If you do due diligence in your travel planning for a jaunt around the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll come across Izamal as one of the biggies. It’s known as the “Yellow City” because most of the buildings are painted in the same shade of yellow. This isn’t something that dates back very far, however. It was a response to the visit by the Pope in 1993. There’s some scuttlebutt afoot that it also has something to do with Izamal being in Mayan times a pilgrimage place for worship of the sun god. That bit of news and a quarter will get you half a cup of coffee, but there it is.
The website Earth Trippers in its posting entitled “The Magic of Izamal, Mexico’s Yellow City” (here) gives us the skinny:
In 1993, they announced that Pope John Paul II would visit Izamal that August. He would perform a mass as part of his tour of Mexico. The town knew it had to spruce up the place.
Someone had the brilliant marketing idea to paint all the houses, including the convent, the same color. Why yellow? The sun, the corn, and then of course the Vatican flag – it has a big band of bright yellow on the left side.
Well, the papal visit now lies nearly 20 years in the past and the yellowness of Izamal has a less luminous glow to it than it no doubt did in 1993.
The Wikipedia page on Izamal informs us about the city’s historical aspect:
After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century a Spanish colonial city was founded atop the existing Maya one; however it was decided that it would take a prohibitively large amount of work to level these two huge structures and so the Spanish contented themselves with placing a small Christian temple atop the great pyramid and building a large Franciscan Monastery atop the acropolis. It was named after San Antonio de Padua. Completed in 1561, the open atrium of the Monastery is still today second in size only to that at the Vatican. Most of the cut stone from the Pre-Columbian city was reused to build the Spanish churches, monastery, and surrounding buildings.
Izamal was the first chair of the Bishops of Yucatán before they were moved to Mérida. The fourth Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa lived here.
There is no mention that Diego de Landa is the bishop infamous for burning hundreds of Mayan codexes. In other words, he belongs in the same class as Torquemada of Inquisition fame. He represents a destructive and culturally toxic form of humanity still very much with us, as we see with regrettable regularity as we follow the news emanating from Washington, D.C. Why the Wikipedia article neglects to mention the facts I can’t say. Obstruction of justice? Executive privilege? Who knows. If you want the whole sordid story you can find it here. That de Landa thought the better of it later and cobbled together what he hoped would be a substitute for the hundreds of volumes he consigned to the flames fails to improve my opinion of him. He destroyed irreplaceable cultural artefacts. Bugger him and everyone like him, be they Catholic bishops or Nazis throwing books onto bonfires.
Izamal is a petit place, nothing grandiose about it, which is one of the reasons I chose to spend a couple days there. When I drove into town and wended my way through the streets to the hotel I saw that once you’ve seen one historical Mexican town, you’ve basically seen them all, no matter what color they are. Streets lined with houses of a single storey with a door in the middle are a basic item, the urban equivalent of socks or underwear. Just as you wouldn’t think of leaving the house without your underwear on, so no town in Mexico will be without its streets lined with single-storey houses with a door in the middle. They just gotta be there, people need someplace to live. And if you’ve got a basic pattern from your colonial overlords who completely lack imagination and simply want to reproduce what they know from the Old Country, you wind up with this:
All well and good. The hotel I chose turned out to be the most fortunate choice possible because it sits on the edge of town with a view out over some relatively open countryside. The sight of green always lifts my heart and I feel I know Izamal even more because I’ve seen its natural setting in addition to its architectural sights. The major complaint I have with the Spanish approach to town planning is that it effectively eliminates the presence of Nature. Look at the above photo. In a place where things grow so luxuriously that you can fairly see them increase in size while you stand there gawking at them, does it make sense to reduce the landscape to stucco, stone and asphalt? I think not. Call me a landscape revanchist if you will, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
So, our Yellow City has both significant colonial and Mayan elements. Izamal before becoming a colonial bishopric was an important Mayan center. Calling once again on my go-to info source for Mayan sites, themayanruinswebsite.com, I quote this info on Izamal:
Izamal’s settlement reaches back to the Middle Pre-Classic (700-250 B.C.), and most of its construction was accomplished during its heyday in the Late Pre-Classic through the Early Classic (300 B.C.-600 A.D.). It began a slow decline after this though it did experience a small spurt of activity in the Terminal Classic (900-1100 A.D). It is thought that at this time Izamal came under the influence of Chichen Itza. Izamal continued to be a pilgrimage destination into the Spanish Colonial Period.
Izamal was first mentioned in the Spanish chronicles, but the first full report was done by those intrepid explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1840’s. Catherwood, a gifted artist, drew a portrait of the famous face of the Sun god, Kinich Ahau, that once adorned the side of a structure. It has since disappeared and this drawing remains our only record. Unfortunately, much of the site has been quarried for building materials over the centuries, while other parts have been completely built over. There is ongoing excavation and restoration projects throughout the site.
The Spanish invaders recognized the importance of the ruins to the indigenous Maya and erected a massive religious complex known as the Convent of San Antonio de Padua within its ceremonial center in 1549 A.D. This Catholic religious site was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993, and has since become a modern pilgrimage site for Mexican Catholics.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul in the architectural dimension, it appears — some might call it “vandalism,” but let’s be generous and call it “repurposing.” Shall we? Good. On we go then to the pics.