Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Spring and the Sad Irony of Tourism

The Sun: it moves in more ways than one!
First of all, a happy Vernal Equinox to all! In layman's terms, happy spring. Today marks just one of two days in the entire year were the Sun rises/sets exactly due East/West, respectively. Every other day, the Sun will rise/set, to varying degrees, North/South of the cardinal directions. For the photographically-inclined, this is a great time for a photo shoot. To see how one can do what I did above, go here.

Now, for a bit of irony and a lesson in historic preservation.

For people interested in astronomical history, it is no secret that the Maya were probably the best astronomers the ancient world produced when it came to practical, real life observing. Over the course of centuries, the Maya made advances in astronomy that still leave modern experts astounded. Perhaps the most surprising this about the Maya is the paradox of their achievements vs. the things they didn't have: Example: the Maya came up with a perfectly interlocking series of 3 calendars that cycled for 5,125 years yet didn't grasp the concept of the wheel or ever use metal tools.

Perhaps more than any other civilization, the Maya set their record of astronomical achievement in stone. Of all these astronomically-themed buildings, the pyramid of Kukulkan in Chichin Itza is probably the most dramatic. The fact that thousands of people still gather on the equinoxes to watch the play of light and shadow is testament to this fact.

Besides being a calendar in stone (91 steps on 4 sides plus the temple on top make 365), the pyramid was orientated so that, only on the equinoxes, a play of light and dark would combine to create the illusion of a serpent (Kukalkan was depicted as a snake) slithering its way down the pyramid. Obviously, the combination of planning for such a show and then constructing it so flawlessly into the design of a building took a lot of brains on the part of the Maya.

Now, over a thousand years later, people still stand in awe, at least for a day, of the people who built this amazing structure over a millennium ago, and this is what has some people concerned.

Recently, as reported by Fox News, authorities have grown very concerned about the fact that thousands of people are crowding the fragile ancient sites. The big fear: eager believers in 'pyramid power' will climb and potentially damage the ancient structures. As a result, Mexico's National Anthropology and History Institute will launch Project Equinox, which is designed to keep visitors safe distances from the ancient monuments and controlling what people bring with them to the gatherings.

This story perfectly illustrates the fact that eager tourists are damaging the sites they come to enjoy all the time. Here are just a few examples:

In Nepal, Mt. Everest has become the world's highest garbage dump since it was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. An addition to the old Arab proverb “man fears time, time fears the pyramids,” could be that “but the pyramids fear smog.” As a show of how commercialization can destroy ancient sites, who reading this knew that Peru's famous Hitching Post of the Sun was damaged during filming of, of all things, a beer commercial? Well, it's happened. In fact, many world wonders are threatened, as well.

Now, this isn't saying that we humans should abandon our travels to see famous ancient/natural sights, but our curiosity needs to be tempered with restraint so that we take care to leave ancient wonders as we find them.

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