Friday, April 2, 2010

Palenque Part 1: Exquisite Maya city lost in the jungle

Maya sculpture, found at the ruined city of Palenque. Prior to visiting Campeche, Carole and I stopped overnight at Palenque, one of the most famous of the ruined Maya cities. The ancient Maya culture and civilization of the Classic era (250-900 AD) reached some of the highest levels of science, architecture, and art ever achieved in the pre-hispanic New World. Palenque flowered during this era. Although smaller and less imposing than some Maya cities, such as Tikal in Guatamala, it is arguably the most beautiful of them all and perhaps of any pre-hispanic city in Latin America. The head sculpture above demonstrates the skill and naturalism of Palenque artists. The only culture whose art approaches the Classic Maya would be the even more ancient Olmecs.

The Maya world was extensive in geography and heavily populated. As you can see from the map above, the Maya were spread over the swampy southern Gulf Coast of Mexico, the flat limestone plains of Yucatan Peninsula, the forested mountains of Chiapas, Guatamala, and Honduras, and the mountains and hot coastal areas of Belize, on the Caribbean Sea. Millions of people lived in the ancient Maya world, many more than early explorers and more recent archaeologists had originally thought. During the Classic era, when Palenque flourished, the most important cities were in the mountains of Chiapas, Guatamala, and Honduras. After 700 AD, when Palenque and the other cities in this area began to decline and fall, the vibrancy of the culture moved north, into the Yucatan Peninsula area where the late stages of Maya civilization still existed upon the arrival of the Spanish. By that time, the ruins of Palenque had already disappeared under a thick canopy of jungle.

Palenque flourished in a geographical transition zone. The Maya built the city of Palenque on a series of small plateaus in the heavily jungled foothills separating the hot marshy plains of the Usumacinta River Valley and the cool mountains of Chiapas. While the city itself is beautiful, it would be like an unset diamond without its emerald green jungle surroundings. A feeling of remoteness in time, and distance from modern civilization, overwhelmed me as soon as I walked through the green, leafy tunnel finally emerging into the first great plaza. As you can see above, the jungle continues to loom over the ruins. Full-sized trees grow on stepped temple platforms where once Maya priests in robes and brilliant feathers performed esoteric ceremonies.

Large brown owl perches on the heavily thorned branch of a Ceiba tree. The owl seemed unconcerned by our large tour party, except to look us over rather disdainfully. The Ceiba tree had great significance to the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. Growing a height of 230 feet or more, the Ceiba covers the jungle floor with its great spreading canopy. Its buttress roots can be taller than a man. The Maya believed the Ceiba's roots connected the underworld to the terrestrial world represented by the trunk, and finally to the canopy of the heavens. The cross which the Spanish found in Maya temples, and which they associated with Christianity, was actually a symbol of the holy Ceiba tree to the Maya. Modern Maya still leave the tree standing when cutting timber, out of respect for the ancient gods.

Maya warrior, in all his glorious finery. Until the Maya hieroglyphics were translated in recent decades, many archaeologists conceived of the Maya as a cultured, artistic, and peaceful people ruled by priest-kings. Once the translations began, the reality began looking a bit different. Culture and artistic the Maya were, but their cities warred with each other constantly, jockeying for resources and looking for war captives to make bloody sacrifices to their gods. The Spanish conquistadors found the Maya of their time to be extremely warlike, and didn't manage to conquer the Yucatan until two decades after their conquest of the Aztecs of Central Mexico.

Maya hieroglyphs are like no other writing system. While the Western system has 26 phonetic signs, which we call letters of the alphabet, the Maya system was based on 800 phonetic signs, based on syllables. Like wartime code breakers, Mayanists worked for two hundred years to decipher the meaning of the symbols they found throughout the Maya world. In fact, the Maya writing system was one of the oldest in continuous use in history, dating from as early as the 3rd Century BC until after the Conquest in the 16th Century AD. In addition to symbols carved on stone, like those pictured above from the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Maya kept great libraries written on perishable materials. Tragically, Spanish colonial Bishop Diego de Landa viewed these libraries as the writings of the Devil and ordered them burned. The Spanish were reported to be puzzled at the great anguish this caused among the Maya people. Only a handful of texts survived, now known as the Maya Codex.

The Palace complex of Palenque served both ceremonial and administrative functions. One of its most striking features is the tower which may have been either an astonomical observatory or a watch tower for enemies. The Palace is in the center of Palenque, and is surrounded by temples of various sizes, but no other building is comparable in complexity. In the photo above, the jungle encroaches on the remains of the Palace. In the distance, the flat plains of the Usumacinta river valley stretch off into the horizon.

The Palace from the east side. This scale model from the museum at Palenque provides a sense of the Palace as it looked in 700 AD. At that time, the walls were painted in bright colors, some of which can still be detected . In addition to the tower, another distinctive feature is the so-called "roof comb" on top of the buildings. Many of the temples in Palenque also have roof combs, but none as extensive as the Palace. The combs are intricate lattice works of stone, the purpose of which is not completely understood. Possibly it was simple decoration, but nothing about the Maya tends to be simple.

The great staircases are still another distinctive feature of the Palace. Other temples may have staircases that reach higher, but none are grander, or broader than those leading up into the complex of rooms, courtyards, patios, and hallways of this great edifice.

Model of the Palace from the west side. As grand as the ruins are, you can see from the model how tremendous this structure must have looked to the original inhabitants and visitors of Palenque. And, of course, it was just that sense of awe for which the rulers and their architects were striving. You can't stay on top if you can't make people look up to you.

The Courtyard of the Captives. It was to this courtyard in the heart of the Palace that war captives were dragged, to be exhibited before Palenque's nobles before being sacrificed. Notice the 3 light-colored panels between the two staircases in the lower center. Each of these has a relief carving of a captive.

Courtyard of the Captives, as it may have looked in ancient times. The Courtyard of the Captives was truly the "belly of the beast," just as the Palace was the geographical and administrative center of Palenque.

A captive in a typically submissive pose. Looking fearfully up at the place where his captors and executioners glory in their victory, the captive stands with one arm across his chest, and one across his belly. I have seen this pose in many relief carvings of Maya captives. This was clearly a high ranking captive, from the intricate ear rings, necklace, and belt he wears. Notice also the cuffs around his wrists, similar to the cuffs of the Maya warrior in the relief carving at the beginning of this posting. This may have been the remains of his armor, or possibly jade bracelets.

The crowning of K'inich Janaab Pakal (Pakal the Great). Pakal, whose name means "Sun Shield," was the greatest ruler of Palenque. Above, you can see Pakal on the right being presented with his crowning head dress by his mother on the left. She had been Regent during his early life. This oval relief carving, now badly worn, can be found in the Palace, the center of power. Pakal lived an extremely long life for his time, from March 26, 603 AD to March 31, 683 AD, and actually ruled for 68 years. He is responsible for some of the most impressive architecture in Palenque, including his own tomb, the Temple of Inscriptions, which sits directly across from the Palace. Immediately to the right of Pakal's tomb is the tomb of Pakal's mother, a testament to her importance. That we know all these details and dates so exactly is due to the cracking of the Maya hieroglyphic code and the extraordinary accuracy of the Maya calendar.

Censer, or incense burner, from Palenque museum. This beautiful example of a Maya censer stands about 3 feet high. During religious ceremonies, copal was burned in censers like this. This one may have been used when Pakal was crowned by his mother. The censer reached its highest and most beautiful development during the Classic era at Palenque. The later Aztecs also used censers and conquistadors such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who wrote the "History of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico", spoke often of being "fumigated" whenever they met with indigenous leaders of the cities they conquered.

Face of a monster, or a clown? This was one of a series of badly eroded plaster faces I found on the walls inside the Palace complex. While this one seemed somewhat humorous, there was no sign, and I had no cultural context to tell me what it was supposed to mean.

The hallway of the "clown's" face. There was a whole line of such faces along the length of this hallway, which overlooked the Courtyard of the Captives. Notice the arched ceiling over the hallway. This is called a corbel, or "false" arch. It is an improvement over the post and lintel design, but doesn't have the load-bearing qualities of a true arch. In spite of their wonderful architectural achievements, the Maya never developed a true arch, unlike their contemporaries, the Romans. Thus, the interior rooms of some of their greatest buildings seem narrow and cramped.

The aqueduct, another Palenque achievement. This stream, called the Otulum, runs out of the high hills behind Palenque and through the heart of the city. Tiring of floods, at some point the Maya rulers of Palenque built stone walls on either side of the stream for a considerable distance to channel and control the water. Here, it runs along the east side of the Palace, which no doubt made water gathering for the Palace inhabitants easy. Past the Palace, the stream enters an artificial underground channel 55 meters long with a corbel roof, forming a land bridge over which the Maya could build.

The true size of Palenque is deceptive. We spent hours wandering the ruins before we visited the Palenque museum where I found this topographical map. The Palace is the small solid white rectangle in the middle of the large white square. The area we explored was immediately around the palace. You can see there is a vast area of ruins within the large white square, and an even greater area outside of it. Palenque calls out for another visit, and perhaps many more.

In Part 2 of this series on Palenque, I will show several of the temple complexes which surround the Palace, including the tomb of Pakal. I hope you liked what you have seen of Palenque. The place is magical, right out of an Indiana Jones movie, but somehow even more fantastic. If you would like to leave a comment, you can either use the comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hey Jim!
    How`d you guys manage to get into Pakal's tomb? It was closed, disappointingly, when we went in December. Jealous!


  2. I lived in Mexico several years ago, and love reliving my experience through your blog. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos and stories.

    Saludos desde Little Rock,


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