Mexico Maya begin 2012 'end of era' countdown

Mayan priests make offerings before a fire in San Andres, El Salvador Mayan priests in El Salvador have also held ceremonies to mark the occasion

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Indigenous Maya communities in southern Mexico have begun a year-long countdown to 21 December 2012, which will mark the end of a five-millenia cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar.

Some people have interpreted the prophecy as predicting the apocalypse.

But experts say it signifies the end of an era, not the end of the world.

Maya priests have been holding special religious ceremonies, and Mexican tourism officials are preparing for a surge in visitors to the region.

Mexico's tourism agency says it hopes to draw around 52 million visitors in 2012, with many heading to the Maya heartland in the southern states of Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Tabasco.

Powerful god

The Mayan civilisation, which reached its peak between 250 and 900AD, was fascinated by astronomy, mathematics and the cycles of time.

Its Long Count calendar began in 3114BC and moves forward in 394-year periods known as Baktuns.

The winter solstice in 2012 marks the end of the 13th Baktun, a date of special significance that reflects celestial alignments recognised by modern astronomers.

The idea that it could mean the end of the world - based on a Mayan text carved into a stone 1,300 years ago - has been spread on thousands of websites.

But archaeologists and Maya experts say the prophecy predicts the return to Earth of a powerful god and the start of a new era, not a global catastrophe.

They point out that other Maya prophecies refer to events far in the future.

This has not stopped the spread of millennial fears around the world.

Tourism officials are hoping that some of those who believe the end of the world is nigh will take the opportunity to visit the Maya region before it is too late.

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