We were told to be ready to go at 6.30am for today’s organised tour of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. However, the driver of the minibus had been told we’d meet him outside the backpackers at 6am. I like to squeeze out the last possible second of sleep before dragging my carcass out of bed, so this was somewhat of an annoyance, but my personal annoyance was nothing compared to that of the driver. I was worried that he might burst a blood vessel – screaming and shouting in Spanish like he’d just found his wife in bed with his least favourite mule.
I took it in my stride, whatevers dude, since my two stints in African jails I’m the king of travel zen. Happily everybody else he had to pick up weren’t quite ready either… FUNNY DAT.
We hurtled out of town at a great rate of knots, stopping for breakfast along the way. The other people in the minibus were backpackers from all over the world, but I was a bit too sleepy to engage in any meaningful conversation.
Around 10am we arrived at Frontera Corozal on the Usumacinta River. The river forms the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala and Yaxchilan is to be found about an hour downstream. We left our backpacks on the bus and headed down to the boat that was waiting for us to take us to the site. Like Lamanai, Yaxchilan is not accessible by road – for the Mayans rivers were their highways. In fact, until fairly recently, the only way to reach Yaxchilan was a 100 mile journey down the Usumacinta.
Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in what is now the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the course of the Usumacinta, with Piedras Negras as its major rival. Architectural styles in subordinate sites in the Usumacinta region demonstrate clear differences that mark a clear boundary between the two kingdoms.
Yaxchilan was a large centre, important throughout the Classic era, and the dominant power of the Usumacinta River area. It dominated such smaller sites as Bonampak and had a long rivalry with Piedras Negras and at least for a time with Tikal; it was a rival of Palenque, with which Yaxchilan warred in 654.
The site contains impressive ruins, with palaces and temples bordering a large plaza upon a terrace above the Usumacinta River. The architectural remains extend across the higher terraces and the hills to the south of the river, overlooking both the river itself and the lowlands beyond. Yaxchilan is known for the large quantity of excellent sculpture at the site, such as the monolithic carved stelae and the narrative stone reliefs carved on lintels spanning the temple doorways. Over 120 inscriptions have been identified on the various monuments from the site..
Yaxchilan has its origins in the Preclassic Period. A large part of what is known of the Classic Period history of the city comes from the hieroglyphic texts of the kings who ruled during its Late Classic apogee, one of the most important of which is Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Some retrospective inscriptions appear to have been used to rewrite Yaxchilan’s dynastic history to suit king Bird Jaguar IV. Before the rule of king Itzamnaaj Balam II, who reigned from 681 to 742, the city was relatively small. The city-state then grew to a regional capital and the dynasty lasted into the early 9th century.
The known history of Yaxchilan starts with the enthronement of Yopaat B’alam I, most likely on 23 July 359. He was the founder of a long dynasty, and took the throne when Yaxchilan was still a minor site. Hieroglyphic inscriptions dating to the Late Classic describe a series of wars in the Early Classic between the city and its neighbours.
K’inich Tatb’u Skull I ruled in the early 5th century and was the first of the rulers of Yaxchilan to be recorded as having taken a rival king as a war captive, his prisoner being king Bird Jaguar of Bonampak (not to be confused with the four rulers of Yaxchilan who bore the same name). The long running rivalry with Piedras Negras had already begun by the fifth century AD, with both cities struggling to dominate the Usumacinta trade route. King Moon Skull was credited with gaining a victory over Piedras Negras in 460 and with capturing the enemy king, known only as “Ruler A”. By the middle of the 5th century Yaxchilan had formal contacts with the great city of Tikal. Bird Jaguar II, the next king of Yaxchilan, captured a vassal of the king of Piedras Negras around 478.
Knot-eye Jaguar I was a warlike king who was recorded as capturing nobles from Bonampak, Piedras Negras and the great city of Tikal. In 514, Knot-eye Jaguar I was taken captive by Ruler C of Piedras Negras, as depicted on Lintel 12 from that city, where he is shown kneeling before the enemy king with his wrists bound. His successor, K’inich Tatb’u Skull II, was enthroned on 11 February 526. This king is notable for the series of carved lintels he commissioned, including a dynastic list that provides information on the early kings of the city. K’inich Tatb’u Skull II oversaw a revival of Yaxchilan’s fortunes and he captured lords from Bonampak, Lakamtuun and, notably, the lord of Calakmul, one of the two great Maya powers of the Classic Period, as well as a success against Tikal, the second great power.
Little is known of the history of Yaxchilan from 537 to 629, although four kings are known to have reigned in this period. Knot-eye Jaguar II is known to have captured the lord of Lacanha in 564, one of the few events that can be identified from this period. It may be that the lack of an inscribed history for this lengthy period indicates that Yaxchilan had fallen under the dominion of a more powerful neighbour, such as Piedras Negras, Palenque or Toniná, all of which were powerful polities in the Usumacinta region at this time.
Yaxchilan reached its greatest power during the reigns of King Itzamnaaj B’alam II, who died in his 90s in 742, and his son Bird Jaguar IV. Itzamnaaj B’alam II was enthroned in October 681 and he ruled for more than sixty years. During the last third of his reign he was responsible for a monumental building programme that included the erection of magnificent buildings with richly carved lintels, hieroglyphic stairways and carved stelae, transforming the centre of the city. During his reign, the kingdom of Yaxchilán extended to include the nearby sites of La Pasadita and El Chicozapote to the northwest of the city. At times the sites of Lacanha and Bonampak appear to have been under his domination, although this region was controlled by Toniná in 715.
In 726, Yaxchilan was defeated by its rival Piedras Negras. A sajal (subordinate lord) of Itzamnaaj B’alam II was captured by the enemy city, an event that is suspiciously absent from inscriptions at Yaxchilán. It is after this period, over forty years into the reign of Itzamnaaj B’alam II, that this king embarked upon his impressive building programme, this may indicate that at this time Yaxchilan was able to exert independence from the hegemony of once powerful neighbours and claim greater political independence and more lucrative control of riverine trade.
In 729, Itzamnaaj B’alam II captured Aj Popol Chay, the lord of Lacanha. This victory over Lacanha is compared to the earlier victory of Knot-eye Jaguar II against the same city. Similarly, his capture of a lord of Hix Witz in 732 is compared to Bird Jaguar III’s victory over the same site.
Yaxchilan retaliated in 759, gaining a victory over its enemy. Circa 790 CE, Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar III oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II in Bonampak, and hired Yaxchilano artisans to commemorate it (and the previous Chan Muwaan) in “Structure I”‘s murals.
In 808, king K’inich Tatb’u Skull III marked his capture of the king of Piedras Negras, an event that probably represented the final overthrow of Yaxchilan’s long running enemy, ending dynastic rule there and destroying the city as a capital. Yaxchilan reached its peak during the Late Classical period of 800 to 1000 AD, but after that… nothing. The place was abandoned to the jungle long before the conquistadors turned up.
The place was rediscovered in the 1800s, but it was the 1880s before any detailed surveys were carried out and large-scale excavations would have to wait until well into the 20th century.
As far as Yaxchilan’s buildings are concerned, the major groups are the Central Acropolis, the West Acropolis and the South Acropolis. The South Acropolis occupies the highest part of the site. The site is aligned with relation to the Usumacinta River, at times causing unconventional orientation of the major structures, such as the two ballcourts.
You enter the site through the Labyrinth, which lies at the western edge of the Central Acropolis. The Labyrinth is a temple with rooms spread over three levels, linked by interior stairways. The temple facade has four doorways, with three doorway-sized niches between them. Two sculptured altars are located in front of the structure, which still has the remains of a perforated roof comb.
On the way up to the South Acropolis Casey was dying from the combination of the heat and the slog. I suggested she head on down to the boat and I would meet her there.
After checking out the acropolis, I hurried down to the boat to find that Casey wasn’t there. With no mobile phone reception I started to get a bit worried. The boat driver was itching to go (what is with guys around here and ruthless efficiency?) and so I ran back into the site, getting myself lost in the damn labyrinth along the way.
I eventually found Casey halfway up the hill that leads up to the acropolis. She had got totally lost and was pretty upset. I did my best to console her, but we really needed to get going – I knew the boat driver would not wait. So I took her hand and we ran the best we could back through the ruins in the sweltering heat. The boat was still there – just!
However, Casey’s phone wasn’t.
She had dropped it somewhere on the run back.
We had to go and look for it. “Cinco minutos!” I cried out and dragged Casey back to the labyrinth, retracing our steps. Casey was stressed as hell, but all I could think was – “well, we get this sorted, get back on the boat and then we can chill. Yaxchillin’.”
I found the phone on the ground to the right of the labyrinth exit (ol’ eagle eyes here) and we raced back through the labyrinth to the dock. Puffing and panting and sweating like a right pair of goons we got there just in time to see the boat depart. Without us.
Overnight buses are always a joy, especially when the air-con is set to “ARCTIC”. We got a little kip on the journey from Merida to Palenque, but not much.
We arrived at our destination about an hour before sunrise. It was too early dagnamit! Everything was closed. I wanted to stay on the bus, but they wouldn’t let me, the rotten jackanapes. We found a one grotty little transport cafe with surly staff that seemed to be open. I left Case there with the bags (she promised to do her best not to doze off) while I went to find somewhere to sling our proverbial hooks for the night. One of the many advantages of not travelling alone.
I found a nice little place about up the road, and they were good enough to let us crash out for a few hours that morning, which was a welcome relief.
After a few hours of shut-eye we wandered up along the main street looking for somewhere to book tomorrow’s trip down to the Mayan cities of Yaxchilan, Bonampak and beyond. We put our names down for a tour that would take us all the way to Flores in Guatemala – the nearest town to Tikal, the jewel of the Mayan Empire.
But today was all about Palenque, and that afternoon we hopped the bus down to the site to see what we could see.
Palenque (Yucatec Maya: Bàak’) was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date back to 226 BC to around 799 AD. After its decline, it was absorbed into the jungle, which is made up of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees.
But most of the site has been excavated and restored and is now a famous archaeological site attracting thousands of visitors. It is located near the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas,
Palenque is a medium-sized site, much smaller than such huge sites as Tikal, Chichen Itza, or Copán, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments; historians now have a long sequence of the ruling dynasty of Palenque in the 5th century and extensive knowledge of the city-state’s rivalry with other states such as Calakmul and Toniná. The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pacal the Great whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions.
By 2005, the discovered area covered up to 2.5 km² (1 sq mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.
Much of the Early Classic history of the city still awaits the archaeologist’s trowel. However, from the extent of the surveyed site and the reference to Early Classic rulers in the inscriptional record of the Late Classic, it is clear Palenque’s history is much longer than we currently know. The fact that early ajaw (king or lord) and mythological beings used a variety of emblem glyphs in their titles indeed suggests a complex early history. For instance, K’uk’ B’ahlam, the supposed founder of the Palenque dynasty, is called a Toktan Ajaw in the text of the Temple of the Foliated Cross.
The famous structures that we know today probably represent a rebuilding effort in response to the attacks by the city of Calakmul and its client states in 599 and 611. One of the main figures responsible for rebuilding Palenque and for a renaissance in the city’s art and architecture is also one of the best-known Maya Ajaw, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Pacal the Great), who ruled from 615 to 683. He is best known through his funerary monument, dubbed the Temple of Inscriptions after the lengthy text preserved in the temple’s superstructure. At the time Alberto Ruz Lhuillier excavated Pakal’s tomb it was the richest and best preserved of any scientifically excavated burial then known from the ancient Americas. It held this position until the discovery of the rich Moche burials at Sipan, Peru and the recent discoveries at Copan and Calakmul.
Beside the attention that K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s tomb brought to Palenque, the city is historically significant for its extensive hieroglyphic corpus composed during the reigns of Janaab’ Pakal his son K’inich Kan B’ahlam and his grandson K’inich Akal Mo’ Naab’, and for being the location where Heinrich Berlin and later Linda Schele and Peter Mathews outlined the first dynastic list for any Maya city.
The first ajaw, or king, of B’aakal that we know of was K’uk Balam (Quetzal Jaguar), who governed for four years starting in the year 431. After him, a king came to power, nicknamed Casper by archaeologists. The next two kings were probably Casper’s sons. Little was known about the first of these, B’utz Aj Sak Chiik, until 1994, when a tablet was found describing a ritual for the king. The first tablet mentioned his successor Ahkal Mo’ Naab I as a teenage prince, and therefore it is believed that there was a family relation between them. For unknown reasons, Akhal Mo’ Naab I had great prestige, so the kings who succeeded him were proud to be his descendants.
When Ahkal Mo’ Naab I died in 524, there was an interregnum of four years, before the following king was crowned en Toktán in 529. K’an Joy Chitam I governed for 36 years. His sons Ahkal Mo’ Naab II and K’an B’alam I were the first kings who used the title Kinich, which means “the great sun”. This word was used also by later kings. B’alam was succeeded in 583 by Yohl Ik’nal, who was supposedly his daughter. The inscriptions found in Palenque document a battle that occurred under her government in which troops from Calakmul invaded and sacked Palenque, a military feat without known precedents. These events took place in 599.
A second victory by Calakmul occurred some twelve years later, in 611, under the government of Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat, son of Yohl Iknal. In this occasion, the king of Calakmul entered Palenque in person, consolidating a significant military disaster, which was followed by an epoch of political disorder. Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat was to die in 612.
B’aakal began the Late Classic period in the throes of the disorder created by the defeats before Calakmul. The glyphic panels at the Temple of Inscriptions, which records the events at this time, relates that some fundamental annual religious ceremonies were not performed in 613, and at this point states: “Lost is the divine lady, lost is the king.” Mentions of the government at the time have not been found.
It is believed that after the death of Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat, Janaab Pakal, also called Pakal I, took power thanks to a political agreement. Janaab Pakal assumed the functions of the ajaw (king) but never was crowned. He was succeeded in 612 by his daughter, the queen Sak K’uk’, who governed for only three years until her son was old enough to rule. It is considered that the dynasty was re-established from then on, so B’aakal retook the path of glory and splendour.
The grandson of Janaab Pakal is the most famous of the Mayan kings, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, also known as Pakal the Great. He began rule at the age of 12 years old after his mother Sak Kuk resigned as queen after three years, thus passing power on to him. Pakal the Great reigned in Palenque from 615 to 683, and his mother remained an important force for the first 25 years of his rule. She may have ruled jointly with him. Known as the favorite of the gods, he carried Palenque to new levels of splendor, in spite of having come to power when the city was at a low point. Pakal married the princess of Oktán, Lady Tzakbu Ajaw (also known as Ahpo-Hel) in 624 and had at least three children.
During his government, most of the palaces and temples of Palenque were constructed; the city flourished as never before, eclipsing Tikal. The central complex, known as The Palace, was enlarged and remodeled on various occasions, notably in the years 654, 661, and 668. In this structure, is a text describing how in that epoch Palenque was newly allied with Tikal, and also with Yaxchilan, and that they were able to capture the six enemy kings of the alliance. Not much more had been translated from the text.
After the death of Pakal in 683, his older son K’inich Kan B’alam assumed the kingship of B’aakal, who in turn was succeeded in 702 by his brother K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II. The first continued the architectural and sculptural works that were begun by his father, as well as finishing the construction of the famous tomb of Pakal. Pakal’s sarcophagus, built for a very tall man, held the richest collection of jade seen in a Mayan tomb. A jade mosaic mask was placed over his face, and a suit made of jade adorned his body, with each piece hand-carved and held together by gold wire.
Furthermore, K’inich Kan B’alam I began ambitious projects, like the Group of the Crosses. Thanks to numerous works begun during his government, now we have portraits of this king, found in various sculptures. His brother succeeded him continuing with the same enthusiasm of construction and art, reconstructing and enlarging the north side of the Palace. Thanks to the reign of these three kings, B’aakal enjoyed a century of growth and splendour.
In 711, Palenque was sacked by the realm of Toniná, and the old king K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II was taken prisoner. It is not known what the final destination of the king was, and it is presumed that he was executed in Toniná. For 10 years there was no king. Finally, K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nab’ III was crowned in 722. Although the new king belonged to the royalty, there is no reason to be sure that he was the direct inheritor direct of K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II. It is believed, therefore, that this coronation was a break in the dynastic line, and probably K’inich Ahkal Nab’ arrived to power after years of maneuvering and forging political alliances. This king, his son, and grandson governed until the end of the 8th century. Little is known about this period, except that, among other events, the war with Toniná continued, where there are hieroglyphics that record a new defeat of Palenque.
During the 8th century, B’aakal came under increasing stress, in concert with most other Classic Mayan city-states, and there was no new elite construction in the ceremonial centre sometime after 800. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations, then the site was abandoned and was slowly grown over by the forest. The district was very sparsely populated when the Spanish first arrived in the 1520s. Occasionally city-state lords were women. Lady Sak Kuk ruled at Palenque for at least three years starting in 612 CE, before she passed her title to her son. However, these female rulers were accorded male attributes. Thus, these women became more masculine as they assumed roles that were typically male roles.
The Temple of Inscriptions had begun perhaps as early as 675 as the funerary monument of Hanab-Pakal. The temple superstructure houses the second longest glyphic text known from the Maya world (the longest is the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan). The Temple of the Inscriptions records approximately 180 years of the city’s history from the 4th through 12th K’atun. The focal point of the narrative records K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s K’atun period-ending rituals focused on the icons of the city’s patron deities prosaically known collectively as the Palenque Triad or individually as GI, GII, and GIII.
The Pyramid measures 60 meters wide, 42.5 meters deep and 27.2 meters high. The Summit temple measures 25.5 meters wide, 10.5 meters deep and 11.4 meters high. The largest stones weigh 12 to 15 tons. These were on top of the Pyramid. The Total volume of pyramid and temple is 32,500 cu. meters.
In 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier removed a stone slab in the floor of the back room of the temple superstructure to reveal a passageway (filled in shortly before the city’s abandonment and reopened by archeologists) leading through a long stairway to Pakal’s tomb. The tomb itself is remarkable for its large carved sarcophagus, the rich ornaments accompanying Pakal, and for the stucco sculpture decorating the walls of the tomb. Unique to Pakal’s tomb is the psychoduct, which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone covering the entrance to the burial. This psychoduct is perhaps a physical reference to concepts about the departure of the soul at the time of death in Maya eschatology where in the inscriptions the phrase ochb’ihaj sak ik’il (the white breath road-entered) is used to refer to the leaving of the soul. A find such as this is greatly important because it demonstrated for the first time the temple usage as being multifaceted. These pyramids were, for the first time, identified as temples and also funerary structures.
The much-discussed iconography of the sarcophagus lid depicts Pakal in the guise of one of the manifestations of the Maya Maize God emerging from the maws of the underworld.
The temple also has a duct structure that still is not completely understood by archaeologists. It has been suggested that the duct aligns with the winter solstice and that the sun shines down on Pakals tomb.
The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross are a set of graceful temples atop step pyramids, each with an elaborately carved relief in the inner chamber depicting two figures presenting ritual objects and effigies to a central icon.
Earlier interpretations had argued that the smaller figure was that of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal while the larger figure was K’inich Kan B’ahlam. However, it is now known based on a better understanding of the iconography and epigraphy that the central tablet depicts two images of Kan B’ahlam.
The smaller figure shows K’inich Kan B’ahlam during a rite of passage ritual at the age of six while the larger is of his accession to kingship at the age of 48. These temples were named by early explorers; the cross-like images in two of the reliefs actually depict the tree of creation at the centre of the world in Maya mythology.
The Palace, a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards, was built by several generations on a wide artificial terrace during four century period. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies. The Palace is located in the centre of the ancient city.
The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace
Within the Palace there are numerous sculptures and bas-relief carvings that have been conserved. The Palace most unique and recognizable feature is the four-story tower known as The Observation Tower. The Observation Tower like many other buildings at the site exhibit a mansard-like roof. The A-shaped Corbel arch is an architectural motif observed throughout the complex.
The Corbel arches require a large amount of masonry mass and are limited to a small dimensional ratio of width to height providing the characteristic high ceilings and narrow passageways. The Palace was equipped with numerous large baths and saunas which were supplied with fresh water by an intricate water system. An aqueduct, constructed of great stone blocks with a three-meter-high vault, diverts the Otulum River to flow underneath the main plaza. The Palace is the largest building complex in Palenque measuring 97 meters by 73 meters at its base.
The Temple of the Skull has a skull on one of the pillars.
Temple XIII contained the Tomb of the Red Queen, an unknown noble woman, possibly the wife of Pakal, discovered in 1994. The remains in the sarcophagus were completely covered with a bright red powder made of cinnabar.
The Temple of the Count another elegant Classic Palenque temple, which got its name from the fact that early explorer Jean Frederic Waldeck lived in the building for some time, and Waldeck claimed to be a count.
Well, I think that’ll do for one day. Does anybody know how we get out of here?
So then it was back to the town of Palenque where we realised that it was actually Easter Sunday, so we bought a couple of Kinder Surprise eggs, just like you can’t do in America.
So then, another day, another fabulous Mayan City to explore. Uxmal is (was) located a hundred miles or so south of Merida, so we hopped on the local bus and headed down to see what we could find.
Uxmal (Yucatec Maya: Óoxmáal) is an ancient Maya city of the classical period in present-day Mexico. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Chichen Itza in Mexico (tick!); Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize (oh, really? bummer), and Tikal in Guatemala (tick coming soon!).
Uxmal is located in the Puuc region and is considered one of the Maya cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance.
Uxmal is located 62 km south of Mérida, capital of Yucatán state in Mexico. Its buildings are noted for their size and decoration. Ancient roads called sacbes connect the buildings, and also were built to other cities in the area such as Chichén Itzá, Caracol and Xunantunich in modern-day Belize, and Tikal in modern-day Guatemala.
Its buildings are typical of the Riley Kand Puuc style, with smooth low walls that open on ornate friezes based on representations of typical Maya huts. These are represented by columns (representing the reeds used for the walls of the huts) and trapezoidal shapes (representing the thatched roofs). Entwined snakes and, in many cases two-headed snakes are used for masks of the rain god, Chaac; its big noses represent the rays of the storms. Feathered serpents with open fangs are shown leaving from the same human beings. Also seen in some cities are the influences of the Nahua, who followed the cult of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc. These were integrated with the original elements of the Puuc tradition.
The buildings take advantage of the terrain to gain height and acquire important volumes, including the Pyramid of the Magician, with five levels, and the Governor’s Palace, which covers an area of more than 1,200 m2 (12,917 sq ft).
The present name seems to derive from Oxmal, meaning “three times built”. This seems to refer to the site’s antiquity and the times it had to rebuild. The etymology is disputed; another possibility is Uchmal which means “what is to come, the future.” By tradition, this was supposed to be an “invisible city,” built in one night by the magic of the dwarf king.
Maya chronicles say that Uxmal was founded about 500 A.D. by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the Xiu family. It was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and for a while, in alliance with Chichen Itza, dominated all of the northern Maya area. Sometime after about 1200, no new major construction seems to have been made at Uxmal, possibly related to the fall of Uxmal’s ally Chichen Itza and the shift of power in Yucatán to Mayapan. The Xiu moved their capital to Maní, and the population of Uxmal declined.
Uxmal was dominant from 875 to 900 CE. The site appears to have been the capital of a regional state in the Puuc region from 850-950 CE. The Maya dynasty expanded their dominion over their neighbors. This prominence did not last long, as the population dispersed around 1000 CE.
After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán (in which the Xiu allied with the Spanish), early colonial documents suggest that Uxmal was still an inhabited place of some importance into the 1550s. As the Spanish did not build a town here, Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.
Even before the restoration work, Uxmal was in better condition than many other Maya sites. Much was built with well-cut stones set into a core of concrete not relying on plaster to hold the building together. The Maya architecture here is considered matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty. The Puuc style of Maya architecture predominates. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where the casual visitor can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial centre looked in ancient times.
The Adivino (a.k.a. the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf), is a stepped pyramid structure, unusual among Maya structures in that its layers’ outlines are oval or elliptical in shape, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new temple pyramids atop older ones, but here a newer pyramid was built centered slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple atop the old pyramid is preserved, with the newer temple above it. In addition, the western staircase of the pyramid is situated so that it faces the setting sun on the summer solstice.
The structure is featured in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, “el enano del Uxmal” (the dwarf of Uxmal), which is also the basis for the structure’s common name. Multiple versions of this tale are recorded. It was popularised after one of these was recounted by John Lloyd Stephens in his influential 1841 book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. According to Stephens’ version, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the gobernador (ruler or king) of Uxmal. The dwarf’s mother (a bruja, or witch) arranged the trial of strength and magic to compete against the king.
The Nunnery Quadrangle (a nickname given to it by the Spanish; it was a government palace) is the finest of Uxmal’s several fine quadrangles of long buildings. It has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside faces.
A large Ballcourt for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. Its inscription says that it was dedicated in 901 by the ruler Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw, also known as Lord Chac (before the decipherment of his corresponding name glyphs).
A number of other temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and other monuments, some of significant size, and in varying states of preservation, are also at Uxmal. These include North Long Building, House of the Birds, House of the Turtles, Grand Pyramid, House of the Doves, and South Temple.
Uxmal has attracted many visitors since the time of Mexico’s independence. The first detailed account of the ruins was published by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made two extended visits to Uxmal in the early 1840s, with architect/draftsman Catherwood reportedly making so many plans and drawings that they could be used to construct a duplicate of the ancient city (unfortunately most of the drawings are lost).) Désiré Charnay took a series of photographs of Uxmal in 1860. Some three years later Empress Carlota of Mexico visited Uxmal; in preparation for her visit local authorities had some statues and architectural elements depicting phallic themes removed from the ancient façades.
Sylvanus G. Morley made a map of the site in 1909 which included some previously overlooked buildings. The Mexican government’s first project to protect some of the structures from risk of collapse or further decay came in 1927. In 1930 Frans Blom led a Tulane University expedition to the site. They made plaster casts of the façades of the “Nunnery Quadrangle”; using these casts, a replica of the Quadrangle was constructed and displayed at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The plaster replicas of the architecture were destroyed following the fair, but some of the plaster casts of Uxmal’s monuments are still kept at Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute. In 1936 a Mexican government repair and consolidation program was begun under José Erosa Peniche.
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited on 27 February 1975 for the inauguration of the site’s sound & light show. When the presentation reached the point where the sound system played the Maya prayer to Chaac (the Maya rain deity), a sudden torrential downpour occurred. Gathered dignitaries included Gaspar Antonio Xiu, a descendant of noble Maya lineage, the Xiu).
We left the site in the late afternoon, waited at the roadside for what seemed like an age before a bus came along and picked us up. We got back to Merida at sunset.
Then it was food>face>shovel time and after grabbing our things from the hotel, it was back to the bus station to jump on the overnight coach to our next awesome Mayan destination… PALENQUE!!
It was dark before we hit Merida. We found ourselves a rustic little backpackers located in an old pension, but without effective fans the night was sweltering. I was rudely awoken in the morning, not by the dustmen, but by an earthquake. Bits of paint fell from the high ceiling. It measured 7.2 on the Richter Scale. Case slept right through it.
We decided to have a day off from gallivanting around Mayan ruins and instead go gallivanting around the town of Merida. I’m glad we did – the place is wonderful. I found us a new gaff to stay for the night, a nice little hotel on the north end of town, and I even splurged out on AC and a telly that we would probably not even use.
We went for lunch and ordered too much food.
The road adjacent to the main square was closed off and bleachers were being set up – some event going on that evening.
Being Good Friday, I kinda expected it to be a Catholic thing, so imagine my surprise and delight to find that no, we had just found ourselves ringside for THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.
You don’t believe me, do you?
CHECK THIS OUT:
Yeah, YEAH… NOW YOU BELIEVE ME!!!
Aside from the Fire Hockey, there were traditional Mayan ball games…
And even a wedding!
You’d think it was just good timing, but I swear stuff like this always happens when you’re on the road!
After all the fun of the Mayan games (seriously going to write to the IOC and ask for Fire Hockey to be included in the next Olympic Games), Case and I grabbed some ice-cream…
Checked these beautiful old churches…
And ended up in this pub that had some incredible décor.
Another early morning and our third helping of Mayan awesomeness in three days. You may have heard of this place…
Chichén Itzá, from Yucatec Maya Chi’ch’èen Ìitsha’ means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. It was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic. The archaeological site is located in the municipality of Tinum, in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands.
The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.
Evidence in the Chilam Balam books indicates another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest. This earlier name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal (“Seven Great House”), Uuc Hab Nal (“Seven Bushy Places”), Uucyabnal (“Seven Great Rulers”) or Uc Abnal (“Seven Lines of Abnal”). This name, dating to the Late Classic Period, is recorded both in the book of Chilam Balam de Chumayel and in hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.
Chichen Itza is located in the eastern portion of Yucatán state in Mexico. The northern Yucatán Peninsula is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichen, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous.
According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.
The core layout of the Chichen Itza site developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula. The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza is equivalent to 832 AD, while the last known date was recorded in the Osario temple in 998.
The Late Classic city was centered upon the area to the southwest of the Xtoloc cenote, with the main architecture represented by the substructures now underlying the Las Monjas and Observatorio and the basal platform upon which they were built.
Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands.
According to Maya chronicles (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophesied his own rise to power. According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophesied his own ascension.
While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250 CE, before the rise of Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.
While Chichén Itzá “collapsed” or fell (meaning elite activities ceased) it may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if Maya were living in Chichen Itza or nearby. The relatively high density of population in the region was one of the factors behind the conquistadors’ decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.
In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha’, south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and established his main base at Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.
Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of the ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.
Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and, by recruiting Maya from Campeche and Champoton, built a large Indio-Spanish army and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.
Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood). The book recounted Stephens’ visit to Yucatán and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá. The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Desire Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruines américaines (1863).
In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén, and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach. Augustus Le Plongeon called it “Chaacmol” (later renamed “Chac Mool”, which has been the term to describe all types of this statuary found in Mesoamerica). Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichen Itza in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.
In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Osario (High Priest’s Temple). Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
In 1913, the Carnegie Institution accepted the proposal of archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley and committed to conduct long-term archaeological research at Chichen Itza. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability, as well as World War I, delayed the project by a decade.
In 1923, the Mexican government awarded the Carnegie Institution a 10-year permit (later extended another 10 years) to allow U.S. archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza. Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, among other major buildings. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo and the Great Ball Court.
In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén. Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatán. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in New Jersey in 1935. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.
There have been two later expeditions to recover artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado, in 1961 and 1967. The first was sponsored by the National Geographic, and the second by private interests. Both projects were supervised by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH has conducted an ongoing effort to excavate and restore other monuments in the archaeological zone, including the Osario, Akab D’zib, and several buildings in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen).
In 2009, to investigate construction that predated El Castillo, Yucatec archaeologists began excavations adjacent to El Castillo under the direction of Rafael (Rach) Cobos.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities, with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site core covering an area of at least 5 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi). Smaller scale residential architecture extends for an unknown distance beyond this. The city was built upon broken terrain, which was artificially levelled in order to build the major architectural groups, with the greatest effort being expended in the levelling of the areas for the Castillo pyramid, and the Las Monjas, Osario and Main Southwest groups. The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings were connected by a dense network of paved causeways, called sacbeob. Archaeologists have identified over 80 sacbeob criss-crossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city.
The architecture encompasses a number of styles, including the Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court; The Osario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc; and the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.
South of Las Monjas, in an area known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) and only open to archaeologists, are several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.
Dominating the North Platform of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan (a Maya feathered serpent deity similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl), usually referred to as El Castillo (“the castle”).
This step pyramid stands about 30 metres (98 ft) high and consists of a series of nine square terraces, each approximately 2.57 metres (8.4 ft) high, with a 6-metre (20 ft) high temple upon the summit. The sides of the pyramid are approximately 55.3 metres (181 ft) at the base and rise at an angle of 53°, although that varies slightly for each side. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. The talud walls of each terrace slant at an angle of between 72° and 74°. At the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent.
Mesoamerican cultures periodically superimposed larger structures over older ones, and El Castillo is one such example. In the mid-1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation of El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. Inside the temple chamber was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of Jaguar, painted red and with spots made of inlaid jade. The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple, and opened it to tourists. In 2006, INAH closed the throne room to the public.
On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan.
Archaeologists have identified thirteen ballcourts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichen Itza, but the Great Ball Court about 150 metres (490 ft) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 168 by 70 metres (551 by 230 ft).
The parallel platforms flanking the main playing area are each 95 metres (312 ft) long. The walls of these platforms stand 8 metres (26 ft) high; set high up in the centre of each of these walls are rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents.
At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated; the wound emits streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.
At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado). This small masonry building has detailed bas relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.
Built into the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two, large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif. Inside there is a large mural, much destroyed, which depicts a battle scene.
The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions.
The one at Chichen Itza, however, was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) is a Chac Mool. This temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac Mool. The archeological expedition and restoration of this building was done by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1925 to 1928. A key member of this restoration was Earl H. Morris who published the work from this expedition in two volumes entitled Temple of the Warriors.
Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. The columns are in three distinct sections: a west group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents. The northeast column temple also covers a small marvel of engineering, a channel that funnels all the rainwater from the complex some 40 metres (130 ft) away to a rejollada, a former cenote.
To the south of the Group of a Thousand Columns is a group of three, smaller, interconnected buildings. The Temple of the Carved Columns is a small elegant building that consists of a front gallery with an inner corridor that leads to an altar with a Chac Mool. There are also numerous columns with rich, bas-relief carvings of some 40 personages. A section of the upper façade with a motif of x’s and o’s is displayed in front of the structure. The Temple of the Small Tables which is an unrestored mound. And the Thompson’s Temple (referred to in some sources as Palace of Ahau Balam Kauil ), a small building with two levels that has friezes depicting Jaguars (balam in Maya) as well as glyphs of the Maya god Kahuil.
The Osario itself, like El Castillo, is a step-pyramid temple dominating its platform, only on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbor, it has four sides with staircases on each side. There is a temple on top, but unlike El Castillo, at the center is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12 metres (39 ft) below. Edward H. Thompson excavated this cave in the late 19th century, and because he found several skeletons and artifacts such as jade beads, he named the structure The High Priests’ Temple. Archaeologists today believe the structure was neither a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.
The Temple of Xtoloc is a recently restored temple outside the Osario Platform is. It overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, named after the Maya word for iguana, “Xtoloc.” The temple contains a series of pilasters carved with images of people, as well as representations of plants, birds and mythological scenes.
Phew! We were there all day, and still didn’t get to see everything. The observatory would have to wait until next time. We were actually the last to leave, which enabled me to (somewhat cheekily) get this last shot of El Castillo before we were escorted out by security.
Outside we ran into some Mayan warriors who were desperate to get a picture with a famed adventurer such as I.
Back in Piste, Case and I grabbed something to eat and then hopped on the bus to our next destination on the Ruta Maya: the city of Merida!