Looking Two Ways

Not all the Mayan remains in Copan are in the acropolis. That’s where the major temples and plazas and ball court are, to be sure. But there are stelae, stone pillars carved with the images of kings, set in several places in the area. Many are concentrated in a section of the archeological park; many are lost; but a few can be found still standing in the countryside.

The archeologists tell us that at its height the Mayan city of Copan was far larger than the section now in the archeological park. That was the city center, the ceremonial and governmental heart of the city. But there were residential sectors, artisan work areas, housing for nobility and courtiers, even lesser temples, that extended far beyond the ruins that are famous now.

One such outlying area, maybe half a mile from the park, was named “Las Sepulturas” by the early European explorers who found the ruins. They took it for granted, based on their expectations from other cultures, that the structures here were tombs, so they called it “the sepulchres.” It turned out, however, as they excavated and found artifacts, that the structures were actually residences. It hadn’t been a place of the dead, but a neighborhood for the very much alive! It’s still called Las Sepulturas today, when it has mostly become farmland. Names, even inaccurate names, can have a way of sticking. It’s a reminder that it’s wise to know a thing before you assign a label to it.

Neighborhoods like Las Sepulturas were an important part of the city, though they were separated from the ceremonial center. So the kings sometimes erected stelae of themselves outside city center, in the neighborhoods, partly to assert their authority, and partly to unify the sprawling city into a single ceremonial system. Though the neighborhoods are gone, some of those stelae still remain.

In present-day Copan there is a nice paved walking path that runs from the city out to the archeological park and beyond, as far as Las Sepulturas. (I’ve seen a little map that shows the path going farther, and even leaving the road and going up into the hills; I haven’t personally checked that out!) Lee and I walked out that path today, in the late morning, as a pleasant alternative to a working day.

On the way to the park, the path goes by two remaining stelae. One of them is carved with the image of the king on both sides; but the two sides are very different. They are both images of the same king – each of the kings of Copan is depicted with a distinctive headdress/crown and other defining characteristics – and the images on both sides of Stela 5 have the same identity markers.

But the side facing toward the city center is depicted as a young man, and the side facing away as an old man. The young face looks proud and powerful, the eyes partly closed, as if narrowed in a shrewd and calculating authority. But it’s the old face that haunts me. The stone here is partly broken, so that the face is incomplete; but there is enough to show the eyes, large and round and somewhat sunken, carved without lids, so it’s impossible to tell if the eyes are closed in contemplation or staring openly into depths of mortality. The mouth is a thin line, with jowls on either side. He still wears the oversized headdress of feathers and jades, but it seems to weigh more heavily on him than on the youthful side. And yet there is a strange and scary strength in that face, as if to say that here is a man who has stared at death, who knows loss, and who is no longer afraid of time. And he stares resolutely, as he has for centuries, away from the city he ruled and judged and priested for all his life.

I read in a guidebook once that it was not uncommon for kings to be depicted in different ways on the two sides of their stelae. But this young/old contrast seems particularly poignant to me. Especially when I remember that this stela was most probably commissioned while the king was still alive, and probably not quite as old as he’s depicted. It’s as if the king is looking both ways in his life, back toward the youth that formed him, and forward to the finality that will define him. Back toward the city that anchors him, and out into the unknown beyond. And it’s in this looking two ways that he finds and reveals his strength.

Looking back and looking forward. Knowing where we’ve come from, and facing into where we’re going. Learning to grow from the narrow gaze of calculation to looking deeply into truth, even the truth of loss, without fear.

What would we see of ourselves if we looked two ways?