CITIES OF THE MAYA, 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1903, by Steve Glassman and Armando Anaya. McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson NC, 28640-0611.  For orders, 800-253-2187 or Email WWW.mcfarlandpub.com ISBN 978-0-7864-4848-7.   $38 soft cover. Review by Constance Johnson, www.scribed.com

July 17, 2011

I have been an avid reader of books about archaeology since the tender age of five when my father introduced me to Budge's books on Ancient Egypt. Later, as a college history major, I took a course on Aztec history as an elective, to add a little spice to the otherwise boring curriculum of European and American history. Currently at age 62, I contribute to history as a demonstrator and re-enacter of 19thCentury American History. So it was with anticipation that I received a copy of "Cities of the Maya" to review.

My first impression of the book was that it would be a good read. As it turns out, one of the authors is a professor of Humanities, and has written books of fiction as well as taught English and creative writing. The other is a real life archaeologist, a native of the country which is home to the Maya. This book was so engaging that I hated to put it down. In one chapter, Glassman has put flesh and blood to the stone carvings on a stela which was created to impress people with the power and glory of the current warrior king, Great Jaguar Paw. We get to know the thoughts in the mind of this great king as he faces the biggest challenge of his life, and the setting in which he places his trust -- the ceremony of the ball court. I will leave you to read the book to see what happens to him and his city.

For a more academic look at the book, it begins with a fine introduction outlining the lives of the many explorers and archaeologists who faced dangerous and harsh conditions to locate and uncover the past. Then the narrative continues through the many eras of Mayan history, starting with the preceeding civilization of the Olmecs which gave rise to the cultural milieu for the Maya to create their long lasting empire which still exists in the present as a background for the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

The text is accompanied by maps, illustrating the interrelationship between Mayan city-states, and by some black and white photos of significant buildings, stelae, and carvings which are examples of history and culture. These exhibits enhance the narrative by showing the faces of some of the rulersand the very imposing structures which were built to support the system of the divine king who ruled with the permission of the Mayan gods and acted as an intermediary between the people and the cosmos.

Mayan religion, which has been shown to be particulary blood-thirsty, worked for over two thousand years. Unlike the Aztecs who were late comers to the neighborhood, the Mayan ruling class made the personal sacrifice of their own blood in a ritual that was part of other ceremonies, such as the sacred ball game. These practices, and why they were so important, are discussed in the text.

Once a great mystery, the downfall of this elaborate religious state, has now been explained. Many different factors combined to cause the Mayan state to collapse in on itself. They include climate change, the failure of the divine king centered political system, and the conquest by the Spanish conquistadores. Two of the great gifts given to the world by this culture are it's elaborate art andarchitecture, and the most detailed and accurate calendar system that continue to fascinate us all today.

I hated for this book to come to a close, but like all epic novels, the story does come to an end. Unlike a novel, this book would make an excellent text book for a Mesoamerican History class. The annotated bibliography at the back of the book gives the reader a chance to continue his reading about the Maya and further immerse himself in the many gifts this civilization has brought to the world.

Reviewed by Helen Parramore, Ed. D. for Midwest Book Review

We read the histories of ancient civilizations in the ruins they left behind. Their crumbling cities and fragments of statuary tell us where the ancients lived, who they were, how they lived, what they looked like, who their gods were and how they were worshipped. In arid places, deserts and rocky or mountainous terrain, the ruins of ancient cities often remain visible for centuries, but in the lush tropical lands of Central America, the forest, like a great serpent, swallows them whole. These civilizations, such as the Olmec, Maya and Aztec stretch back 3000 years or more, and left behind many great cities abandoned because of war, disease, or other disasters. The forest, like a greedy landlord, reclaimed its loans quickly.

 These hidden cities from early western civilizations have given modern explorers—archeologists, anthropologists, scholars and adventurers—a rich and wonderful playground for research. Instead of the primitive cultures the early European explorers claimed them to be, modern research, beginning around 1850 and continuing to the present, has proven they were highly developed civilizations with extensive knowledge of astronomy, agriculture, mathematics, written language, and arts. The story of this discovery and the people who have been deeply involved in the process, is the focus of this extraordinary book, which is generously illustrated with many maps and photos by Mr. Glassman.  One striking photo shows an ancient Olmec sculpture of a head posed with a contemporary resident who could easily have been the model for the original. Although the authors take on a huge panoramic view of these cultures and their history, such close-ups manage to convey a surprising intimacy. However, the authors’ interests are not only on the civilizations uncovered, but on the people who did the uncovering as well. Their energy, interests, ambition, imagination, determination; their successes, failures, losses and wins; and their highly competitive spirits, are every bit as interesting to read about as the peoples from the past whom they sought to discover. It’s an interesting and informative account of Who’s Who in Central American VIP’s from the distant past to the 20th Century.