Sunday, 28 September 2014

66. Wonder: Chichen Itza

(For the Chichen Itza preview, please click here.)

Chichen Itza is famous and it doesn't know what to do with itself. Basking in the glory of being one of the New 7 Wonders as of 2007, it also has to cope with the adverse effects of global recognition. Like Britney in her heyday, everybody wants a piece: the government, local vendors, independent and mass tourism, archaeologists, the actual landowners. Tourism means money, which means archaeological work can continue, but too much tourism can be actively destructive. What to do? Mexcio's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH to its friends) are the guys in charge. They have the not inconsiderable task of looking after most of Mexico's ancient sites, and with Chichen Itza they have a difficult balance to strike. They haven't struck it. They've raised prices - entry costs three times more than the other major sites in Mexico, although at around £10 it's still not unreasonable - and they've cordoned off all the buildings to the public. Unlike Palenque, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, or pretty much anywhere else in the country, there is no climbing allowed at Chichen Itza, no entering of any structures. Fair enough, a million people a year stomping up-and-down thousand-year-old stairways doesn't do much for the wear-and-tear, but it certainly makes things less fun for your money. Less forgiveably, INAH seems quite happy for the site to be overrun with vendors, and appears to do nothing to moderate their behaviour. Visiting Chichen Itza is to run the gauntlet of many hundreds of persistent souvenir vendors, all of whom have a vast array of identical tat to offload and aren't shy about doing so. They are impossible to avoid. If the mystical atmosphere of the ruins of this ancient Maya city wasn't blown away by the tour groups, it certainly is by the 50th time a man has tried to sell you a mask for a dollar.


Correspondingly, the majority of the visiting tourists don't seem to know what to do with themselves either. Like wide-eyed livestock being despatched to the market or worse, they arrive from the mega resorts of Cancun by the coachload, bunched together, careful not to stray too far from their pack. They look drained. Most don't arrive till late morning, when the day has well and truly heated up and the site has become packed with thousands. They wilt quickly. Chichen Itza can be a draining experience, and while they may ogle the pretty pyramid and perform "the boing-clap" en masse as instructed, it's clear most have mentally switched off. Are we almost done, when's lunch, what's a maya? Some of them love buying the tat, but most seem exhausted by it. The glorious, exquisite ruins scattered about the World Wonder that is Chichen Itza are obscured by the experience of actually visiting it.

The success, and pitfalls of success, of Chichen Itza can be laid at the feet of its (entirely unofficial) categorisation of a World Wonder, but what is it about the place that got it that accolade in the first place? There is no shortage of Maya ruins after all. Greatness, you would hope - but Chichen Itza has had a few headstarts that the likes of the big boys of Palenque and Tikal haven't. Being just a couple of hours away from the beachopolis of Cancun is a significant one. A week, ten days, two weeks in a deluxe hotel, sipping cocktails by the poolside - very nice, but Chichen Itza with a guide is a terribly convenient day-trip to break up the tanning sessions. It is heavily promoted; hordes of mostly Western tourists take up the offer. Chichen Itza has also benefitted from earlier excavation and promotion than most other sites. Like some of the Maya cities it may have been abandoned, but unlike them it was never really lost. The Spanish in the 16th Century were aware of it. By the 19th Century, when ancient ruins came into vogue, it was gaining recognition in the West, and in 1894 along came a key moment - a man called Edward H Thompson bought the entire thing.

The notion of buying ancient, timeless ruins might sound an odd notion today, in a world full of national and world heritage, but back then it wasn't so unusual; indeed, as recently as 1915, Stonehenge was sold at auction for £6,600 and had been privately owned right for centuries prior (the new owner gave it to the nation in 1918). Fortunately for the world, Thompson was an archaeologist, albeit a self-taught one, with a direct interest in the site: he thought it was once part of Atlantis. This view changed as time went on and he realised the truth was no less magnificent. From 1904 to 1911, he dredged one of the cenotes - large sacred waterholes - and recovered almost 30,000 ceremonially broken artefacts - 800 years worth of Chichen Itza civilisation in a well. And then in 1923 (it should have been 1913, but the Mexican Revolution and World War I delayed things), he invited the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. to give him a hand. Together with the Mexican government (INAH was yet to be formed) they began some long-term and high quality research and restoration. Among their works, they took this:

And made it into this:

This is El Castillo, "The Castle", also called the "Temple of Kukulkan", and it is Chichen Itza's signature piece; indeed, it's the Maya world's signature piece. When you see a picture of Chichen Itza being described as a Wonder of the World, this is what is pictured, the other monuments barely get a look in. It was just one of many monuments restored by the Carnegie Institute and the Mexican government between 1923 and 1940 but it's the standout one. Why? I was curious, perhaps even a little sceptical, before my visit. It's about 30 metres tall which, sure, is fairly big, but is no big deal compared to Tikal's giants twice that height. Granted, the sides are bigger, at 55 metres, but even so the Great Pyramid of Egypt has sides of around 230 metres and is almost four or five times taller, and by my calculations 60 times larger by volume. Well, it's maybe unfair to compare anything to the Great Pyramid, and size isn't everything after all. Because it turns out that the Maya and then the Carnegie Institute did a really good job - El Castillo is a startlingly attractive and compelling structure.

I think it might be the attention to detail. Often the greatest examples of attention to detail are casually imperceptible but make all the difference, and that's what I sense here. It's very Maya in general style - a step pyramid with staircases each side and a temple on top, you can see this kind of thing all across the Maya world. In form, there's nothing startlingly original; nonetheless it's the best one by far. The creamy-white limestone exterior looks immaculate: the entire region has an abundance of limestone so everything was locally quarried. On all four sides, there are nine terraces, each an identical height, with the blocky 6-metre temple structure on top. It creates a striking four-way symmetry. Some think the nine terraces, divided in two by the central stairways to make 18 terraces on each side, relate to the 18 months in the Maya year, and certainly El Castillo seems to have a calendrical purpose. Each staircase has 91 steps, and so with four staircases, this makes a total of 364 steps. Including the platform at the top, this makes 365. Even if the precise meaning is lost to us, the people of Chichen Itza clearly seem to have had a plan. The meaning of the "boing" is even more enigmatic. I wouldn't have believed this possible had our guide not demonstrated it to us during our prviate tour on our second visit, but if you stand in front of a stairway - it doesn't have to be close - and clap your hands loudly, the sound reverberates and returns as an elastic "boing". I've never heard anything like this before. I've been to plenty of old buildings with supposedly strange acoustic effects, but these are usually just echoes or sound travelling more effectively than expected. The boing is the strangest echo I've ever heard. Were the Chichen Itzan meaning this, or is it just chance? And how about the supposed serpent that appears in shadow? Twice a year, in the spring and autumn equinoxes (usually about 20th March and 22nd September)  the light casts a shadow upon the north-west stairway that to the discerning eye looks like a serpent. El Castillo is also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, and Kukulcan was a serpent-like deity. Just a coincidence? Given they've got a serpent's head at the bottom of the stairway, you'd think not.

We've encountered Kukulcan before, as it happens: he gets around rather a lot in America. The name literally means "feathered snake" and he's a deity that appears throughout other pre-Columbian societies, although not too heavily in the Maya. The Aztecs knew him as Quetzalcoatl, likely inspired by Teotihuacan, who also worshipped him and built one of their main pyramids in his name, sacrificing hundreds of local soldiers in the process. The first major American civilisation, the Olmecs, were making representations of him as early as 1000 BC. Even today, some Mormons consider him to be Jesus Christ, who is supposed to have visited the Americas after his ascent to heaven in the Bible. The creator of mankind, or a chief of gods, the feathered serpent is one of the world's great mythological figures, shaping the beliefs of an entire continent. Sadly, all the finer details are lost in the ashes of time.

What was El Castillo for? We can't say for certain, but it looks very likely it was for religious ceremonies, being closely connected to the calendar and possibly used  for astronomical observations. Religion was a big deal and the priests were influential figures. It has been suggested Chichen Itza was ruled by an elite group of priests; this now appears unlikely and regular king-like leaders were probably in charge, but the priests seem to have had rather a lot of sway. El Castillo may have been built at their instruction, as part of the worship of Kukulcan. Wooden beams are still found in the temple structure and carbon dating gives this a 1000 AD date, but in true Maya style this is just the most recent incarnation. A smaller 17-metre-high temple is underneath, with today's version being superimposed upon it. Up until 2006, visitors were allowed to go through a door and view this older structure, but this is not an option any more. Likewise, climbing of El Castillo is forbidden. It's a huge disappointment. Tikal's great Wonder moment is climbing Temple IV and being wowed with the top-of-the-world view; Chichen Itza now bans what I expect would be its own wow moment. Is this right? Perhaps, to some degree, but it's still an immense shame. El Castillo is a fantastic structure, close to perfect in its poise and details, but its true and full splendour is being denied. In my view, INAH should re-open El Castillo, but in a very controlled way. Just like the Tower of Pisa, very restricted numbers only should be allowed up each day at carefully spaced intervals. Charge an extra £10 on a first-come-first-served basis. Hell, make it £100. I'd pay, and it would put off all but the most dedicated, but those few would be rewarded with the wow of a Wonder.

Understanding El Castillo helps to understand the overall site and history of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is in two parts - old and new, very roughly about 8th Century and 11th Century. El Castillo is in the new. The precise chronology is a little murky, but the old part seems to have been pure Maya, and the new part was when a northern people called the Toltecs decided to get involved, in some manner. I'll get to the old part in a bit, but it's the new part that is the most striking. The Toltecs didn't take over the Maya, they just merged or perhaps just heavily influenced them, but they very much changed the nature of Chichen Itza society. It became war-like and terrifying. Nowhere in the old part do you get stuff like this:

Skulls everywhere. Maybe the Toltecs were delightful in person, but the evidence they left behind suggests they were deranged killers. Under their rule, human sacrifices rocketed - the Maya liked a little bit of human sacrifice, but the Toltecs took it to the next level. They covered their monuments in scary stuff, like skulls, and jaguars and eagles eating human hearts. For the Toltecs, the jaguar was the guardian of the underworld and the eagle was the guardian of heaven, but both seemed rather partial to the occasional munch of a human heart.

Jaguar and eagle imagery is widespread in the new part of town, as well as other sculptural forms not found in the old. The Toltecs even took something simple like the Maya ballgame and made it violent - losers get their heads cut off, they said.

Actually, this is a less certain one. To describe the Maya ballgame as a "game" is perhaps a little misleading. It was a ritualised game for religious purposes, the rules not really known, played with two teams, and sometimes hoops, presumably for scoring. Ball courts can be seen right across the Maya world, but Chichen Itza's new town has the biggest by far, with a court of 96 by 30 metres. Tikal's, by comparison, is just 16 by 5 metres.

Tellingly, Chichen Itza's Great Ballcourt has images showing one member of the team being beheaded, presumably for losing, although we can't be certain. It's a little unclear from just a glance, but there are two figures in the picture below, and the first has been recently decapitated, with blood spurting from his neck, with the individual spurts turning into snakes. Watching Ross County play St Mirren is a very different experience, I must say.

The captain of the - I assume - winning team is holding the head, and between him and the blood-and-snake spurting loser is a freaky ball, with a scary-looking skull inside. Oh, these cheeky Toltecs!

The Great Ballcourt is one of new town's obvious highlights after El Castillo, but there several others. The Temple of the Warriors and the Group of a Thousand Columns are two of the most notable. The Temple of the Warriors is a terraced temple just across the lawn from El Castillo. It's so called because it has a whole bunch of columns with images of warriors on them.

There aren't actually a thousand columns in the Group of a Thousand Columns but there are still a good few hundred. The Maya didn't really go in for columns, this was Toltec in style. They are arranged in various oblong groups, which in turn enclose a large, squarish courtyard-like space. Originally, they would have had wooden beams and roofs on top, but this is all long gone. That's something worth bearing in mind. Just like pretty much all the ancient ruins around the world that we see today, we're really just seeing the stone parts. The wood, the cloth, the straw, the large majority of what would have constituted the living city, was all perishable, and is gone. The columns in Chichen Itza may have been smashed up, but they are stone so have been restored, put back up in the 1920s. But they are just the skeleton of the temple network that was once here.

How did the Maya take to their rowdy Toltec lodgers? They must have wondered what had hit them, although it doesn't appear that there was any conflict. Maybe they realised that arguing with the Toltecs was about as worthwhile as a 3am political conversation in a kebab shop, so just smiled and let things be. It appears their greater skills as craftsmen and architects were used by the Toltecs in building the new part of Chichen Itza, a Toltec vision shaped by the Maya, with El Castillo, their dedication to the serpent god Kukulkan, the showpiece of their new civilisation.

But - it must be said that the precise history is vague, with plenty of supposition. It's even claimed the Toltecs never had any involvement with Chichen Itza at all! The Chichen Itza Maya may simply have branched off in their own direction, taking some tips off the same people that were influencing the distant Toltec civilisation up north. We have a lot to learn. The problem is that unlike lowland Maya city states like Tikal, Chichen Itza wasn't so hot on recording their stuff on stone stelae. They had something better - paper. Well, it wasn't paper as we know it, but it was a kind of cloth made from tree bark, that they made into books. Hundreds of books were written, on science, calendars, maths, religion, and history, that would have been of incalculable value to our understanding of Chichen Itza and the Maya - if the Spanish hadn't burnt it all. I can't say much more except than to requote my preview, in the words of Bishop Diego de Landa in 1562, again with my italics. "We found a large number of books in these [Mayan] characters, and as they all contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction".

As a pure Maya city, Chichen Itza seems to have come to life around 600 AD. It was a relevant force, but nothing compared to the likes of Tikal or Calakmul or Copan. But Tikal and the likes were in an entirely different area, in what we call the southern lowlands, in modern day Central America and southern Mexico, and didn't have much to do with the northern lowland Chichen Itza. Yet they were all Maya, same general culture but different notions, like a Scotsman from Glasgow and a Scotsman from Edinburgh discussing politics, religion, and football over a beer. The old part of Chichen Itza had all kinds of recognisable Maya styles, like ball courts and pyramid-temples.

But it also has its own style. It has a particular fascination with this creepy dude.

That's Chac, and he appears to live in the Nunnery. Chac was the rain god of Maya, the equivalent of Tlaloc of Teotihuacan. The Nunnery, which includes the Church pictured above, wasn't actually a nunnery, it was a palace and admin complex, but when the Spanish first took a look around they reckoned the many little rooms inside made it seem like a convent, so the name stuck. It's not a huge compound, and it's a tremendous shame that it's out-of-bounds so you can't actually see the little rooms inside, but it's in good condition. This is because even after Chichen Itza was abandoned, in around the 12th Century, a few people continued to live in the Nunnery for a while, keeping the area clear from the forest. They too left eventually, but it meant that the Nunnery had a century or two less of nature wreaking its slow destruction, so despite being one of the older buildings in the city, it has among the finest surviving details.

The old part of Chichen Itza also contains the most the most notable structure of the whole city after El Castillo, El Caracol. Spanish for "The Snail" (named after the interior spiral staircase), it's seemingly aligned with all kinds of astronomical events and was almost certainly an observatory. Nothing like this is found anywhere else in the Maya world.

The Maya civilisation is a little like Madonna: there are several different phases and reinventions. Pure 80s pop Madonna is the Classic era of the Maya, taking place around the 3rd to 9th Centuries when the southern lowlands were in full swing, with big hits like Tikal and Palenque and their buddies. With its Toltec influence and mass human sacrifice, Chichen Itza peaked in the Postclassic Maya era, a later effort by the Maya, like an edgy, experimental Madonna of the 2000s. The city itself may have kicked off around the 7th Century, but it's really in the 10th to 12th Centuries that it produced the splendour we see ruined today. It seems to have benefitted from the collapse of its southern neighbours, albeit indirectly. When they slumped, Chichen Itza began to prosper. There's no evidence of migration or opportune raids, it just seems like Chichen Itza - and its various neighbours - simply took advantage of the gap in the market, and flourished in the absence of competition.

At its peak, as a ferocious Toltec vision of the Maya, Chichen Itza controlled one of the largest and most populated states in Maya history. But nothing lasts forever. The Spanish arrived in the 16th Century and changed everything, but Chichen Itza had been long abandoned by then. Exactly how and when it was abandoned varies widely. Maya chronicles suggest that in around 1250 AD there was a civil war, devastating Chichen Itza, but these chronicles were written centuries after the event and after the Spanish had arrived and made the surviving Maya people write the chronicles: they aren't reliable in other words. The reality is likely far less dramatic. It simply seems like there was a steady decline. The last major structure was built around 1050, and after that the good times slowly waned. Things went downhill, the people gradually went elsewhere, and eventually there was nobody left to care about it.

It took until the 20th Century and Edward H. Thompson's efforts for the glory to return. But it was a thankless task. In 1926, the Mexican government charged him with theft - he'd been sending the artefacts to an American museum - and seizing his land. He spent the rest of his days in the USA and died in 1935, but the restoration of Chichen Itza continued regardless. In 1944, the Mexican Supreme Court decided that Thompson hadn't stolen anything after all, and the land was returned to his heirs. They sold it to a man called Fernando Barbachano Peon, who built a few discreet hotels and developed the site for tourism, very successfully so. A happy ending? Not quite. In the 2000s, a battle began rumbling as to who should own the site - the (seemingly very responsible) Barbachano family, or the Mexican government. Should a World Wonder be privately owned? INAH were doing the actual running of it anyway, but didn't seem to be doing a very good job of keeping away the vendors: they blamed (somewhat unconvincingly) the confused ownership issue for the problem. The Barbachanos simply blamed INAH; after all, they were supposed to be running it. The family had been good owners over the years, they claimed, and could have turned the place in to a Vegas-style hell if they'd chosen, but hadn't. The track record of the government in the area had been a lot less stellar. "The government can do atrocious things sometimes but private owners can do atrocious things too," an INAH official countered. In the end, the government won, forcing a purchase of the site for $17.6 million. Four years later, the vendors are still out in force.

It may sound like I wasn't too impressed by Chichen Itza, but this would be wrong. Chichen Itza is terrific, it's just the actual process of visiting it which didn't impress me. Yet, it's hardly the only place in the world with tourists and vendors. Why did they bother me so much? Palenque had them, Teotihuacan had them. They hang around the likes of the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles, and good luck on seeing the Taj Mahal without being attacked by several thousand touts. I think the difference is that with Chichen Itza they were so unavoidable, even first thing in the morning. They are thoroughly within the archaeological area, and impossible to avoid. I wouldn't want to put hundreds of people out of a job, but they need to at least be a little less obtrusive and out of sight of the main monuments. I would also like there to be an option to explore the monuments a little more thoroughly rather than them being entirely cordoned off. These two issues mean that, as an experience, Chichen Itza certainly isn't as fun as the other ancient sights I've seen in Mexico and Guatemala, or the world. Fortunately, I was staying at the Mayaland Hotel, a few minutes walk from the entrance, and so I was able to visit at the 8am opening time. Vendors were still getting set up, but bothered me much less, and while I wasn't able to enjoy the near-isolation of Tikal, I was still able to enjoy a more serene visit: ancient ruins without the crowds. It's a shame that Chichen Itza is suffering from its success, because it's a very special site. The ruins are among the most attractive I've seen, especially the clean lines and perfect form of El Castillo. The many faces of Chac at the Nunnery are freakishly enthralling. I love the rows and rows of columns that constitute the Group of a Thousand Columns. Chichen Itza is recognisably Maya, but it is also something different, a brighter, cleaner, more modern, but more sinister and violent version, and that can be seen quite clearly portrayed. It's fascinating for it. It's just a pity that attempts to lose yourself in this ancient, violent world are frequently punctuated with "Five dollar! Five dollar! Only one dollar! Looking is free! How much you want to pay? One dollar! One dollar!"

Some criteria then.

Size: The overall protected area of Chichen Itza is around 6 square miles, but visitors see a much smaller area. The major monuments are packed into two cleared areas (old and new town) of a lot less than a square mile. El Castillo is the tallest structure at 30 metres. There's nothing of the gargantuan proportions of Tikal's Central Acropolis or Palenque's Palace.
Engineering: Another fine achievement by the Maya, surely involving a lot of people and a lot of maths and measurements. By this stage in the Maya world, none of the structures required any great leaps of skill or technology however. It's like building a 400-metre-tall skyscraper today - an impressive effort, but done to established techniques. 
Artistry: Chichen Itza has some very striking structures. El Castillo primarily is a special building, and the whole site seems to revolve around it. The Nunnery's details are exquisite. The limestone of the structures is creamy white rather than smudgy grey, and this makes Chichen Itza's ruins prettier than many others.
Age: Several centuries buffer it from either side, but the monuments we appreciate today are mostly a little older than a thousand years.
Fame/Iconicity: The number one Maya site, and perhaps among the most famous ruins in the world. El Castillo is the poster boy.
Context: Like Palenque and Tikal, it's surrounded by forest, but to be honest it's not something you particularly notice. The land is flat and being unable to climb on things, the miles of trees all around aren't visible. 
Back Story: In the finest tradition of ancient ruins, the true history is shrouded in mystery. It was late Maya, but likely fused with the maniac Toltecs from the north, and their love of war and human sacrifice. 
Originality/Distinctiveness: This is one of Chichen Itza's strengths. Despite being one of many Maya sites, it really does stand out. El Castillo is one of many pyramid temples, but it's the best. El Caracol is unique.
Wow Factor: No doubt helped a little by its fame, El Castillo is the star attraction and rightly gathers the plaudits. It doesn't quite have the wow of Tikal's finest moments, but it's a captivating structure and a pleasure just to sit on the grass and gaze at.

My Wonder mission is about Wonders, and not the experience of visiting a Wonder, which can vary wildly depending on time of year, weather, mood, and circumstances of visit. So while visiting Chichen Itza was simply "alright", the actual collection of monuments that make up this Wonder are a lot better than that. They are intriguing, attractive, and among the best ruins out there, speaking of a lost world and inscrutable motives of an alien people. El Castillo may not be big but it's mesmerising, and possibly the Maya civilisation's finest individual structure. The Maya were no slouches, and produced scores, even hundreds, of towns and cities that remain today as spectacular ruins. Two of these currently are rating high up in my list. Chichen Itza joins them. It can't match the wonderful jungle adventure that is the glorious Tikal, but I think it's better than Palenque: a little more defined in its vision, more attractive, more interesting in its details. I'd squeeze it in below the titan of history that is the Hagia Sophia (which remarkably pre-dates most of Chichen Itza by half a millennium) but above the Sagrada Familia.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Teotihuacan
6. Tikal
7. Mont Saint-Michel
Other Wonders
The Colosseum
The Eiffel Tower
Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Chichen Itza
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge  
Thiepval Memorial
CN Tower
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom


  1. From Wikipedia, it appears that climbing El Castillo was forbidden after someone fell down the steps and died. So it seems to be a health and safety thing, which makes sense as it does look very steep and I can understand that the authorities were reluctant to install handrails. As for the inside, I agree that it must be for the protection of the site.

    It's true that it's a shame when members of the public do not have access to certain interesting places, but given the choice between keeping access resticted, or putting them at risk (or people) by letting people in, I prefer the former. The middle ground solution you describe (Tower of Pisa) is a good one but is not always workable. For example I think it is safe to assume that the genuine Lascaux cave paintings will never be seen by anyone other than experts, ever. Oh well.

    On the subject of health and safety restrictions, the top floor of Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's house) is closed to the public because it has a very steep and narrow staircase. Apparently Jefferson considered staircases to be annoying but necessary things and wanted it to take as little place as possible. The result today is that the risk of tourists injuring themselves is too great to allow them to use it in this day of lawsuits. I read that in Bill Bryson's book, "At Home".

    1. Yeah, I maybe should have put that in, although the review was going on long enough as it was. An 80-year-old woman from San Diego if I recall. I don't know, I appreciate a relevant amount of health and safety, but where's the balance here? Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, managed to climb up and down safely before - do we deny everybody because of a single incident?

      As far as preservation goes, yes, there's a stronger argument in my eyes. Yet, I still feel that some access should be allowed. It's a shame if the greatest glory of these Wonders is to be completely denied, all the time. It's like having a work of art that nobody is allowed to see. Places like St Paul's Cathedral and Borobudur are at their very best when experienced properly, climbing up inside them. It reveals an extra dimension to them. Without that, they would both be much more shallow visits. The cave paintings are a different case because of the very direct and immediate damage that visits were causing, plus they are so old and so delicate. But El Castillo is not so delicate. Sure, we don't want a million feet a year, but I think a Tower of Pisa approach would work, as it would with the other monuments on the site.


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