Benque Viejo del Carmen now has a new attraction at its center, with the opening of the Benque Viejo Archaeological Reserve on Thursday of last week. Once a suburb of the nearby flourishing Xunantunich City State, which existed around 700 A.D, the just opened Maya site may have once been the home of an elite leader or warrior; that gathered significant tribute last week with the presence of Ambassadors from Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, Britain and Brazil.
Master of ceremony for the opening was Dr. Allan Moore, Associate Director of the Institute of Archaeology, who welcomed all the guests and attendees. At the start of the ceremony, the National Anthem was played by the Benque Marimba Academy from the Benque House of Culture. During the ceremonies, Mayor of Benque Viejo, Hilberto Ramcharan accredited the efforts of Subrata Basu, a US Peace Corps volunteer, who had worked tirelessly for a period of three years to preserve the Maya site.
Dr. John Morris, the Director of Archaeology also spoke on Thursday of last week, giving a background to the Benque site and remarked that much effort had gone into making it a central attraction.
While H.E. Carlos Moreno, Ambassador of the United States of America, also expressed that he appreciated the work of the National Institute of Culture and History - NICH, which had done considerable work to make the Benque Viejo Archaeological Reserve a reality. The U.S Ambassador also shared some of his personal history and interests in the Maya culture, arising from when he was studying Mesoamerican history in college some 45 years ago.
Adding to the presentations was Ms. Diane Haylock, President of NICH, who thanked the US Ambassador for the many grants, offered to NICH, over the years. Ms. Diane Haylock pointed out that there were many Maya sites around Belize.
Master of Ceremonies Allan Moore then announced the unveiling of the Benque landmark sign, which was witnessed by Dr. John Morris, Ambassador Carlos Moreno, Mayor Hilberto Ramcharan and Diane Haylock. Thereafter; students from the Mount Carmel Primary School also joined in for a photographic opportunity under the new landmark sign.
The newly opened Benque Viejo Archaeological Reserve was made possible as a result of a unique partnership between the Benque Viejo Town Council, the Institute of Archaeology within NICH and the United States Embassy. Work began at the site in October of last year, with NICH investing $50,000.00 and the US Embassy another $110,124.00 from under the U.S Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation AFCP.
Established by the U.S Congress in the fall of 2000; the AFCP award grants for the preservation of cultural sites, cultural objects and collections, and forms of traditional cultural expressions, such as music, dance, and language in more than 130 countries around the world. Administered by the Cultural Heritage Center, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and funded from Diplomatic and Consular Program funds, the AFCP offers the U.S a meaningful opportunity to show its respect for cultural heritage of other countries.
One remarkable feature of the newly opened archaeological site of Benque Viejo is that is has a direct line of sight to the main temple of A6 El Castillo at Xunantunich, which is located several miles away.
The Benque site was first recorded and excavated in the 1930’s by the famous British archaeologist Sir J. Eric S. Thomson. A subsequent 1990’s survey by the Xunantunich Archaeological Project (under the auspices of the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania) and the Belize Institute of Archaeology conducted further investigation of the site and produced a brief description of the settlement.
According to Oki Nabet, who is now attached to the Benque Viejo Town Council, the true tourism potential of the Benque Maya site was recognized by Peace Corps volunteer Subrata Basu, who has left Belize, but was fortunately followed in his work by JICA volunteer Akane Kato.
Remarking on the opening of the Benque Maya site, Subrata Basu has stated:
“I am so happy to see the images of the site. Next best thing to being there. Its not that often that one can see such a significant project take shape from conception to reality in such a short time. I think a great vote of thanks must go to the Benque Tourism Committee and the Belize Tourism Board for the support we got from them. It almost seems like yesterday that I was calling Jaime Awe almost every day till he agreed to support and commit to the project. He simply got tired of me and gave in. We applied for the Cultural Preservation Fund at the US Embassy and even with very strong recommendation in from then Ambassador Thummalapally were not successful the first year (no funding was made available for Belize that year). I am thankful for the US Embassy support and funding the following year. For the people of Benque this is another tangible reminder of the link to the past. I am proud to be part of this great project.”
Dr. John Morris, who also played a key role in the now opened Benque Archaeological Reserve, also tells the Guardian, “I’m proud to say that you know these kinds of projects just simply show the Nation what the Belizean experts can do, given the opportunity and given the resources. We are able to convert these archaeological sites into tourism destinations. We are able to convert them into areas where our school children can visit and learn something about the ancient Maya.”
Belize’s most Western municipality, Benque Viejo Town, has an enormous tourism potential and the addition of one more major landmark will in due course bring great benefits to taxi drivers, hoteliers, tour guides and many other Belizeans. With the marked presence of various representatives from the Community of Artists for Cultural & Historical Endeavors CACHE at the opening ceremonies on Thursday of last week, there now seem ample opportunities to make Benque a better place by working along with the Area Representative, Benque’s House of Culture, the Institute of Archaeology, the Benque Viejo Town Council and the residents of Benque.