this post's Summary: In the 1800s, the ruins of two extensive civilizations were brought to the attention of Western Civilization, yet only one really grabbed people. Why was it that Ancient Egypt and interest in that caught on among the peoples of Europe and North America, while the Mayans earned themselves only a few lone explorers and photographers?
In the last decade of the 1700s, Napoleon brought his army to Egypt and conquered it, unseating the Mameluke rulers...and sweeping up through the Holy Land in an attempt to take the region for his France and the new social order that was being set up. But he did more than just bring soldiers with him: Napoleon also brought mapmakers, chemists, and natural philosophers with him...men who wrote in detail about the animal and plant life of the Nile and the Delta, about the pyramids and obelisks, about anything and everything. When they brought their writings back to Europe, there was a flurry of publications which had, among other results, the eventual translation of the hieroglyphs.
In contrast, the remains of the Mayan world was not come across by an army, or even by a squad of naturalists. The Mayan language was, at its discovery, just as unreadable as the Egyptian hieroglyphics, but there was no major effort to decipher the Mayan script until the early 20th Century - and no real rivalry or race to decode the language until the Cold War.
Was that the reason?: that Egypt was explored with an army and interest in it followed the books?
Or was it something else?
If it was something else, even in part, what is that part? It can't be isolation - the jungles and environs of the Yucatan are just as hostile to a Boston doctor or a Scottish lawyer as the deserts and rivers of Egypt were. Alligators in one, crocodiles in the other, and mosquitos in both. And you'd sweat profusely in both locales.
Was it the fact that much of the Mayan temples and residences were buried under trees and shrubs and rocks? Unlikely, because many of the Pharonic temples had long been inundated by sand and and animal droppings, and, in places, by the Nile itself.
Was it a matter of ownership? Spain had lost the Yucatan to the Mexicans and, before the century was through, France would try putting their man on the Mexican throne. Whereas Egypt had been owned by the Ottoman Empire, controlled by Napoleon, and then ruled by the Khedives under British authority.
I would like to put forth a theory, or at least a suggestion as to what might have been a motivating factor: social eating.
Yes, that's right: many Victorian-era Europeans and probably more than a few upper-class Americans would hold unwrapping parties, wherein they would slowly unwrap a mummy, and eat it. Mayan ruins, in contrast, had nothing that could be exported to "the civilized world" for eating.
If the 'social eating' idea holds water, then there's not much hope of replacing widespread interest in all things Egyptian with widespread interest in all things Mayan.
If its a matter of armies publishing books, then perhaps either a more intense US-Mexican War takes place - or one part of the US forces decides that only a sweep designed to pincer the Mexicans can win the day...a sweep passing through Mayan lands.
Or is there another way? Some other way that, had history in the 1800s gone just a little differently, would have given us social fascination with the Mayans instead of with the Egyptians?