San Gervacio Cozumel
Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
The pilgrimage cult.
Cozumel was to the Maya what Mecca is to the Muslims or Rome to the Catholics. Pre-Columbian Maya pilgrims crossed the sea to San Gervasio in search of fertility, to make offerings to Ix Chel, the Moon goddess and deity of childbirth, fertility, medicine, and weaving.
There were 32 sites with ancient Maya constructions here. Some of them are marked on the map below (from pinterest.com.mx).
While I concentrate here on San Gervasio, it is necessary to see briefly the whole context. In four sites, buildings were grouped in urban units. The rest had isolated structures, mainly on the eastern coast, serving probably as lookout posts and navigation marks. They were connected through a system of elevated roads called sacbé. In Mayan it means 'white road', as it was made of white limestone.
The history of San Gervasio goes back to 300-400 AD, when the El Ramonal Acropolis was built, as the commercial seat. Salt and honey were produced here. It was a ruling centre, which controlled all the small island villages around. From 600 AD Los Murciélagos (the Bats) and El Cedral (originally called Oy Ib) became the administrative centres in their respective communities. El Cedral was the centre of salt, wax and honey production, fishing and shell collecting. Today it is the town centre with shops and the ferry pier. El Caracol in the south near the Columbia lagoon, was also a centre with salt ponds. It is known as El Caracol because seashells were found encrusted in the vault's pinnacle. 'Caracol' is often translated into English as 'snail', but it also means 'conch' or seashells in general. It is possible that the structure functioned as a lighthouse, for protection and the control of merchant traffic. Buena Vista was the port where traders arrived from the south. All other sites were given Spanish names and you can see some of them on the map below. An important share of fishing and port activities took place in San Miguel (originally called Xamancab, meaning Northland)). This was also the centre for a farming area. The cult of Ix Chel and the cult of the Oracle were later transferred here from San Gervasio.
To give some idea of the distances between the island villages, San Gervasio is 14km from San Miguel, 33km from El Cedral and 35km from El Caracol.
I visited the ruins of San Gervasio in 2018, on one of my many visits to the island from my home town of Playa del Carmen, just opposite on the mainland. I was accompanied by Ah Men (shaman) Eduardo, who lives on Cozumel.
The site takes its name from the agricultural and cattle ranch 'San Gervasio' which was founded by Mr Gervasio Novelo in 1858.
San Gervasio's pre-Hispanic name was Tantun Cuzamil, Maya for 'Flat Rock in the land of the Swallows'. Cuzam means 'Swallow' and Lumil 'Land of'. In short, the name means the Place of Swallows. In this post I refer to the island as Cuzamil when referring to ancient times, and Cozumel when referring to it as we know it today.
The Maya settled on the island by the early part of the 1st millennium AD, and older Preclassic Olmec artefacts (100 BC to 250 AD) have been found on the island as well. The predominant settlements were located around the religious centres of San Gervasio and El Cedral but no buildings have survived as they were made of wood and other perishable materials. During the Classic Period (300-900 AD) the priests held all political and economic power. Art, science and architecture were flourishing by then.
Around the year 900 AD the Putún Maya coasted the peninsula of Yucatán. They are essentially the Itzá people, as around 918 AD they had taken over Chichén Itzá, the ancient city that gained a new life under their rule. Their influence spread over the northern area of the peninsula and with it the cult of Kukulkán (Feathered Serpent). Chichén Itzá became the seat from where they ruled over the entire region for some 200 years. Some sources claim that the Putún Maya came to Cuzamil before they took over Chichén Itzá and it is possible that another Itzá clan came from Cuzamil to set up the new kingdom of Mayapán (which eventually took over Chichén Itzá's dominance).
Next came the Spaniards who had been settled in nearby Cuba since 1492. In 1518 Juan de Grijalva landed here on 3 May, the day of the Holy Cross for the Spaniards, so he named the island Santa Cruz. The second group of European visitors came with the Hernán Cortés expedition, which stopped by the island on the way to Veracruz in 1519. At that time, Cuzamil was in Ekab province. In the fifteenth century most of Yucatán was controlled by the League of Mayapán. By 1441 there was civil unrest and the provinces rebelled and formed sixteen smaller states called kuchkabals. Most kuchkabals were ruled by a Halach Uinic, but Ekab wasn't. It was divided up into several Batabil and each was ruled by a leader called a batab. The Batabs on Cozumel had much more power than the others in Yucatán.
The conquerors brought smallpox with them and sickness ran rampant across the island, killing a lot of indigenous people.
Francisco Montejo 'Adelantado' (crown representative) took possession of Cozumel in 1527. A Catholic church was built here but at that time there was no resident priest on the island; they would have visiting padres (who feared crossing the sea; the rumour has it that the Maya drowned the priests on their way in).
By the 17th century Cozumel was completely abandoned. Pirates took advantage of Cozumel's isolation and used it as a base for operations. In 1713 four ships of English buccaneers burned to the ground most of the buildings on the island. Belizeans occupied the woodcutters' camps where they cut logwood for shipment to England and America.
The island was not re-inhabited until 1848, when refugees from the mainland (from Valladolid, Chemax and Tizimín) sought refuge here from the Caste War of Yucatán. Cozumel remained a quiet little fishing community until 1961, when French explorer Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the area's waters one of the most spectacular scuba diving sites in the world. Today the island lives from tourism.
The People: the priests
The traders, the pilgrims and the priests were the three main categories of ancient people who lived here, until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Of course, farmers, salt workers, artisans etc. were an essential part of the social hierarchy as well.
The pilgrims were women, whether nobles or commoners, from all over Yucatán but also from Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Puerto Rico. They came here to worship and pay homage to Ix Chel. To be born on Cuzamil was considered a great blessing, the child receiving special protection from the goddess. Women with illnesses received healing here. The aim was to come here twice in a lifetime, at the onset and the cessation of the moon flows.
As Cuzamil was the ceremonial place of fertility worship, I will focus on those who administered these ceremonies: the priests (I deal with the pilgrims and the rituals in detail in my post Xaman Há.
The priests on the island had a hierarchy as many rituals and healing processes were required. According to Eduardo, 'my' Ah Men (shaman) from Cozumel, they used the concept of four cardinal directions as the basis for their cosmology; the south representing fire and knowledge, the north wind and courage, the east earth and silence, the west water and love. This means that temples were built on the island in the east, west, north, south and north. They prayed (and still do) to all cardinal directions. Not to forget the centre (their own world), the upper layer (sky, heaven) and the underworld. All together, seven points to pray to.
Offerings were also dealt with according to the cosmology: some were buried, some were burnt (fire, earth and wind), some were put in water (flowers in cenotes).
So what was the Maya priesthood like? People have a tendency to call the Maya priests 'shaman'. This word originates from Siberia and the Maya priests never called themselves shamans, rather Ah Men. Today the main priests are Ah Men (priest), the Dza-Dzac (herbalist), and the Pulyah (witch doctor). I will describe Ah Men in more detail, based on my personal experience.
In the past, the priests, alongside the nobles, made up the upper class. The merchants and traders were the middle class. The farmers and slaves were at the bottom. The nobles ran the government. The priests ran everything else. Some priests also held government jobs.
The ancient Maya had several degrees of priesthood, starting with the Halach Uinic (the True Man) who held the position of a ruler and high priest. He ruled on behalf of one of the gods of their pantheon, constituting a theocracy. These titles were used mainly during the Late Classic period. The halach uinic concentrated all religious, military and civil power in one person. No man could speak face to face to him (his face was covered in public). He was chosen from among the members of the theocracy who helped in the administration of the kuchkabal (regions of Yucatán). His main symbol of power was the manikin sceptre, a ceremonial baton that featured a figurine of K'awiil, the god connected to royalty, lightning, serpents, fertility and maize. They abstained from intercourse, they fasted, prayed, and burnt offerings, pleading for the light and the life of their vassals and servants. At the next level in the hierarchy was a batab. Apparently, the batabs here were very powerful. There are a few ancient sculptures of Cuzamil personalities exhibited in Cozumel Museum but it is difficult to say if one of them is a batab. However, one name has been deciphered: Ah Huineb. He lived in the residential palace called today Las Manitas (the house has hand-prints preserved till today). So he would have been either the halach uinic or a batab.
The priesthood hierarchy was complex. Cities such as Chichén Itzá or Mayapán had 12 head priests and the 13th was the high priest. The high priest Ah Kin Mai (the Highest one of the Sun) taught hieroglyphic writing, calendrical computations, and divination. Sometimes the high priest was the ruler, in one person. The prophet was known as Chilan. Prophecy was aided by readings from hieroglyphic books and, possibly, by drug-induced visions. The equivalent to the current parish priests were the Ah Kin (He of the Sun/Day), in charge of temples and receiving pilgrims with daily prayers. Couples contemplating marriage consulted the Ah Kin on the prospects of their undertakings. The office of Ah Kin was hereditary, passing from priests to their sons, but training was also extended to sons of the nobility who showed an inclination toward the priesthood. There were also priestesses and Cozumel had more of them than most of the ancient cities because of its specific focus on the goddess of fertility.
Each pilgrim to the island would have consulted the priests who practised medicine and divination: Ah Men, the performer (or 'the one who does it', the 'maker'). They took care of all the rites of the community, including those related to the field and the jungle. The Ah Men survived thanks to their humble status, while the supreme priests became obsolete during the process of conquest.
Other minor priests were Ah Pul (dealing with diseases and death), the Ahmac-Ik, the one who conjured the winds (the Maya attributed many illnesses to bad winds), Ahau Xibalbá (in charge of evoking the dead and demons), Ah Naat, the fortune teller. They call them now Guardians of Maya culture.
I visit Ah Men Eduardo on the island of Cozumel from time to time (it is an hour trip by ferry from Playa del Carmen). A few years ago he conducted a ceremony on Cozumel beach for us, for renewing our vows with my husband (after 30 years of marriage), which included a cleansing process with holy plant leaves and burning copal. Our bodies were 'tuned up' - rid of bad energies and replaced with good ones, by Ah Men passing plant branches along our bodies. We had to take an active part in this process, calling on Mother Nature, the Land, the Sea, Our Grandfather, Grandmother, all four cardinal points of the world. We blew the conch shell (with difficulty), we gave each other chili and chocolate (as a symbol of continuing to look after each other). We received a gift: a small ceiba tree. We planted it afterwards in the jungle here. It grows beautifully and we will always have a place to get back to. I find that rather emotional, a very nice way that the Ah Men connected us forever with this land.
I have received other cleansing rituals from the Ah Men (see the details in my post Xaman Há), such as cleansing by flowers, cleansing by eggs and the temazcal ritual (steam bath).
Currently Ah Men in Yucatán are in charge of the main rites such as the Chá Chaac ('asking for rain'), the Hetz Luum ceremony (to give thanks and ask the gods to bless people's land and families, with a traditional cornmeal pib offering), the Loh-Lu'um, a ceremony that takes place every two years and has the purpose of protecting the inhabitants of the community from bad winds and bad spirits. The Loh Corral ceremonies are performed for animals when they fall ill, the Hoch Che or yuklilol is a ceremony of fruit offerings in the milpa fields, at the end of the harvest, the Loh Hits'a'an is a ceremony that aims to thank the deities that care for the animals. The Sac Há ceremony (White Water) is performed by farmers during key stages in the growth cycle of corn. Ya Há is a private journey of giving and receiving when the healer teaches how to breathe, listen, touch, and feel and uses reflexology.
Today healers are used a lot by the Maya community, such as X-Ilahkohan (a midwife) and X-Hiikab (she who does massage), Ix’ Men (female healer connected to the goddess Ix Chel, in charge of blessing of the water as a purifying process).
If you decide to have a session with an Ah Men, you will experience the syncretism of Catholicism and Maya religion. The Maya gods merged with the Christian divinities, the moon goddess with the Virgin Mary, the sun god with Jesus and the chacs with the archangels and saints of the Catholic faith. It is not an equal mixture, rather Maya religion with a Catholic veneer. On the altar you will see a Christian cross, a portrait of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary and the Ah Men can call on Catholic saints. But he will also call to the ancestral Maya spirits in four cardinal directions, he will cleanse your body with holy leaves (saiipilche and also ruda), he may use zastun (a piece of glass or crystal), corn kernels and numerology for divination, the cocan (a kind of acupuncture, which could include snake teeth or any strong spine of vegetable origin), he can perfume idols with a special mix of herbs and copal resin. His offerings can include flowers, food and drinks. No human sacrifice these days but killing a chicken can be involved in the k’eex ceremony, a complex healing ritual in which the underworld and evil winds are transferred from a person to the earth and the jungle. The best example of that you can observe in the Chamulá village church in Chiapas (blog link). It is probably worth mentioning that the ancient Maya prayed in a squatting position, sitting cross-legged or standing. The custom of kneeling was brought by Christianity.
The Focus: The Central Plaza and around
The ruins cover several square kilometres, but only certain parts are open to the public. Each of the ruins is clearly identified with plaques written in English, Spanish and Maya. The park is a wildlife refuge, with local iguana all over the place. You may also spot peccaries and coatis. They are not pets; do not feed them. You may also spot egrets, seagulls, pelicans and swallows.
The first building you will see after the entrance is Las Manitas. Then the path gives you two choices. I suggest that you go left; this is the way of 'giving', according to the Maya (while going right is the way of cleansing). This path will take you to the Central Plaza.
Las Manitas (Little Hands) was the residence of the ruler Ah Hulneb during the Terminal Classic Period (1000-1200 AD). It has an outer room that was his residence and an inner sanctum that was his personal shrine. The name of the building comes from red-coloured hand imprints on the interior walls. Red hand imprints represented life (while the black ones were connected to death) but it is not clear who left them here.
The Central Plaza, north-west of the entrance to the ruins, consists of six buildings arranged in a square around a central altar platform. They are all relatively young, built between 1200-1650 AD. Some buildings once had roofs made of timber and thatch, which have since rotted away. Others had roofs of wooden beams and poured mortar, and a few had rooms constructed of corbelled arches. All were public buildings and included temples, oratories, altars, and a building used to house visitors who came to participate in religious events taking place in the plaza. The Palace with colonnaded walls evokes images of a ruler sitting there and presiding over a meeting of the council or the community. The Columns building has a throne (or an altar?) in the middle and on its side two small rooms remains, where six burials were found. The Niches got its name from miniature shrines built into the sides of the stairway.
The Alamo, now under a palapa roof, has an altar for offerings inside. In the past, the building was covered with stucco and murals with bands, spirals and handprints. The Ossuary had numerous human remains during the initial explorations of the site. Its temple no longer exists but note sacbé road 4, which connects the Central Plaza to a dwelling Group. The Murals got its name from the fragments of murals found here and it is believed that it served for ceremonies. The Altar in the middle of the square is a little bit older than the rest of the buildings, built between 1000-1200 AD. I could easily imagine a ruler or a priest addressing people who congregated here. Above all, try to imagine this complex as very colourful, with stucco walls and painted with natural red pigments outside.
The nearby El Arco (The Arch) served as the main entrance from the north to the Central Plaza. The traders and pilgrims had to walk 18km from the sea to the arch, following the north star, Xaman Ek. They carried their products or offerings on their backs as the Maya did not have horses. There is a stone in the middle of the arch where the offerings were placed. Access was via an elevated sacbé, which is still clearly visible, although the smooth plaster that covered it in the past is long gone. The arch is about 2m tall and it is a simple corbelled arch, used by the Maya at all their sites. The symbolism of the stones is worth our consideration. It has 6 stones going up to the arch on each side and the stones create four corners (4x6 = 24). In addition, there is one flat stone on top of each corner, which all together equals 28, the full moon or gestation period. I bet we would find this number inside some temples, maybe around altars, but it is not possible to enter any of San Gervasio's buildings now.
On the western edge of the sacred road of the Central Plaza lies a small hole in the bedrock. In the past it would have been a cenote, a natural limestone formation filled with water (from the Mayan word d'zonot, a hole in the ground) and served as the water source for the inhabitants of San Gervasio. It was the entrance to a cave. The cave collapsed during Hurricane Gilbert (1988). Cozumel has 150 cenotes. We stopped here with Eduardo for a small meditation, to connect with the earth. As he pointed out, a cenote is an opening to the earth, and an exit from it, so it was important for us to connect with Mother Earth here.
Ka'na Nah (Tall House) is the largest single structure in San Gervasio. All of the upper temple was painted in red, ochre, blue, green and black. It may have been the temple of Ix Chel described in 1552 by Francisco Lopez de Gomara, where they kept a very strange idol, very distinct from the others. The body of this great idol was hollow, made of baked clay and fastened to the wall with mortar. It had a small secret door cut into the side of the idol, for the Chilob, the priestess who was in charge of the Oracle, to go in and answer those who came to worship and beg favours. With this trickery, folks were made to believe whatever the god told them. As a matter of fact, Cozumel was actually run by a lot of priestesses. They observed the rituals, healed infertility and taught sexual techniques if all else failed. It was an island of true female power.
Small faces were carved into the base and the staircase but they are not visible any more. At least, I could not detect them. Another interesting phenomenon that Eduardo pointed out to me is that the structure has an unusual layout. Instead of the usual flat platforms leading to the temple on top, there is a ramp, going up at an angle.
Ramps were apparently used in Egypt, when building the large pyramids. But this one is not that large. The ramp was not removed so it seems it was built deliberately to remain there. It reminds me of a snake, coiling up. A place of worship of Kukulkán? It was prevalent all over the northern Maya lowlands. In any case, Eduardo considered this structure as the most sacred one and we walked around it, leaving at each corner and the stairway entrance ashes from his copal burnings at previous rituals. You can leave anything you want to, to connect spiritually with the site. We not only received positive energy from it, but we also gave some back to this sacred place. It fits the Maya belief in duality: day and night, a woman and a man, we give and we take.
The Mystery: ancient sea voyagers
Cuzamil's rise to power was the result of a shift during the Post-Classic times (from 90 AD) away from land trade towards canoe-based sea commerce by the Putún Maya.
So who were the Putún Maya? They are also referred to as Chontal Maya (from the Nahuatl word chontalli, meaning ‘foreigner’) or the Itzá (who migrated originally to Yucatán from Lake Petén in Guatemala but settled in the Putún area). The Putún called themselves the Yokot’an, which means 'the speakers of Yoko Ochoko' and considered themselves descendants of the Olmec people. They were a hybrid ethnic group that originated in the coastal marshes of Tabasco and they navigated their cargos across the ocean. Today it is believed that the crescent-shaped temple mounds in the Florida Peninsula are evidence of cultural contact with Maya ethnic groups. They also traded with Cuzamil and brought their worship of the goddess Ix Chel to this island. Cuzamil became the major port in the coastal trading system that included Tulum, Tankah and Isla Mujeres, all the way to Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
The Putún Maya had seaworthy ships, transporting cotton, honey, cacao beans, salt, obsidian, jade, jaguar skins and quetzal feathers (see the photo below: ancient-origins.net). Their boats were usually hollowed out from trees in one piece. Two such canoes are on display today at Cozumel Museum. They further learned how to build boats from wooden planks, which were much more efficient freight haulers than dugout canoes. Eventually, they developed boats about 18m long, used rudders for steering, with a cabin for ship’s officers and were propelled both by oarsmen and one or more sails. A pole was inserted through an opening in the central bench to hold cloth square-rigged sails secured with ropes. They would have had no trouble navigating the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. Going south they kept to the coast, to use the current's flow, and when going back north, they kept a distance from the coast to use the strong currents of the Caribbean Sea.
In Cozumel Museum you can see today some of their trade objects, such as jade stones and even a jade mask. They were found in shipwrecked canoes. Two ancient shipwrecks were found here. One of them was discovered by Ismay Mykolyk (nicknamed Maria La Bandita) at Chen Rio, on the eastern side of the island. Jadeite celts and beads were found on the sea floor near the shipwrecked canoe. The other shipwreck was excavated by a team from Harvard University in the 1970s, with two Olmec objects: a carved jadeite pectoral and a carved stone pendant.
Don't Miss: Nohoch Nah
There are a few structures away from the Central Plaza, all worth the walk.
After the tall house you will arrive to Los Murciélagos (The Bats) group. It is an older compound than the rest of the structures (from 600-1000 AD). It is made up of several rooms and outbuildings situated on a platform and it possibly served as the residence of the halach uinik during the Classic Period. It is still elegant. Later on, the ruling centre moved to the Central Plaza.
Next to the Bats Palace is Pet Nah (Round House), with rounded platforms and the top building is also round. In Eduardo's view, it served as a temazcal, a sweat bath, used by the local priests for pilgrim cleansing rituals.
Nohoch Nah (Big House) is one of the best preserved buildings in San Gervasio. It sits on sacbé 1, so you can't miss it. It sits nearly at the end of your circle route, if you start walking left first, as suggested. Inside there are remnants of red, ochre and blue murals but I did not find them visible through the closed doorway. This building was a temple dedicated to Kukulkán, the feathered serpent god. For the details of the cult worship of Kukulkán see my post Feathered Serpent.
Chi Chan Nah (Small House), to the East of Las Manitas and the last building on the circle route, consisted of a large outer room with a small inner sanctum containing an altar. It served as a sanctuary or chapel, for open-air ceremonies. In the nearby altar platform (named La Tumba) to the west of Las Manitas, a single vaulted tomb was discovered in 1973, the only one of its kind found in San Gervasio.
THE SITE MAP
The site is open 8am to 3.45pm. This is unusual as most ruins are open till 5pm. Bear that in mind.
The entry fee is 70 pesos and the tax (federal government fee) is 90 pesos. Discounts for locals are available.
Located at the entrance is a snack bar and a few gift shops surrounded by small fountains and restrooms. You can get the site map at the ticket office (see below).
How to get there:
Cozumel's small but modern airport has international flights with near-daily non-stop service from US hubs in Houston (United Airlines), Dallas/Fort Worth (American Airlines), Charlotte (US Airways), Atlanta (Delta Air Lines) and Miami (American Airlines).
If flying to Cancún, you can take the ADO bus to Playa del Carmen, to the main ADO station on 5th Avenue. From there it is a three-minute walk downhill to the ferry. As there is more than one ferry operator, buy a single ticket and then you can catch the next ferry on the way back. If you buy a return, you may have to wait until your operator's sailing. The tickets are 390 pesos, 100 pesos for locals (2018 prices).
Once in Cozumel, you can rent a car (a Bocho, a nickname for the Volkswagen Beetle, popular here on the island) or a bike and take the cross-island road (Avenue Juarez) to the San Gervasio access road; follow this road north for 7km. It is the only road that crosses the island. Otherwise you can take a taxi for 39 pesos one way (2018 prices). You will need to ask the driver to wait for you, for an extra charge, or come back to pick you up. The taxi stand is immediately on the left when you come out of the ferry.
After 7km there is a turning point to the ruins, clearly marked. You can't miss it as they built a replica of a Maya temple at the turning point. You will need to continue driving for another 7km, on a good paved road (not a dirt road). There are organised tours by travel agencies to the ruins from the cruise ship ferry pier and there are also guides available to hire on the spot (the price depends on the language; expect to pay around 600 pesos).
If you want to cross to the island with a car, the car ferry is run by Transcaribe out of the Calica port at Punta Venado, just south of Playa del Carmen. The trip takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Mix & Match
Saunders, Nicholas J. (2005): The Peoples of the Caribbean, books.google.com.mx
La Medicina Tradicional de los Pueblos Indígenas de México: medicinatradicionalmexicana.unam.mx
Essential San Gervasio, Cozumel, Official Guide (2014): Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, Distrito Federal