Exploring the Mayan World

Course No. 30090
Professor Edwin Barnhart, Ph.D.
Maya Exploration Center
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Course No. 30090
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover the hidden meanings and messages in ancient Maya architecture and urban planning
  • numbers Experience vivid recreations of ancient Maya ball games, rain ceremonies, and other religious rituals
  • numbers Examine the cultural legacy of Spanish interactions with the Maya reflected in music, food, and architecture
  • numbers Explore cave systems, underwater lagoons, and other geological features of the northern Yucatán
  • numbers Watch local artisans make traditional Maya pottery, T-shirts, hammocks, and tequila

Course Overview

Many civilizations lived in and ruled ancient Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. But few of these ancient peoples have so captured our imagination like the Maya. In this truly unique travel series, you’ll feel like you’re studying abroad with an accomplished archaeologist, as you immerse yourself in the past and present of the Maya.

It’s not often you get an opportunity to accompany a renowned archaeologist as he explores ageless cenotes, decodes ancient hieroglyphs, and enjoys a round of handmade tequila. But with this new travel series, you can join Dr. Edwin Barnhart on the adventure of a lifetime as he guides you through the past, present, and future of the Maya world in the northern Yucatán—all from the comfort of your couch, or perhaps when you might follow in his footsteps in the future.

This isn’t your traditional lecture series produced by The Great Courses. Capturing the engaging immediacy of your favorite travel show, Exploring the Mayan World is packed with information on and insights into the wonders of this veritable crossroads of culture, revealing its hidden past and beautiful landscapes.

Drawn to the many archaeological mysteries of sites like Chichén Itzá and Ek’ Balam, travelers from around the world visit the northern Yucatán to experience a rare place where the ancient culture remains alive and well, practiced and celebrated by millions of Maya descendants who’ve maintained their traditions for more than 500 years. And for more than 30 years, Dr. Barnhart has dedicated his life to learning about the Maya. As founder and director of the nonprofit Maya Exploration Center, Dr. Barnhart is passionate about helping the Maya reclaim their rightful place as one of the world’s most sophisticated ancient civilizations.

In this well-paced, visually compelling series, Dr. Barnhart unpacks Maya history and culture in a way that brings you up close and personal with Maya life as you might never experience it otherwise, including:

  • Decoding cultural clues hidden in eight ancient Maya sites;
  • Exploring the mixed Maya-Spanish heritage of modern towns in Yucatán;
  • Interviewing archaeologists, artisans, chefs, and other local experts;
  • Appreciating the Maya’s enduring legacy in their food, music, fashion, and art; and so much more.

Whether you’re preparing for a trip to the region or you’ve always just wanted to know more about the Maya, Exploring the Mayan World is an exhilarating journey into both the distant past and the modern lives of the Maya. ¡Vámanos!

Walk among Maya Ruins

While archaeologists like Dr. Barnhart have pieced together some of the grand puzzle of Maya history, there’s still plenty of mysteries to be solved among the northern Yucatán’s many ancient sites. No visit to the region—and no understanding of the Maya past—is complete without a trip to the most prominent ancient ruins. And in Exploring the Mayan World, Dr. Barnhart takes you to several of the best, including:

  • Chichén Itzá, the most fantastic of all ancient Maya ruins, where you’ll find stunning architectural achievements and the largest ceremonial ball court in the entire Maya world, used by its citizens to reenact part of their creation story from the Popol Vuh;
  • Uxmal, a marvel of urban planning whose central quadrangle resembled a Spanish nunnery but actually was, in fact, a central place of administration made up of separate buildings for governance, war, religion, and the general people; and
  • Ek’ Balam, a former Maya capital whose name means “black jaguar” and whose well-preserved ruins include the White House of Reading, a building with one of the most fantastic stucco facades left to us by the ancient Maya.

There is, of course, much more to the Maya world than long-abandoned pyramids, observatories, courtyards, and temples. Dr. Barhart’s spirited explorations take you to some of the region’s most fascinating churches, caves, and spiritual wells (known as cenotes). Among them are:

  • The Convent of St. Anthony of Padua, whose layout was designed to encourage the Maya to transition from their own religious practices to Catholic ones and reflects what Dr. Barnhart calls “the architecture of conversion”;
  • The Loltún Caves, one of the most important finds in the Maya world, with hollow columns used to make music and 10,000-year-old cave paintings; and
  • Cenote Suytun, a geological cathedral whose subterranean pool was—and still is—used by the local Maya community as a place of recreation and refreshment from the blistering heat, but which was also believed to connect to the watery underworld, or Xibalba.

Discover How the Maya Thrive Today

While Exploring the Mayan World is rooted in the past, it focuses on the present day as well. Throughout these adventures, you’ll see how the Maya continue to thrive through everything from religious traditions and musical instruments to fine dining and local crafts.

  • Tasting Tequila. In Valladolid, a Spanish city built on the foundations of a Maya city named Zací, you’ll watch how the Mayapán brand of tequila is made by distilling the heart of the agave plant.
  • Conversing with Chaac. In Punta Laguna National Park, you’ll witness a blessing ceremony that is often part of a ritual dating back thousands of years in which the Maya call on Chaac, their rain god, to strike the clouds and water the crops.
  • Sipping Hot Chocolate. You’ll learn how the Maya use cacao grown in the region to make a chocolate drink the traditional way, enhancing it with a variety of local spices and flavors.
  • Weaving Economic Fortunes. During a day trip to Aké, you’ll visit a factory in a run-down hacienda where a new generation is reviving the sisal twine and rope industry that made the Yucatán so rich over 100 years ago.

And those are just a few of the enriching cultural experiences you’ll find in these episodes. All of them highlight the powerful connections between past and present in the northern Yucatán—and the resilience of the Maya themselves.

Despite all he’s learned over the years about the Maya world, Dr. Barnhart says he’s always discovering something new. And with Exploring the Mayan World, you’ll be making discoveries right alongside him.

So, forget the plane ticket, the hotel reservations, the backpack, and the hiking boots. Instead, just relax and enjoy the excitement of international travel, from home through this personalized tour of the ancient and modern Maya world, an adventure—and a Great Course—unlike anything you’ve seen.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 40 minutes each
  • 1
    Start your adventures in the Maya world with a trip to Mérida: the capital of Yucatán and the cultural capital of the entire peninsula. You’ll visit a factory in a run-down hacienda where they’re reviving the industry that made the Yucatán so rich more than 100 years ago; explore the mega-mansions lining Mérida’s Paseo de Mont; and go shopping for the perfect hammock and guayabera shirt. x
  • 2
    Chichén Itzá
    First, travel to Izamal, the “yellow city” named after the Maya sky god. Here, you’ll tour the city’s rich history—including a hike up a pyramid as high as a 10-story building and a walk through the Convent of St. Anthony of Padua, designed as a Christian teaching tool for the Maya. Then, venture on to Chichén Itzá, where you’ll get up close and personal with magnificent achievements of Maya architecture, including an observatory, a ceremonial ball court, and a sacred cenote. x
  • 3
    Ek’ Balam
    Join Dr. Barnhart for a trip to two of his favorite places in the Yucatán: Valladolid and Ek’ Balam. The first is a city established on the foundations of a Maya city called Zací and offers travelers a chance to see a traditional agave distillery and an all-female troop of competitive horseback riders. The second is the well-preserved ruins of what was once a Maya capital, and it’s where you’ll witness fantastic stucco facades and reenactors demonstrating musical instruments and the Maya ball game. x
  • 4
    More fun in the Maya world awaits in this fascinating episode where you’ll accompany Dr. Barnhart as he writes his name in Maya hieroglyphs, talks to howler monkeys, plunges into a geological cathedral, and more. It’s all part of his journey to Tihosuco, home to perhaps the largest episode in world history of an oppressed people fighting for their independence. Sites you’ll visit include the Cenote Suytun, Punta Laguna National Park, the Caste War Museum, and the Iglesia de Santo Niño Jesus. x
  • 5
    Around 1250, Mayapán replaced Chichén Itzá as the new capital of the Yucatán—and one founded on a league of representational government. In this episode, you’ll get a chance to explore the rich history and culture of the site and its surrounding region. Learn about the infamous destruction of sacred Maya codices during public acts of faith held by the Spanish friar Diego de Landa, sample delicious dishes of grilled pork and ground pumpkin seeds, and spend some time looking over the shoulder of a ceramic artist working to keep Maya artistic traditions alive in the 21st century through reproductions of ancient pottery. x
  • 6
    Discover what makes Uxmal such a marvel of Maya urban planning. Dr. Barnhart walks you through archaeological features, including the Pyramid of the Dwarf, the Palace of the Governors, and the Nunnery Quadrangle. Plus, spend some time exploring the Loltun Caves: a site that was once used for religious meditation and rituals, and where you'll find handprints dating back 10,000 years. Cap off your adventure with a sampling of hot chocolate-made the traditional Maya way. x
  • 7
    Your first stop in this episode is Kabáh, the second-largest ruin featuring the Puuc architectural style, where you’ll find over 200 faces of Chaac the rain god and a rare example of literate public art. Next, visit Bécal, famous for producing some of the best jipijapas (or, as tourists call them, panama hats) in the Yucatán. Finally, take a trip to the Celestún biosphere, a wetland reserve spanning some 150,000 acres that’s famous for the thousands of flamingos that flock there. x
  • 8
    Labná, the last of the ancient sites you’ll hit on this trip, is an architectural wonder crowned by the three buildings everyone comes here to see: the Palacio, the El Mirador pyramid, and the Labná Arch. After decoding the cultural messages in these famous works, travel back to Mérida, where your journey began. Here, you’ll follow Dr. Barnhart through the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, watch him sample modern takes on traditional Maya cuisine at a boutique hotel and spa, and catch an evening revival of a Maya ball game in Mérida’s central square. x

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Your professor

Edwin Barnhart

About Your Professor

Edwin Barnhart, Ph.D.
Maya Exploration Center
Dr. Edwin Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor. In 1994, Professor Barnhart discovered the ancient city of Maax Na (Spider-Monkey House), a major center of the Classic Maya period in northwestern Belize. In 1998 he was invited by the...
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Exploring the Mayan World is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 6.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what we were lookibg for. We wanted to learn and see more, than what we saw as tourists, about the Mayan structures and how they kived in and with them. Not so, this course is more for tourists who want to know about what is going on now.
Date published: 2020-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Winning Format Dr. Barnhart's three excellent academic style courses on the Americas provide the perfect background for this new travelogue style visit to the northern Yucatan. The visits to the artisan workshops, the guides, and the restaurant experiences make the explanations of the Mayan ruins all the more meaningful. And for anyone with a sense of humor, this course is the antidote for these grim times. Let's hope that The Great Courses invites Dr. Barnhart to do more of these courses in this style.
Date published: 2020-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An enjoyable journey Just as in-person learning, there is something to be said about leaving the classroom and experiencing something first hand ... and Dr. Barnhart does just that. While I liked his in-studio work through his previous lectures, this series really captivated me and I ended up binge-watching as a whole. Thoroughly recommend starting here if you are a novice and then proceeding to his past works -- the combination will offer a learning experience like no other.
Date published: 2020-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and beautiful travel show 'Exploring the Mayan World' is a fantastic glimpse into the mysterious (yet welcoming) world of the Mayan people. Dr. Barnhart leads viewers on a remarkable journey through the Yucatan region of Mexico, where he illustrates the juxtaposition between ancient and modern Mayan life. I enjoyed seeing the visually stunning images of the ancient archeological sites while learning their stories. Dr. Barnhart does an exceptional job of showing the influence of ancient tradition in modern art, food, and more. If I had to pick a favorite moment out of all of the adventures, it would be a 3-way tie between seeing the beautiful Cenote Suytun, observing the artisans, and seeing how chocolate and tequila were made. Actually, the flamingos were cool to see, too. And, the artisans were all impressively talented. Honestly, how could I pick a favorite? I literally could go on and on. Everything in the show was interesting, and Dr. Barnhart makes for a fun and knowledgable travel companion. If I had to share one takeaway from this show, it would be that there is so much culture out there to learn about, and so many amazing people to meet. Watching this show ignited my interest in visiting many of the towns and artisans. But, I know that this is just a tiny glimpse into the Mayan world. I am looking forward to several more episodes (and seasons) of Exploring the Mayan World!
Date published: 2020-07-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Splendid innovation Those lucky enough to have experienced Dr. Barnhart's expertise through viewing his other courses should be delighted with this format. His knowledge of and interactions with local Mayan scholars and artisans made me ready to pack up and to go see it for myself. Hopefully this treatment can be expanded to other areas of the pre-hispanic world! Thanks for a job well done!
Date published: 2020-07-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great new foremat for Great Courses This course came at the right time. I met Ed through his other courses and have had two trips with his group calcined by COVID 19. This new format for Great Courses is perfect for this time in our lives with restricted travel etc. Ed comes through as someone who really knows the area and the indigenous people. His lectures are interesting as well as showing some of the lesser known sights. His style is light and fun not your typical travelogue way of presenting. Anyone who likes to travel and learn will enjoy this course.
Date published: 2020-07-24
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