The Maya left us a cultural legacy that we continue to admire and explore today. Proof of this are the “white roads” that we can still find in some archaeological sites such as Chichén Itzá, Cobá, and Dzibilchaltún. To walk along one of these is to literally walk in the footsteps of the Maya and discover an authentic example of their marvellous engineering, along with the commercial and mystic splendor which surrounded them.
“Sacbé” (or plural “sacbeob”) comes from the Maya words “sac” (white) and “bé” (road). It is a straight road that can be from 4 to 20 meters wide and up to 300 km long; it is usually elevated, approx. one meter above ground level, paved with “sascab” (limestone sand found on the peninsula) or lime. Larger stones were placed to one side of the road and the smaller stones were placed in the middle to be used for leveling the road, much as highways are built today.
They were built mainly as communication paths to connect plazas and temples inside the principal Maya cities; another function was to maintain a social, religious, political, and economic link between the big cities and the and the smaller communities that depended on them, connecting them to each other. In some cases they also functioned as hydraulic routes.
The Maya, just as we do today in cars on modern highways, used to travel from one city to another (but on foot!), whether for commercial or personal reasons. Because of the high temperatures of our peninsula’s climate, they used to travel at night, so it is thought that the “sacbeob” were white to reflect the moonlight so as to illuminate their path. It is also thought that they had a religious meaning, for they carried out a ritual before stepping onto the path.
Today we can walk along and get to know a “sacbe” inside a Maya city, such as the one which connects the Castillo at Chichén Itzá with the Cenote Sagrado (sacred cenote). There is another at Dzibilchaltún that connects the Templo de las Siete Muñecas (temple of the seven dolls) with the main plaza. If we travel along the Puuc Route, at the site of Labná we will find the one which connects the south side of the buildings with the palace.
An example of those which connect cities is found between Uxmal and Kabah with a length of 18 km, and arches at each end, symbolizing the beginning and end of the road. Others unite Izamal with Aké and Kantunil; and there is one between Cobá and Ixil and Yaxuná. This one was the longest known “sacbé”, but there have been discoveries of a possible “sacbé” which would have united T’Ho (what is today Mérida) with Izamal and all the way to the Caribbean coast near Puerto Morelos, with a distance of 300 km. Amazing!
To visit a “sacbé” during your visit to the peninsula is to witness living proof of the extraordinary Maya culture. Walking along a road more than a thousand years old immerses you into their great wisdom and engineering vision that still astounds us today.
With information from Arqueología Maya (arquelogía-maya.org)
By Violeta H. Cantarell
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