The Maya and Colonial History of Guatemala
Historia de los indios de la Nueva España

by Toribio de Motolinia (Paperback - May 1998)

This Spanish monk accompanied Cortez at his conquest of Mexico and wrote down his experiences. Reading the description of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) feels like looking at a cynical snapshot taken by a death squad. Another example of this is how Fray Toribio tells the story of when a Maya library was burnt. He cannot believe the anguish and desolation of the Maya seeing their script rolls burn to ashes. At least Toribio saved these impressions for us.

This book is very worthwhile and not too difficult reading.

(Review by David Unger)

Breve Historia Contemporánea

Luján Múñoz, J. (Fondo de Cultura Económica, Primera Edición 1998)

This history of Guatemala from the conquest up to the government of Arzú is presented in a matter of fact style and interesting to read. View an example text about the government of Rios Montt.

The book is easy to read for the advanced Spanish student.

(Review by David Unger)

La Otra Historia

José Manuel Chacón alias Filóchofo (2003, ISBN: 99922-2-161-5)
Get this book in a Guatemalan bookstore or order it with the autor:

Yes, this is something you can read even if you are a beginner in Spanish: A history of Guatemala illustrated with caricatures. Filóchofo used to do biting caricatures in a big Guatemalan newspaper until they fired him for being to far left from mainstream. His pen work is really art, and for this reason alone his book deserves to be bought. Although a bit biased, he counts the history of Guatemala in a refreshing way. Read the hilarious section on how Guatemala, starting out as Central America plus Chiapas, ended up being the small (but not insignificant) country it is now.

My only grudge towards this book is the blindness in which the author judges Alvaro Arzú, in my eyes the best president of Guatemala of all times. If I think about the peace treaty and the hundreds of rural roads and schools created by Arzú, I can only say: Hey, people from Guatemala City, come out from your cheap offices and get to know your own country.

(Review by David Unger)

Breaking the Maya Code

by Michael D. Coe (Paperback - Oct 2000)

The decipherment of the Maya script was Coe states, "one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of our age, on a par with the exploration of space and the discovery of the genetic code." American scientists studying the Maya glyphs had come to the conclusion, that the picturesque glyphs were used to express religious concepts that could not be expressed in words. Understandably, decoding progress halted with this conclusion.

It was the Russian scientist Knorosov who finally cracked the code. He had never seen Guatemala or Mexico. In World War II he got to fight in the red army in Berlin and witnessed a fire consuming the German National Library. He managed to save a book: A one-volume edition of the Maya codices of Dresden, Madrid and Paris. With this book and other sources he managed to prove that the Maya Glyphs represent a syllable code. In order to read the glyphs, scientists had to learn a Mayan language which is the nearest relative to ancient “Maya”: Yucateco.

Reading this suspenseful story you also get primed on linguistic methods, like the fact that most writing systems can be characterized just from the number of signs as either alphabetic (20 – 35 signs) or syllabic (40 to 90 signs) or logographic (100+).

The best scientific book I have read in years.

(Review by David Unger)

Indian Clothing Before Cortés

by Patricia Rieff Anawalt (Nov 1981)

The author hunted down all documents on pre-Columbian clothing she could find. This includes a wealth of codices drawn by Maya and Aztec artists. These codices were originally done in order to show the difference of attires for different social hierarchies. They also functioned as manuals for ceremonies, or "handbooks" on due garment tribute from war prisoners. The author gives a detailed account of the "second" discovery of these codices. After being brought to Europe, they were often passed from hand to hand, and knowledge of their origin was lost. They were attributed to China or Egypt. Only during the last century has all this information been brought together. Patricia Rieff also uses documents like the Relaciones geográficas done by the Spaniards seventy years after conquest.

The book represents Rieff's doctoral thesis, it classifies and shows garments of six different geographical areas in a very scientific way, a bit dry to read, but with a wealth of attractive original drawings. On the way, Rieff explains interesting details like the one that Aztec armor was made mainly of cotton, but withstood arrows and axes and therefore was in part quickly adopted by the conquistadores who appreciated the armor’s lightness.

The author also draws very interesting conclusions, one being that Cortés got to understand the significance of clothing in ritual Aztec warfare and used this to turn the tide of the most important battle.

One of the favorite books in my library.

(Review by David Unger)

The Maya, Seventh Edition

by Michael D Coe (Paperback - Mar 30, 2005)

Because of the wealth of new archaeological data and breakthroughs in the translation of hieroglyphs, Coe's updating of his classic synthesis of Maya civilization provides a valuable service to both informed lay readers and specialists wishing to apprise themselves of the current state of understanding of this most intellectually sophisticated and aesthetically refined pre-Columbian culture. Although the vast majority of the text may be found in the prior edition, the work is transformed by significant interpolations and deletions and is augmented by a new section of color plates, a useful guide for travelers, and a listing of Maya rulers. As it now stands, this refreshed and renewed little masterpiece merits a place in collections serving students of ancient Mesoamerica.

(Review from

Auf den Spuren der Maya

by Andreas Herrmann

This book is written in German language, but this does not matter: The book publishes photographs of Teobert Maler (1842-1917), which the author Andreas Herrmann unearthed in an obscure German Museum. Maler came 1865 as soldier for the "Kaiser" Maximilian to Mexico. After Maximilian's death he stayed on for several years, exploring, unearthing and photographing Maya ruins.

Maler’s photographs revive what was most important about Mayan architecture: The facade relieves. This book makes us remember that all Maya ruins visible to the nowadays tourist are the sad remainders which robbers, acid rain and cheap restoration left over from what has once been elegant Mayan temple design.

(Review by David Unger)