Samabaj: Lost Maya City Submerged in Lake Atitlan
July 6, 2012—The most important spiritual and healing center in Guatemala for over 2,000 years, Lake Atitlán has been inhabited since at least 300 BC. Ceremonies were performed from 200 BC-200 AD at a now-submerged temple on one of three islands off San Lucas.
Samabaj was named for the local Maya man who discovered it while fishing. "Abaj" means stone in Ki'che', and his first name is Sam. However, some Santiago Maya say the real name of the site is Pa'Jaibal'.
These dates are based on ceramic vessels thrown into the lake as offerings, according to Dr. Sonia Medrano. She heads up the Guatemalan archaeological team that is investigating the underwater site—which has also discovered altars, incense burners and other artifacts. The Maya considered Atitlán a portal to the underworld. Ceramic vessels for offering have also been found along the shore from San Pedro to San Lucas.
Such events took place during the Late Preclassic Period, when the earliest Mayan kings and queens ruled the cities of El Bául and others on the Pacific coast. It now appears that Mayan civilization began between Monte Alto, Izapa, Mexico, and up to Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico, rather than in Mexico’s Yucatan jungles or at Tikal or El Mirador in Guatemala.
Fire on the Water
Pilgrims from the Olmec and Maya world traveled to the lake from Takalik Abaj, El Bául, Kaminalhuyu—and as far away as Izapa, Mexico, and Tikal. It must have been an amazing sight from the shore, as a huge sacred fire lit up the lake from the island and the chanting and drums and flutes drifted across the water. Visitors to the island, now called Samabaj, stayed in the villages that stretched from San Lucas around to San Pedro and rode boat to Samabaj.
Connecting Sky and Earth
Medrano says the main attraction of the lake was the Mayan belief that the lake was a living, sacred being, and that the sky and earth are joined by an umbilical cord called ri muxux ulueu caj that was connected to earth in the middle of the lake. Perhaps this is why some people think an electromagnetic vortex is centered in the lake, explaining why many travelers are so attracted to Atitlán that they simply cannot leave, or feel compelled to return.
Ancient pilgrims traveled to the lake for other ceremonies, for astrological consultations, and for healing. They still do, but now from as far away as London, Tokyo and New York.
The Ancient Maya in San Pedro la Laguna
San Pedro was an important Mayan town then, even before the Tzu'tujil and Caqchikel arrived here from Mexico beginning around 500 AD. A stone yoke used in the sacred ball game was found in San Pedro. The presence of a ball court means San Pedro played a major role in the local culture.
One of the earliest known Mayan calendars was discovered here in 1685, when it was a Caqchikel town. So beneath the cobblestone streets and coffee plantations of San Pedro—perhaps beneath your very hotel room—lie the ruins of an ancient Mayan city.
The End of their World
Samabaj vanished beneath the water about 1,700 years ago, when the lake suddenly rose 20 meters. Archaeologists think Volcan Atitlán may have erupted and blocked the outlets at the bottom of the lake with mud.
But Lake Atitlán continued as a ceremonial center and remains a sacred site where Mayan astrology and spirituality are still practiced by many Maya as well as by people who visit from around the world or who now call the lake their home.
See for Yourself
A museum focusing on Samabaj is planned. Until then, artifacts from the lake are exhibited at the Museo Tz'unun Ya’ in San Pedro and at Museo Lacustre in Panajachel. In December, 2014, scuba diving was banned in the area.