Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Uxmal Part 1: The Sorcerer's Pyramid and the Nun's Quadrangle

The Sorcerer's Pyramid is one of the most striking of Uxmal's ruins. Between visiting Campeche and Merida, we stopped for several hours at Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-Maal). The ruined city's name means "the thrice built city." This posting is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Uxmal. In this part, I will focus on two of Uxmal's most famous ruins: the Sorcerer's Pyramid (see above) and the Quadrangle of the Nuns. While the Yucatan Peninsula is thick with Maya ruins, many of them extensive, the two most famous are Uxmal and Chichen Itza (which I will post later). These two ancient cities were contemporaneous and in fact were allies for several centuries. Next to Palenque, I liked Uxmal the best of all the ruins we visited. It was not overrun with tourists, at least when we visited, and the ruins seemed to be in better shape than in some of the other locations. For a map of the Yucatan Peninsula and the general Uxmal area, click here.

The base of the Sorcerer's (or Magician's) Pyramid is oval rather than rectilinear making it very unusual. The structure, seen above in side view, is over 100 feet tall, giving it a commanding view of the area. According to Maya legend, the pyramid was created over-night by a dwarf who was hatched out of an egg. Thus, it is also called the Pyramid of the Dwarf. In reality, what you see is the last of 5 pyramids, built one on top of the other, each larger than the last. The site of Uxmal was settled as early as 500 BC, but the Maya culture and architecture didn't reach its peak until what is called the Classic Period (325 AD-925 AD). For site map showing the ruins highlighted in this posting, click here.

Front view of the Sorcerer's Pyramid. On either side of the steep, majestic staircase are a line of masks representing Chac, the rain god. He would have been very important because there are almost no above-ground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula. All water must come from rain or from one of the cenotes, which are deep limestone ponds like the famous one found at Chichen Itza. There are few cenotes in the Puucs Hills area, so the Maya of Uxmal cleverly devised chiltuns, which are man-made stone cisterns used to collect and store rainwater. With this extensive system, Uxmal was able to sustain an extensive population in a hot, relatively dry climate. When the American-English archaeological team of Stephenson and Catherwood visited Uxmal in the 1840s, they stumbled across chiltuns everywhere.

Top of the Socerer's Pyramid. Temple V is found at the very top of the pyramid, above the grand entrance at the top of the main staircase. Built about 1200 AD, this was the last area of construction on the pyramid. The smooth, rounded corners on the Sorcerer's Pyramid below Temple V set it apart. Other pyramids in the Maya area are generally square or rectangular with sharp corners. The Pyramid is over 100 feet tall. Although some other pyramids around Mexico may be higher, the steepness of the walls of the Sorcerer's Pyramid give it the appearance of great height, as well as a serene majesty.

The mouth of the jaguar. Faces of Chac line the right and left corners of this entrance. Overall, the entrance is supposed to represent the face of a jaguar, with the opening forming the mouth. This highly ornate style of entrance is called Chenes, and especially catches the eye as it sits near the top of the generally smooth and unadorned walls. The Classic Maya period was one in which there were few outside influences. Although the great city of Teotihuacan (near present-day Mexico City) established trading relationships with many Maya cities, there don't seem to have been any great invasions and takeovers such as occurred in later centuries. This is known as the "pure" Maya period.

An archaeological jigsaw puzzle. I noticed something odd on the sloping wall of the pyramid leading up beside the staircase. Many of the rocks had numbers and letters painted on them. It seems that these stones had been removed by archaeologists to view the multiple earlier pyramids in the interior. In order to make sure they replaced the rocks correctly, the scientists marked them carefully.

Entrance to the Quadrangle of the Nuns. One enters the Quadrangle through a towering corbel or "false arch." Architecturally speaking, this is the last step before the invention of the "true" or Roman arch, which the Maya never achieved. Still, it is an impressive entrance to a large quadrangle of of one-story buildings set on platforms around the sides. While not as tall or massive as some of the other structures at Uxmal, it contains a sense of balance and openness which set it apart. The architectural style is called Puuc, after the low hills in the area, which are the closest thing that pancake-flat Yucatan has to mountains. The Puuc style evolved from the Chenes style, seen previously on the Sorcerer's Pyramid. Although the name of the Sorcerer's Pyramid is derived from Maya legend, the names by which we call the other structures of Uxmal came from the Spanish or later archaeologists.

Northeast corner of the Quadrangle of the Nuns. The four long buildings which form the Quadrangle don't meet at the corners. They were each constructed at different times. The structure of the Quadrangle reminded the Spanish of a nunnery. It may actually have been some sort of training academy for the sons of the Maya nobility. On the left is the North Building, and on the right is the East Building. All four buildings in the Quadrangle are single-story, with a series of doors along the front which open into one or more interior rooms. Three of the buildings sit on a low platforms, and are entered by way of broad staircases running most of the length of the buildings. The North Building has low, columned temples on each end, one of which you can see above.

The East Building is elegant in its simplicity. The lower half is smooth and unadorned. Probably this part was covered by plaster and painted. There are five doors along the wall. Above the smooth lower facade, the top half of the wall is decorated in typical "pure" Puuc style, with lattice-work and abstract geometrical designs.

The North Building is the most elaborate of the four buildings comprising the Quadrangle. In addition to some of the features seen on the East Building, the North Building has the remains of a roof comb along the top, as well as the columned temples on each end of the grand staircase. There are eleven doorways, some still supported by their original wooden lintels. This is the building first seen when emerging from the corbel arch entrance of the Quadrangle, and it was obviously a palace of great importance.

Faces of Chac, the rain god. On the frieze of the North Building, above some of the doors, you will find 3 faces of Chac, in column. The open, toothy mouths are surrounded by thick oval lips. The indented eyes glare out menacingly. The long, crooked noses can't be seen clearly in this frontal view. In other places on this frieze, you can find sculptures of Tlaloc, the Teotihuacan rain god, demonstrating the influence that great civilization had, even this far from central Mexico. Apparently, the inhabitants of Uxmal were hedging their bets to ensure adequate rain. Evidence of Teotihuacan influence can be found in Maya sites as far south as Guatamala, the result of its extensive trade networks.

The West Building. This building is located on the west side of the Quadrangle. The middle door, the largest of 7 opening, looks straight through the building onto the jungle on the back side.

The frieze on the upper half of the West Building is elaborately decorated. Here you can see additions by invaders from central Mexico, called the Xiu, who arrived at the end of the Classical Period. Superimposed on the elegant simplicity of the Puuc panel you can see the body of a plumed serpent twisting in and out of the lattice work. Plumes of feathers can be seen on the tail above, while an elaborate head and face appears on the lower section. The plumed serpent, called Quetzalcoatl, is the main deity of the Toltecs, a highly militaristic society to which the Xiu were related. The Xiu and another branch of Toltecs called the Cocom invaded Yucatan around 1000 AD and seized Uxmal and Mayapan. They allied themselves with the Itza tribe of Chichen Itza, and together dominated the whole northern area of the Yucantan Peninsula.

Standing warrior on the West Building frieze. The warrior figure, who is missing his left leg, clutches a weapon across his chest. It is also possible that this is a representation of a ball player. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to wonder whether much of the warrior imagery they have found in various ruined civilizations may actually be related to the cult of the ball game. Still, the ball game itself is a representation of warfare between the gods, so the discussion seems somewhat circular. It is also a fact that the Toltecs were a warrior society, motivated by a grim militarism.

Another warrior/ball player on the West Building. This one stands in profile, right arm across his chest, left arm and fist upraised. He may be about to throw something, or be raising his arm in defiance. So much about these ancient civilizations is murky or simply unknown. Theories of Maya civilization have changed and evolved many times. In earlier times, it was thought the Maya people themselves had nothing to do with the great ruins; that they were built by dispaced Greeks or Egyptians or one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Until the 1970s, many archaeologists thought the Maya had been a peaceful civilization of artists and astronomers. Then the hieroglyphs were deciphered, telling stories of intense warfare and human sacrifice. The Spanish found the Maya much more difficult to conquer than the Aztecs. Probably the only way the Toltecs succeeded was that Maya civilization was in a period of decline.

The South Building contains the grand entrance with the corbelled arch. It is the only one of the four sides that does not sit on a platform or have a grand staircase leading up to it. Still, it maintains the elegantly simple Puuc style of plain wall on the lower half, and decorated frieze above.

The South Building is decorated with designs showing Maya huts. This is unusual, since Maya decorations are usually devoted to elite themes. The Maya hut, called a nah, is walled with mud and sticks and roofed by palm fronds. Huts like this are still in use throughout Maya territory, an architectural style that has lasted perhaps 5,000 years.

Another view of the North Building showing the Temple of Venus. The low, columned structure at the left end of the North Building palace was named the Temple of Venus because of a mistaken interpretation of some of the symbols on the upper frieze of the temple. Although small, it is a balanced and elegant little structure.

Closeup of the Temple of Venus. It is not hard to see why early archaeologists and explorer/adventurers thought they saw a Greek influence in these ruins. I have often wondered at the capacity of different groups of human beings to arrive at the same conclusions, even though separated by vast distances with no possibility of communications. The use of rows of columns and of the corbelled arch are only two examples. Perhaps it has to do with the principles of physics on building materials. Maybe there are only so many ways of building large stone structures.

The House of Birds lies between the Quadrangle of the Nuns and the Sorcerer's Pyramid. It once formed part of a small quadrangle of buildings, some of which have been reconstructed, stone by stone. The House of Birds got its name from the numerous small stone sculptures of various kinds of birds which line its roof.

Quetzel bird quietly surveys eternity on the roof of the House of Birds. The bird shown above may be a Quetzal bird, which is found throughout the jungles of the Maya territory. The Toltec deity, Quetzalcoatl, was part Quetzal bird, part snake, which together formed the famed "plumed serpent."

Stacked faces of Chac line the corner of the East Building's frieze. Here you can see the upraised, elephant-trunk-like snout of the Maya rain god. The snout of the top face has broken off. The snarling, toothy mouth, and deeply inset, glaring eyes are very typical of Chac faces not only at Uxmal but also at Chichen Itza and other sites. To the right of the Chac faces, you can see a double column of Maya hieroglyphics.

Frontal view of Chac faces on East Building frieze. Chac appears, to me at least, as an angry god who would need considerable propitiating, probably with human blood. In fact, the sacrificial altar on which a living victim's heart was cut out by a Maya priest wielding a sharp obsidian blade was called a Chac Mool. While the Maya culture did spawn artists and astronomers, it had another, darker side.

This concludes Part 1 of my 2-part Uxmal series. Thank you for joining us on this journey to a distant time and place. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either in the comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Can you tell me when the Marinero Restaurant in Mismaloya is open and what their hours are? We would like to have lunch there but we want to make sure we drive over on a day they are open and the hours for lunch. Thank you
    Sandy Minto

  2. Jim,
    Great page: I read it in the Malta airport awaiting transport to Sardinia (where I am writing this). I hope someday to see this mural and have your blog on my Ipod while I am going through it. (I think I can bring that off).

    FYI: Diego Rivera has a great mural in the Detroit Institute of the Arts, perhaps his largest. Check it out, if you are interested, at

    Keep up the great blog!

    Dick Schmitt

  3. I just recently returned from a Carnival cruise down to Progreso & Cozumel, Mexico. At Progreso I took a guided tour to Uxmal. It pays to be given a tour by someone that works at the location dealing with cruise passengers almost everyday. The markings on the stones on the pyramid are to show stones that have actually been replaced. They are allowing most of the other structures to crumble but the pyramid they are doing extensive work to keep it preserved along with the nunnery while at the same excavating and restoring other structures from out of the jungle as can be seen from the top of a different pyramid at Uxmal.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim