liked this small series the best because of the simple color scheme and subject matter. I'm sure Melissa is rolling her eyes at that. With the West the Mayans associated death, and bad winds (this is probably quite practical if your entire world is in the Yucatan). The jaguar is a consistent symbol of both power and death in the Mayan world that we've seen an makes an appearance on this wall.
The middle wall I didn't understand as much, but the internet tells me that it covers the North, Center and South and tells the creation of man story, emerging from a bright yellow ear of corn, clearly a source of life for the Mayan.
|The North, Center and South|
Finally the East represented rebirth, as the day being reborn when the sun rises. I get a strong sense from all that we've learned about Mayan mythology that the nighttime was freaking terrifying for them, as were the dark cenotes that led to mysterious underground rivers but also were a major source of fresh water. I can't blame them, nights in the jungle would be really hard for us as well, and we haven't even seen a jaguar yet.
All 31 of the public paintings in this building are the work of Fernando Castro Pacheco, a local Meridian, done in the 1970's. The last stop on our tour was a giant gallery room containing 26 of these, called the History Room of the Governor's Palace. It was basically a giant room with paintings on the wall, not unlike something I'd expect to see at Versailles, although probably much less fancy.
I really liked this last room, and it told the most uncomfortable stories of the Mayan history in the Yucatan. Many giant scenes of literal struggle: a man being tortured for being part of the resistance, slaves being crushed by conquistadors, starving Mayans from other periods of time. One picture in particular made an impression, a portrait of Fray Diego de Landa.
|This guy looks nasty - Fray Diego de Landa|
The last major thing that the tour touched on was sisal. Sisal is the fibrous material produced from henequen, a type of agave. It seems like a rather boring agricultural product, but it had an enormous impact on the Yucatan's history. The Mayans knew the value of sisal and used it accordingly in ropes, clothing, housing and more. The Spanish really didn't get it for a long time though and ignored henequen and sisal production for centuries. However, when the ruling class in the Yucatan did figure out how valuable it could be, it transformed the economy here, to the point that Merida briefly had the concentration of millionaires in the world (per capita). I wasn't able to find much else about this, but it seems safe to say that sisal production brought a lot of money to the area.
|Henequen, without permission|
We actually met an expat couple living in Merida during our stay here, who very strongly recommended that we visit a Sisal Hacienda "nearby." This is the last working hacienda that is able to process sisal, and the tour provides a ton of knowledge about sisal production and its impact on the economy and history of the Yucatan. Sadly we couldn't make it there in our one day with a car here, and probably would have gone to the chocolate hacienda instead if we had the time. I don't know how good of a blog post a day trip to a fiber processing farm would make, but if I'm ever back in Merida I think this will be on my list.