It is 3 a.m. The alarm clock buzzes, breaking us out of a sound sleep. We are tired Canadians grabbing some warmth in Progreso, Mexico, and this morning is the first day of spring. It is also the day, we are told, that we can witness a phenomenal sight: the sun rising on the spring equinox through the two windows and doors of a small temple, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, at a nearby Mayan archeological site. Those lucky enough to be touched by the sun's rays at this time are blessed with energy and good health. In need of spiritual recharging, my husband and I decide we must experience this spectacle.
Sunrise is 6:10 a.m. The gates to Dzibilchaltun, where the temple is located, open at 4 a.m. The stars shine brightly and a waning moon still sheds considerable light. The night is calm and clear and magical already.
We race along the highway to our destination. Dzibilchaltun (meaning "place with writing on flat stones") contains almost 8,000 structures within its 19-kilometre area. This Mayan city is one of the most important archeological sites in the Yucatan Mayan world.
The Temple of the Seven Dolls, one of the most impressive ruins, was so named for seven clay dolls with moveable limbs found buried there. Each doll has a different physical defect, suggesting that the temple may have been used for healing ceremonies. The structure is by no means dramatic or awesome like other pyramids we have seen; indeed, it is rather unexceptional. Its claim to fame is its precise astronomical orientation: The doorways are arranged to mark important calendar dates. The rising sun casts its rays precisely through the eastern door to the threshold of the western door on the spring and fall equinoxes, while the moon does the same on the last full moon before Easter Sunday.
At precisely 4 a.m., the gates swing open and we are pleased to note that we are among a handful to arrive first.
Like pilgrims, we walk along the ancient road in the moonlight toward the temple. It is a mystical experience. Those walking in front and behind us walk silently. There is no sound save those of the night: the hoot of a pygmy owl, the gentle rustling of leaves. Ahead stands the temple, its outline visible in the light of the starry sky.
Little by little, more people arrive. They creep along silently and speak in whispers, spreading out on the ancient road behind us.
We reach a low structure more or less in front of the temple. A set of a dozen or so steps, constructed thousands of years ago, leads to the top. We sit on the middle steps facing the temple. It is now 4:45 a.m. Others settle in around, beside, below, behind and above us. The growing crowd is quiet as we collectively listen to the night sounds and watch the stars in the bright sky.
We wait and watch the sky for signs of dawn.
And we wait.
Gradually, a pink colour washes the horizon behind the temple. We all sigh in unison. We know that once the sun, known by the Maya as the god Kin, appears, it will rise quickly. The opportunity to be caught in its rays - and be blessed, healed and energized - is not long. There is a precise moment when the rays light up the interior of the temple and touch the onlookers.
Slowly at first, the rays of the sun begin to flicker through the temple. From the bottom, the rays beam directly through the doors and windows - and the light is blinding. And then the rays completely fill and brilliantly light up the temple's rooms, bursting through its doors and windows that are now alive with glowing light.
Suddenly the sun's rays touch us. We shiver with excitement.
Calm descends, then peace and, finally, a reverent appreciation follows - that we can be here, at this moment, in this special place, observing a phenomenon of nature harnessed by ancient people who stood here in wonder and awe in the same way thousands of years ago.