The Mayan Apocalypse: July 1562

“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.” 

The Madrid Codex

The Madrid Codex

These were the words of Bishop Diego de Landa who ordered the burning of thousands of Mayan codices in July 1562. The codices were the primary written sources of Maya civilisation, along with the inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae that survived. The range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called ‘ceramic codex’).

Every claim of Maya civilisation, the meticulous recording of past and present by generations of Mayan scribes over hundreds of years, religious and cosmographical texts, in short everything one could possibly know turned to ashes. Imagining the sense of loss this giant void caused is painful. A sense of doom and surrender must have overcome the Mayas who saw the destruction of their books. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán was the Mayan Apocalypse.


Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands that “...recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and that were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians.” (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: “These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those that were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion.” The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America.[4] With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished. (From Wikipedia, Maya codices).

The extent of destruction was such that, of the thousands that existed in the sixteenth century, only three Mayan codices remain today: the Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex (112 pages, 6.82 metres (22.4 feet)); the Dresden Codex also known as the Codex Dresdensis (74 pages, 3.56 metres (11.7 feet)); and the Paris Codex, also known as the Peresianus Codex (22 pages, 1.45 metres (4.8 feet)).

You can read a short history of the Classical and Post-Classical Maya codices.


Could the Mayans Predict the Future?

How millennial thinking dissolves into the collective consciousness is truly fascinating. Everyone is talking about the end of the world or the beginning of a new age on 21.12.2012. Nothing is new under the sun, I remember the last apocalypse craze that coincided with the end of my teenage years.

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I saw in the 1999 Istanbul Film Festival Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life, on the day I was supposed to take the university entrance exam (the Turkish equivalent of the SAT), just one week before my eighteenth birthday. The exam was cancelled before I could take it because some idiot stole the exam questions, the second time this happened to many of us born in 1981. I remember not taking the anticipation seriously. To me, seeing PJ Harvey’s performance in a film was more exciting than the end of the world as we know it. Unfortunately, The Book of Life‘s lack of humour was as serious as the film and PJ Harvey was not as impressive as she sang.

It wasn’t this millennial film, but others that gave rise to debates of a philosophical nature among the masses, setting the tone of the decade to come as the 1990s draw to a close. The Thin Red Line (1998), The Truman Show (1998), Fight Club (1999), American Beauty (1999), and the Matrix (1999) made statements about the limitations of positivism and a readily accessible reality. Hollywood producers seemed to have made a pact to make popular representation, perception of reality, and false reality. These were the topics of everyday exchanges, which then led to popular discussions of quantum physics, often uninformed or misinformed, culminating in What the #$*! Do We Know? (2004). This film was problematical at every level but its viewers seemed to have taken it seriously and its arguments literally.

In the meantime, a lot has changed with the new millenium, especially in our everyday lives due to technological breakthroughs in communication and connectivity. Yet, these changes were not essentially different from the nineteenth- and the early twentieth- century changes in energy, communication and transportation, such as the steam boat, the electricity, the telegram, the telephone, and the aeroplane. The call of an impending future led to science fiction and the dooming millennial thinking of the nineteenth century. Remember the Great Disappointment of Oct 22, 1844?

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The Cover of Resimli Perşembe, Sept 30, 1926: ‘How the photos are being transmitted to distances of many miles through the air?/Havadan gönderilen fotografiler millerce uzakda bir mesafeye nasıl nakl olunuyor?’

I remember another period in which millennial fears gripped Istanbul,  I once wrote about it:

If one was able to quickly walk through the gates of Topkapı Palace, around the year 1590 (AH 999), would one find a gloomy spell cast over the second courtyard, see the fear of the approaching apocalypse on the faces of Imperial Council members? I do not think so. But when we read late sixteenth century historiography and advice literature, a general state of depression and decay seems to have ruled the day. There was a popular expectation that the world was going to come to an end in the year AH 1000 (CE 1591) among Ottomans.

03319The millennial perception aggravated their perception of economic, military and social problems. Historians Selaniki Mustafa Efendi and Mustafa Âli were among the most acute observers of decline before the imminent doomsday. The long lists of problems included: slander and libel; unsuccessful and protracted warfare; conscription of the riffraff into the army; budget deficit; debasement, clipping and counterfeiting of the coinage; nepotism and sale of offices; military uprisings; the oppression of the peasants (reaya) by tax-farmers and tax collectors; ad hoc changes in appointment procedures; the increase of the power of those who were close to the sultan; and the disregard for sultanic law (kanun).

There’s a long but incomplete list of all those who engaged with apocalypse tomfoolery throughout history. For various social, political and economic reasons people like to indulge with this way of thinking. I think the inherent hope in an apocalypse motivates them, too. Those who anticipate it consider themselves lucky, not just because they won’t be caught off guard on doomsday, but also because they expect a Saviour in the end. Anticipation is a form of empowerment, but since the awaited doomsday or saviour doesn’t arrive on the appointed hour, they end up feeling enfeebled.

Others like Graham Hancock argue that instead of an apocalypse, a new age is dawning on 21.12.2012 :

This New Age approach is even more naive in its hope of positive change happening like a miracle.

The right way to approach an impending apocalypse is to do something to forestall the doomsday, or show that like Ridley Scott and Steve Jobs did back in 1984:

This is very different from the Hancock-like expectation of a New Age, as the girl in the ad threw a gigantic hammer! One should always do something rather than nothing… For instance, on 21.12.2012 I’m getting a manicure, so that stockings I wear to work do not run. Later I will avoid all apocalypse-themed parties that are going to be filled with desperate people who will seek their saviours in one-nighters.

I know it’s just a statement of the obvious, but I go with the suggestion of the grocer who watches his TV religiously in the small Bosphorus village I live in: if the Mayans were so good at predicting the future, how could not they foresee their own demise?

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Francis Ford Coppola knew it. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century futurism turned dark the moment the preparations for the Great War began. An apocalypse that can be predicted on the basis of some human writing, carving, calendar, prophesy or dream is going to be the one we bring onto ourselves. The Mayans got to know it, too.