The Lost City of Iximaya

Today, I have a different type of lost city to talk about, the lost city of Iximaya!  This legendary city is said to have been home to a vibrant Maya population that was never conquered by the Spanish.  Deep in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula, these Maya natives continued their lives, unchanged by the tides of history.

The story of Iximaya is unusual in comparison to other lost city stories.  The seed of the story comes to us from John L. Stephens, an American diplomat and explorer of the 20th century.  Stephens is famous today for writing the first widely published descriptions of the Classic Maya cities.  He was also accompanied on his trips by Frederick Catherwood, a British artist, who made stunning illustrations of the monuments and buildings they encountered at these cities.

Fredrick Catherwood’s illustration of the central pyramid at Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Stephens was understandably awe struck by the ruins of these Maya cities.  He was a well-traveled and educated Westerner, who had visited many of the world’s best known ancient sites in Egypt and the ‘Holy Land.’  The existence of vast cities full of crumbling monuments covered in glyphic writing inspired the Stephen’s poetic soul, as he penned one of my favorite quotes:

“There were no associations connected with the place; none of those stirring recollections which hollow Rome, Athens, and ‘The world’s great mistress on the Egyptian plain;’ but architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesman, beauty, ambition, and glory, had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence.”-John Stephens, 1841

In his travels through the Maya world, Stephens heard rumors of a magnificent city that, unlike the ruins he had been exploring, was still populated by Maya people.  Despite the temptation, Stephens lamented that his itinerary could not allow for time to search out this place and thus the rumor stayed a rumor.

Upon return to the United States, Stephens published an account of his journey in the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, complete with copious illustrations by Catherwood.  These books were widely popular and thousands of Americans eagerly joined Stephens on his explorations in their literary imaginations.

One American, however, was not content to simply read Stephens account, his vivid imagination inspired him to pen his own version of exploring Maya cities.  Under the pen name of John Stevens (note the v), none other than P.T. Barnum wrote an account of visiting that still living and breathing Maya city, which bore the name of Iximaya.

“The Pagan Temple in the City of Iximaya”

Barnum’s work is a fictionalized account of adventure and romance where “Stevens,” discovers the city of Iximaya and interacts with its amazing citizens.  There is much to unpack in this story regarding American views of race in the 20th century.  Particularly given the purpose of Barnum’s work.  The ultimate purpose of this narrative was to provide a backstory for two new members of his sideshow who had microcephally.  These individuals, who Barnum named the Aztec children, were allegedly saved from the city of Iximaya by Stevens.  But, the depths of racial identity and the ethics of the sideshow are beyond our scope here.

Iximaya 2.jpg
“The Escape from Iximaya”

The long reaching impact of Iximaya from the perspective of Archaeological Oddities, is that P.T. Barnum, one of the most popular American entertainers of the 19th century, made explicit use of a lost city narrative.  He advanced the notion that the Maya were savage and different from Americans, and that ultimately a Western explorer could swoop in and save the day.  Why are lost cities popular?  Why are archaeologists viewed as adventurers?  P.T. Barnum has his role to play!



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