Destruction & survival of the books of the Maya

Diego de Landa's auto da fé

Facsimile of the Dresden Codex; Diego de Landa's auto da fe burning Maya codices books
Facsimile of the Dresden Codex

Compared to the gold found by Cortés and Pizarro; the heartland of the Maya, Yucatan, had another kind of treasure : “If the number, grandeur and beauty of its buildings were to count toward the attainment of renown and reputation in the same way as gold, silver and riches have done for other parts of the Indies, Yucatan would have become as famous as Peru and New Spain have become, so many, in so many places, and so well built of stone are they, it is a marvel; the buildings themselves, and their number, are the most outstanding thing that has been discovered in the Indies”.

The Maya culture, over two millennia old, with the most elaborate writing system of Mesoamerica, was one of the most impressive civilisations of the New World. Franciscan friars were missioned to convert Yucatan. One of them, Diego de Landa, whose words are used here, would become its bishop.

At first, the Franciscan friars efforts to convert locals seemed successful, having started with the children, to the point that “after being taught, informed the friars of idolatries and orgies; they broke up the idols, even those belonging to their own fathers”. Yet one day it was discovered that 'idolatry' was still ripe in the heart of the mission.

In the 1562 auto da fé (auto da fé means 'act of faith') of Mani, about 5,000 'idols', including jewelled skulls of ancestors, and several books were burnt : “We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain”.

But the infamous auto da fé of Maya codices is only one facet of this story. History is usually one sided, here, as an exception, the reader discovers the testimonies of the local Maya complaints against the friars, the trial and complaints of the King of Spain towards Diego de Landa, and Spaniards complaints against the friars.

Only four Maya codices -books- survive the fire, and the meaning of Maya writing seemed forever lost. 19th century explorers started to uncover, underneath the vegetation, large stone buildings. Once cleared, their walls were covered in carvings, with numerous strange glyphs, similar to those found on clay pots. Thousands of texts had in fact survived, but they could not be read.

The adventure of deciphering Mayan writing started not in the Mexican jungle, but in European libraries. Deciphering ancient writing systems does not get the same attention than the discovery of royal tomb treasures, yet it is more significant, for bringing out of oblivion an entire civilisation. An introduction to the quest to crack the Maya glyphs is given to the reader.

This is a preview of the chapter about the destruction of the cultural heritage of the Maya by intolerance with the burning of the books, and the rediscovery of the Maya script from the book Lost Treasures.