History : Sep-Oct 2018
58 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018 illustrated by Catherwood, their books revealed to the world the scope and complexity of the Maya’s ceremonial centers, which flourished in that culture’s classical age, between the third and 10th centuries a.d. Perfect Partnership John Lloyd Stephens grew up in New York. After studying law, he entered the ranks of the Dem- ocratic Party, and looked set on a career in poli- tics. But his life took a radical turn when his doc- tor recommended that a trip to Europe might help him recover from a respiratory condition. Not content with the usual sightseeing in Italy and Greece, he ventured into Turkey. In November 1835, unable to secure a return passage to the United States, Stephens took ad- vantage of the delay in returning to explore the Middle East. Adopting the pseudonym Abdel Hassis, and paying the sheik of the region, he was granted access to visit the Nabataean city of Petra. Befriending those in power would set Stephens in good stead for much of his traveling career: In Egypt he took in the key sites thanks to the safe passage afforded him by Mehmet Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt. Stephens also knew how to turn his experi- ences into good copy, relating his wanderings in the Middle East and Europe in two volumes in 1837 and 1838. At around the time he was writing these works—which proved to be a major commercial success—Stephens got to know Frederick Catherwood in London. A gifted linguist, who spoke and read Arabic, Italian, Greek, and Hebrew perfectly, Cath- erwood was also a talented architect, artist, and draftsman, and had already taken part in several archaeological expeditions. The two men formed an instant bond, and went on to become inseparable intellectual and traveling companions. On his return home, Stephens was ap- pointed by President Martin Van Buren as ambassador to the Federal Republic of Central America. Comprising modern-day Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicara- gua, and Costa Rica, this short-lived republic was fragmenting due to a civil war. In an era that espite ruling an empire that included swathes of Central America, King Philip II of Spain never crossed the Atlantic. His insights into his New World realms came to him in the form of detailed reports, such as one penned in 1576 by Diego García de Palacio, a senior official in Yucatán: The first place in the province of Honduras [is] called Copán; there are ruins there, with vestiges of what had once been a great popu- lation, and of magnificent buildings [includ- ing] mounds that seem to have been made by hand, and in them many things to note. Before reaching them, there is a large figure of an eagle in stone . . . containing certain letters of a language unknown. In 1839 two archaeologists, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, carefully pored over these words to Philip to help them in their journey to Copán. Although it, and oth- er sites, were not exactly “lost,” a fog of igno- rance still obscured European and American notions of Mesoamerican culture. Some early 19th-century authors—guided by racist assumptions about the indigenous inhabitants of the area—even argued the monumental ruined cities of Central America must have been built by Egyp- tians. Aided by the scant documenta- tion on the site, including García de Palacio’s letter, Stephens and Cath- erwood set out to change these opin- ions and reawaken interest in these ceremonial centers, now swallowed by the jungle. Equipped with basic surveying gear and machetes, they embarked on two adventure-filled tours of Central America between 1839 and 1842 that provided the first in- depth surveys of the sites. Lavishly D TERRA-COTTA FIGURINE OF A CELESTIAL DIVINITY, FOUND AT THE MAYA NECROPOLIS AT JAINA ISLAND, YUCATÁN. MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY AND HISTORY, MEXICO DAGLI ORTI/AURIMAGES 1836 Author, traveler, and archaeologist Stephens gets to know artist and scholar Catherwood in London. 1839-1840 The pair carry out their first journey to survey Maya ruins. Stephens writes Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (published 1841). 1841-42 Their second journey. Stephens writes Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (published 1843).