Monday, August 27, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 22: The Great Palace of Sayil

The Great Palace of Sayil, bathed in the golden winter sunlight of a late afternoon. Sayil was our last stop on the Puuc Route (see Parts 18-21). You may notice a curious absence of people in many of the following photos. As I have mentioned in previous postings, the Puuc Route is much less popular than sites like Chichen Itza, or Tulum, both of which offer easy access to floods of tourists from the nearby resort of Cancun. As a consequence, both of those sites--although still worth seeing--lose much of the mystery and serenity I value when visiting ancient ruins. When we finally reached Sayil on this late January afternoon, our small tour party was the only one within the whole site. The other couple in our party were tired and stayed near the entrance to the site, so Carole and I, accompanied by our guide, had the whole place to ourselves.

Approaching the Great Palace

The Puuc are unique in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya word Puuc means "hills." The rolling country seen above on the eastern horizon is part of a range of low hills that cut diagonally across the Peninsula from southwest to northeast. They form the only area of significant elevation gain in all of the otherwise dead-flat limestone shelf that makes up Yucatan. The forest that begins at the edge of the clearing above stretches virtually unbroken across much of the central and southern areas of the Peninsula. Sayil is set in a shallow valley surrounded by steep hills. It is one of a number of ancient cities in this area of Yucatan known for the distinctive Puuc style of architecture. Other sites include Uxmal, Labná, Kabah, and Xlapak. UNESCO designated Sayil, together with Uxmal, as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

Carole walks along an unpaved trail through the thick jungle that closely surrounds Sayil.  Yucatan's forests contain an extraordinary quantity of birds and other animals, including jaguars and poisonous snakes. The ancient Maya cleared much of the jungle around their cities for agriculture. This deforestation caused droughts and other environmental consequences that, along with incessant warfare, brought about the end of their Classic-era civilization. Over the centuries the forest returned, leaving once-proud cities lost in the green canopy that now covers much of the Yucatan. It is important, when visiting a site like this, to remain on the trails. After a few steps into the thick jungle, all sense of direction can easily be lost. As I walked along behind Carole, I recalled the visitor to Tikal who stepped into to similar jungle to take some photos. Nine days later he finally stumbled out. He was emaciated and dehydrated, but lucky to be alive.

Our guide points out an unrestored ruin along the trail. As at most ancient ruins, the vast majority of the original buildings still remain as simple mounds of stones. This was how explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood would have first seen the place they called Zayi when they explored it in 1841. Covered thickly by vegetation, the mounds could easily be mistaken for natural features. Fortunately, by the time Stephens and Catherwood found the ruins, they had learned to interpret the landscape of ancient sites. In the Maya language Sayil means "Place of the Leafcutter Insects".

A cut stone provides a vital clue. Nature rarely produces straight lines or corners. This rectangular limestone block was clearly produced by the hand of man, a tip-off that the rubble pile on which it rests was once the home of a noble or priest.

Site map of the Great Palace. This magnificent, three-story structure is 85 meters (279 ft.) long, and contains more than 90 bedrooms. The earliest occupation at Sayil was around 500 AD, but Puuc-style buildings didn't begin to appear until about 800 AD. The construction of the Great Palace occurred in several stages between 800 AD (late Classic) and 1000 AD (early Post-Classic). Sayil is spread over an area of 3.5 square kilometers (2.175 sq. mi.). In this posting, we will focus on the Great Palace, beginning with the West Wing. We'll then make our way up the grand staircase in the center and take a look at the somewhat less preserved East Wing. The site map above is courtesy of Wikipedia.

The West Wing of the Great Palace

Our first view of the Great Palace. As we emerged from the green, leafy tunnel that was our trail from the parking area, we came upon a large clearing in the forest dominated by the Palace. The effect, heightened by the golden afternoon light, was stunning. The view above is of the West Wing, the most intact part of the Palace. In the right center of the photo, you can see the main staircase. Monuments found at Sayil indicate that the city was ruled by a royal dynasty which, along with an elite of nobles and priests, based its power on the control of the best agricultural lands in the area. About 900 AD, the population peaked at 10,000 people in the city itself and another 5000-7000 in surrounding areas. By about 950 AD, the city began to decline and it was abandoned by 1000 AD. Such a rapid rise and decline was typical of Puuc area cities, which flourished just before the general collapse of Classic-era Maya civilization.

A closer view of the first and second stories of the West Wing. On the ground floor, the roof has collapsed into the center room. You can see half of the corbel arch that formed the ceiling of the room, as well as a doorway in the back of this room, leading into another shallow room. The rooms on either side have doorways bisected by single pillars that support the lintels. This area is the oldest part of the Great Palace. The first story opens out onto a large plaza to its south. Eight chultunes (underground cisterns) have been discovered immediately around the Great Palace. These provided the water supply for the large elite population living in the Palace. Above the ground floor is the much more highly decorated 2nd story, reached by the central staircase.

The West Wing's 2nd story, viewed from the central staircase. Several features shown here are similar to those at Labná, shown in Parts 19 and 20 of this series. The groups of segmented columns, separated by doorways, along with some of the decorations found above the doorways, are almost identical to those at Labná's Palace. Many archaeologists think that Labná was a political subsidiary to either Sayil or Uxmal, although this is not yet proven. I have visited all three sites, and it seems to me that the architectural features of Labná much more closely resemble Sayil than Uxmal.

Decorative designs above the 2nd story doors. The circular, cog-like object in the center is very similar to some I saw at Labná. In addition, the writhing, snake-like designs on either side of the cog resemble those at Labná. Unfortunately, much of the lower-left part of the design has fallen away. There are several small, circular humps in the design that resemble turtle shells with cross-hatched designs. Turtles were prevalent in the Maya's natural world and are associated in their mythology with the earth, as well as water and thunder. The thunder connection probably has something to do with the use of turtle shells as drums. The Maya god Pauahtun was believed to support the earth somewhat like Atlas. He is often shown wearing a turtle shell as a hat. Turtles were also related to Hu Nal Yeh, the god of maiz (corn), who is sometimes shown emerging from a turtle shell.

One of the 90 bedrooms of the Great Palace. Although the rooms are supported by massive walls, they are quite shallow. The Maya failure to achieve the "true" arch in their architecture restricted their ability to enclose large spaces. It is likely that the rooms were used for storage, shelter during the rainy season, or privacy. The climate of Yucatan would have allowed most activities to occur outdoors on one of the many terraces. Archaeologists estimate that as many as 350 people lived in the Great Palace. Most of its many rooms would have been family apartments, but it is also likely that some were used for administrative purposes.

A large Chaac mask adorns the center of the 2nd story. The protruding nose has lost its typical upward curl, but the rest of the mask appears intact. A set of 6 teeth curl downward from the mouth, while the eyes are represented by round stone balls set in sockets on either side of the nose. The Chaac appears to be wearing a decorative headband, as well as earrings. Although this Chaac possesses a rather ferocious appearance, as a god he is associated with life-giving water, important to all agricultural societies, and especially so in Yucatan where there are no above-ground rivers.

Another Chaac, on the corner of the West Wing. This one still has the curled nose found on most Chaacs throughout the Puuc area. The corner Chaac wears earrings similar to those on the center mask. Notice the large, curved earlobe to the right of the square earring. Similar earrings worn by the Maya elite were often made from carved jade. Ceramic, jade, and obsidian artifacts found at Sayil indicate trade connections with the Petén region of northern Guatemala, and even with areas as far away as Guatemala's Pacific Coast.

The West Wing's 3rd story is much plainer than the one below. This part of the West Wing is decorated much more simply than the 2nd story. The walls are of smooth limestone blocks. The area above the doorways is undecorated, although there may have once been carved stone decorations that have since fallen away. At the base of the wall are the only remaining decorative features, composed of a line of very short pillars that extends the length of the building.

The Grand Staircase and the East Wing

The Grand Staircase is one of the Great Palace's most prominent features. Extending out from the south side of the Palace into the plaza, it rises up to the 3rd story in two stages. The lower stage has been completely restored, while the upper stage is still in fairly rough shape. On the north (rear) side of the Palace is a smaller staircase that extends up to the 2nd story.

A faint echo of Teotihuacan? As I reached the landing between the first and second level staircases, I spotted the inclined slabs, called taludes, seen in the upper left quadrant of the photo. Such features were a signature architectural element of Teotihuacan the seat of the great empire located north of Mexico City. Architectural aspects of Teotihuacan were widely copied throughout in Mesoamerica. As the old saying goes "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Teotihuacan fell 200 years before Sayil's Great Palace was built, but the inclusion of taludes in the Grand Staircase could well have been a tip of the hat to a civilization which, by that time, had receded into the misty past and had achieved an almost mythical status.

The East Wing is less intact than its mate to the left of the staircase. This is probably closer to what Stephens and Catherwood saw on that day in 1841 when they emerged from the jungle to first view the Great Palace. However, the East Wing's first story is in much better shape than its counterpart on the West Wing.

A closeup look at the 2nd story of the East Wing. It appears that this wing copied the style of the same story of the West Wing, using rows of columns to decorate the area above the doorways. The door lintels are supported by double pillars, just like the other wing.

Across a narrow valley, a noble's house peeps through the foliage. When I reached the top of the Great Palace, I looked across the valley to the north and spotted a structure near the top of the steep ridge on the other side. Going for maximum telephoto zoom, I picked out this stone house with its double doors and rows of pillars decorating the space above. Apparently the Maya nobility appreciated a good view from the front of their homes as much as modern people do. Next week, we'll look at some temples with unusual features in the southern area of the Sayil site.

I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Sayil is a gorgeous site. I am not surprised it won its
World Heritage designation. I always appreciate comments and feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

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