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 4.4 out of 5 by 47.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable and informative! Both my husband and I have found all Dr. Barnhart's courses informative but particularly enjoyed this one for its blend of the ancient and modern, culture and cuisine, history and things to see and do in the Yucatan. Dr. Barnhart's enthusiasm is contagious and we found ourselves wishing we could be on tour with him to visit these awesome sites and meet today's Mayan people. Our only complaint? The course was too short and ended too soon! We would love to "travel" with him on similar cultural/historic tours of other regions in Mexico and South America.
Date published: 2020-09-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Introduction to the Region This course piqued my curiosity since I’ve been privileged to visit this part of Mexico a few times. As many have noted, Professor Barnhart is a knowledgeable and engaging guide and presenter. His respect for the Maya, their culture and civilization is evident throughout. I especially enjoyed seeing the archaeological sites through his eyes and those of his archaeologist guests. The drone views of those sites and the cityscapes were an excellent way to portray their grandeur. However, in my opinion too much time was taken up with topics that while interesting, could have been well-covered in less depth e.g. the visit to the sisal hacienda and guayabera-shopping. A visit to one cenote would be sufficient, as would one look at the Maya ball game. This would provide time to look at bit more closely at Merida and the towns that were mentioned in an attempt to give the viewer a somewhat better understanding of the daily lives of a cross-section of Maya and others in the region today. I thought that too much time was taken up with the recaps as well. Nonetheless I would recommend this course to those who are contemplating a trip to the Yucatan since it gives an idea of the diversity of activities for visitors to the area. I believe that those who have an interest in archaeology and ancient civilizations, especially of the Americas, would likely enjoy it as well.
Date published: 2020-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Prep for a visit We thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Barnhart's down to earth talking and approach to the subject. Learned a lot about the area and now want to visit. We are fans of his having really enjoyed his "Ancient Civilizations of North America" course. His respect and admiration for the Indigenous Peoples of America shows in both courses. Myrna and Jim PEI, Canada
Date published: 2020-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved Exploring the Mayan World with Ed Barnhart! Really enjoyed the new travel format - lots of fun and very entertaining. Ed is a wonderful host - very knowledgeable about Mayan history and culture. You can see how much he loves the Maya people today! I hope there will be another series of episodes with Ed traveling in the Maya lands!
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from good travelogue places were interesting. Very beautiful gave me a sense of the power of the Mayan people and land
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Seems Like a Tour Led By a Friend This course is an enjoyable travelogue, but more than that, too. If you are intending to visit the Yucatan, you will be prepared to get more out of both the famous and less well-known Mayan sites there. If you are primarily focussed on understanding Mayan history, this new Great Course builds nicely on another of Dr. Edwin Barnhart’s Great Courses (#3100 © 2015) by revealing how the present-day descendant community has proudly kept alive cultural elements and detailed background stories from the past. I wish I could gain insights like these to augment my studies of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Dr. Barnhart guides the tour with a light and personal touch. He obviously respects and admires the Maya, and a number of the locals who appear in the eight episodes of this series are his long-time friends. One can appreciate both the professor’s knowledge and his individuality. Whether he is explaining archeologists’ techniques, choosing Mayan clothing to buy, or enjoying a traditional meal, he seems to share both scholarly and private enthusiasms. Visits are paid to sites where retrospective manufacturing and artisan crafts are impressive. Creative cinematography and beautiful music are additional admirable elements of the course, which I am pleased to recommend. My only criticism is that no guidebook was provided. Even with a short course, a guidebook enables me quickly to locate parts of the video I wish to review, generally lists supplementary readings, and helps me learn new terminology.
Date published: 2020-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Overview by Ed Barnhart We viewed this through Great Courses Plus. The content was great--Dr. Barnhart provided an informative overview of Mayan culture and artifacts and the photography was excellent. This virtual course reminded us of the personal travel adventures we have enjoyed with Dr. Barnhart--they were great learning experiences. However, the streaming was not consistent. We have started having problems with Great Courses streaming and hope that the problems are corrected soon.
Date published: 2020-08-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing course approach I was totally absorbed by Dr Barnhart’s previous Great Courses, which included trips to archeologic sites and not sure what to expect from this course. It is not the typical academic courses; rather an educational trip with an enthusiastic docent to meet the people and learn their history. In the time of limited ability to travel, it was a great trip.
Date published: 2020-08-23
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