It took 500 years for Yuri Knorozov, a Soviet soldier, to achieve what no one had ever done before: decipher the Mayan hieroglyphic writing.
For centuries, many experts around the world had been trying to find a way to interpret the Mayan codices to understand the richness of this civilization, but no one had ever succeeded before. Until a young Ukrainian, bookworm, and cat lover, came across the Mayan world by chance.
The first to attempt to unveil the secrets of the codices was Diego de Landa, a Franciscan missionary, who after ordering the death of thousands of Maya natives accused of heresy, tried to study some of their codices and in 1566 wrote La relación de las cosas de Yucatán, a work that contained a section of the Maya Alphabet and served as the basis for the study of glyphs. However, it was not until 1864 that the book was published for the first time in Paris, thanks to the French archaeologist Brasseur de Bourbourg, who discovered the original manuscript lost in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid.
Mayan culture: Knorozov’s destiny
A century later, in April 1945, amid the catastrophe of WWII, Yuri Knorozov, barely 21 years old, met his destiny: the book by Diego de Landa. The young soldier, a member of the 580th Artillery Battalion of the Soviet Army, rescued from the Prussian Library in Berlin two books that would lead him to the study of the Maya: La relación de las cosas de Yucatán and a facsimile of Los Códices Mayas.
Yuri Knorozov: an enlightened military man
When Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov had to enlist in his country’s army in 1941, he was a student of history, a lover of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and knowledge, a violinist, and a draftsman. On his own, he had learned to read Chinese, Arabic, and Greek.
He was born on November 19, 1922, the same year that Russia became the Soviet Union and devoured Ukraine, where his family lived. Two years after he entered university, WWII broke out, and he had to enlist in the Soviet forces to fight against the Germans. From 1943 to 1945, he served as an artillery observer in the Red Army. Finally, in 1945 he joined the Red Army in the city of Berlin. It was in this place where the books were found, which were placed in boxes in the middle of the street because the Prussian Library at that time was evacuated.
Once the war ended, in the winter of 1945, he returned to the USSR, where he began to study ethnography and linguistics at the Lomonosov University in Moscow, where he became enthusiastic about Egyptology and the shamanism of some Central Asian cultures and even participated in some archaeological expeditions.
Little by little, his interest in different cultures led him to get involved in Egyptology and hieroglyphic studies, but what would lead him to be introduced to the Maya was the article The decipherment of the Maya scriptures, an unsolvable problem? by the German writer Paul Schellhas.
His reading so intrigued him that he abandoned everything to devote himself entirely to the study of the Maya, despite the distrust of other researchers who thought he was too young and inexperienced. However, his response to their disbelief was: “Any system or code elaborated by a human being can be solved by any other human being.” His teacher Sergey Tokarev trusted him and his new project: deciphering the Mayan script.
How did he decipher the Mayan code?
Due to the Cold War, he could not leave the Soviet Union, so he couldn’t travel to Mexico or Guatemala, where the Mayan civilization flourished. However, this was not an obstacle, since his research was carried out within the four walls of his office in Leningrad (today the city of St. Petersburg).
To decipher the indecipherable, Knorozov learned Spanish and obtained exact copies of codices from Dresden, Paris, and Madrid. Everything he knew about Mexico, Yucatan, and the Maya he learned from books and documents.
In his research, Yuri conducted an analysis that led him to discover that Maya writing was based on logograms (signs that represent a whole word). He also detected that the Maya writing was syllabic and was composed of 355 signs, so he concluded that the Maya alphabet contained in the work of Fray Diego de Landa was a syllabary, thus deciphering the Maya writing.
That was the key that allowed him to write 1952, the academic article The ancient writing of Central America.
Academics try to discredit his work
After five centuries, the enigma was solved; unfortunately, his research was not well received by the experts of the time nor by the most prominent Maya scholars.
Knorozov was stigmatized for belonging to a communist country, so on numerous occasions, his work was belittled and disqualified by the likes of Eric Thompson, the most respected Maya specialist of the time.
It was not until the 1970s that his discovery was accepted worldwide and applied by all Mayanists.
Although the West closed its doors to Knorozov’s research, in the USSR it caused a positive stir, awakening the interest of thousands of students in the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America.
The first visit to Mexico and Guatemala
Knorozov did the impossible by discovering a world without ever having been to the Americas, let alone Mexico, Yucatan, or Guatemala.
His first trip to Central America was in 1990, 38 years after his discovery. At that time, he visited Guatemala, where he was decorated with the Order of Quetzal, the Guatemalan government’s highest distinction.
Four years later, the Mexican government awarded him the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle at the Mexican Embassy in Moscow. In 1995, Knorozov visited the country, where he visited the archaeological site of Palenque Chiapas and participated in the Third International Congress of Mayanists.
The death of the Soviet soldier who deciphered the Mayan script
Four years after his visit to Mexico, Yuri Knorozov died in the corridors of a hospital victim of a stroke, on March 30, 1999, in St. Petersburg.
At the main entrance of the Centro de Convenciones siglo XXI in Merida, Yucatan, a bronze figure was placed in his honor. With it is a plaque that reads:
“In my heart, I will always be Mexican,” a phrase he uttered upon receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1994.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva News