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Beyond Stone & Bone

Concert at Chichén Itzá
by Heather Pringle
October 10, 2008

Plácido Domingo has certainly stirred things up. Last Saturday night, the man many hail as the world’s greatest living tenor staged the “Concert of 1000 Columns” at the great Maya site of Chichén Itzá in Mexico. Domingo, for those of you who are not opera fans, was born in Spain but grew up in Mexico, where he sang in a rock and roll band, played the piano for a ballet company, and made his stage debut in the late 1950s. Since then, Domingo has seldom looked back, performing in the world’s premier opera houses to rave reviews, recording more than 100 albums, starring in numerous opera films, and even playing a cameo part in The Simpsons.

By all accounts, audience members at the “Concert of 1000 Columns,” who forked out as much as $900 for a ticket, lapped up Domingo’s performance. The great tenor reportedly turned on the charm, crooning a love song in Mayan and wooing devoted fans with several popular mariachi tunes.

But the performance left many Mexican archaeologists fuming. Mexican law, they pointed out, requires that Maya ruins be preserved to educate Mexicans about the ancient past: Domingo’s concert did nothing to illuminate Maya culture. Moreover, archaeologists worried that the construction of concert scaffolding would harm Chichén Itzá’s fragile stonework. In an effort at damage control, the Yucatan state government issued public assurances that all due precautions were taken to protect the site during the performance.

When I first read about the concert, I asked myself why Domingo was so keen to perform at Chichén Itzá. It’s difficult to believe that the site’s acoustics could rival those of his customary venues. So Chichén Itzá’s great appeal was clearly to provide a spectacular backdrop for the tenor—something that would convince fans to shell out big bucks for tickets and would attract major television interest. Can a “Live at the Concert of 1000 Columns” special or DVD be far off?

Domingo is not the only performer, however, who has been selling tickets and raking in the cash at a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2004, Alicia Keyes, Cyndi Lauper and Boyz II Men performed a major concert at The Great Wall of China, claiming that the main message was “to promote peace.” Earlier on, both Sting and Pink Floyd played dates at the pyramids in Giza. And who can forget the performances of Verdi’s opera, Aida, at Giza in the 1990s?  In addition to making money,  they were staged to calm the fear of tourists after Islamic terrorists murdered 58 foreigners at Luxor. “Nothing can prove that this country is safe and stable better than a huge show like “Aida,” performed year after year in front of the most important tourist site in the world,” said Nazmi Amin, a top official of Egypt’s Tourist Authority, in an interview with the New York Times.

The truth is that we use our most important archaeological sites today for all sorts of reasons. But I wonder if it isn’t time for a little soul-searching about how we treat these cultural monuments. I personally believe the Mexican government had it right the first time. These sites are not backdrops or film sets, they are not concert halls or tourist ads, and they certainly aren’t profit centers. They are our fragile link with ancient civilizations. They deserve better.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

7 comments for "Concert at Chichén Itzá"

  • Reply posted by Michael Sheehan (October 10, 2008, 9:04 am):

    Let’s not forget the Grateful Dead playing the pyramids back in 78, which seems like a natural. Many traditional musicians shared the stage, most notably Hamza al-Din. In that case, though, the guys really felt that the places they played helped transform the music. Whether you believe that or not, they did use one of the great chambers as a resonator by routing a loudspeaker into it and placing a microphone to pick up the sound and run it back out into the PA.


  • Reply posted by Winifred Creamer (October 10, 2008, 11:24 am):

    Considering your recent comments, what do you think of the declaration of the state of emergency at Pompeii, not because of it’s state of preservation, but because there are no good restaurants, and not enough income generating ventures at the site?


  • Reply posted by Heather (October 10, 2008, 1:48 pm):

    It looks to me like the Italian government is far more concerned with ringing in tourist dollars than it is with conserving and caring for Pompeii’s decaying villas and frescos. The current yearlong evaluation of the massive site has all the hallmarks of a marketing makeover. New restaurants are at the top of the list, and nobody seems to be talking about serious work of restoration. Indeed one article I read quoted Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, as saying, “They declared an emergency, but it didn’t mean more money for us. I mean they took money away from us.”


  • Reply posted by Kristen (October 11, 2008, 11:57 am):

    And don’t forget the Giza pyramid light show that was (if memory serves) the backdrop for the Jaws/James Bond duel in “The Spy Who Loved Me…”

    I agree that archaeological sites should be preserved and protected with the primary purpose being for learning and teaching.

    But I’m not sure I see much harm in limited events like this one, even with the purpose of pure entertainment, as long as the sites themselves are not harmed or damaged in the process.

    If we want to make archaeology accessible, if we want to interest ordinary lay people in it, what is the harm with including it in well-controlled events? What better way to expose people to it who might otherwise not step foot into the places at all?

    Keeping its access strictly controlled to just to scholars, or people who only want to listen to scholars on special tours, will just reinforce the idea that only stuffy people are interested in archaeology.

    What is wrong with preserving a site for its history, but also allowing it to have a place in the “future,” too, i.e. our present day lives?

    Did anyone ask Domingo why Chichen Itza? What an interesting interview that might make. I figure, Heather, that no one did or else you would quote it above, where you ask that specific question without giving Domingo’s specific answer to it.

    My comments do hinge, though, on that these events be limited and leave the site undamaged, and thus still able to serve the primary purpose of teaching and educating about the past. And that all proper laws be followed. (I do wonder about that statute – is it necessarily infringed by a singular use like this? I think that question would turn on whether the statute just provides for preservation of a site for education, but not necessarily require that all use be “exclusively” for education. I’m not a Mexican legal scholar,but I think that question is important before any fingers are pointed.)


  • Reply posted by Yashira (October 29, 2008, 4:13 pm):

    Hey, today was the first time I entered in this site. It is pretty amazing all what wanders off in this planet. I love Archeology, but I’d been very busy studying. Still, I love the article, and I wondered if someone here could help me answer this question (is a doubt): Where can I work if I was an archeologist?


  • Reply posted by Giza Pyramids (April 4, 2009, 11:38 pm):

    Giza pyramids is an excellent place to travel to. Sunset in the sands is something you should definitely see live.


  • Reply posted by Miguel (May 13, 2012, 9:47 pm):

    I’m not sure. I think it adds to the artistic history.

    Once you see the Pink Floyd at Pompeii film, you will understand.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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