Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog's Profile Picture

Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog

Loading Map...

Ruined in Chiapas- A mystical visit to the ancient Mayan city of Palenque

Written on: Thursday May 8th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

{Big thanks to my mother Annette for her input into this blog. I took and adapted her group email about Palenque to save myself some time writing this. If you received her email several weeks back this will seem familiar... but check out the photos that have been added. Thanks mom!}

On Thursday we visited the famous Palenque Mayan ruins. This ancient city was one of the most important Maya Cities of the Classic period from 250 to 900 A.D. Palenque is actually the name that was given to the site by the Spanish, Lakamha (Big Water) is thought to be its ancient name.

The city was first occupied in 100 BC, but most of the construction took place between 435 to 603 A.D. Hundreds of ruins are now spread out over 15 square kilometers, but only the most important buildings in the central area have been excavated. The stone buildings are impressive in their size, height and exquisite architectural detail. This combined with the jungle backdrop and the not-so-far-off screams of the howler monkeys makes the visit a dramatic experience. Most amazing of all is that these buildings were constructed without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel.

We climbed to the top of the Templo de la Calavera (Temple of the Skull) to admire the famous carving of a rabbit skull at the top. Templo XIII, next door, contained the hidden sarcophagus (discovered in 1994) of the Red Queen, named as such because her body was covered in bright red powder (cinnabar), a ceremonial mask and over 1000 pieces of Jade. The most spectacular of the temples is the Templo de las Inscriptiones. A hieroglyphic inscription at the top recounts the history of the civilization and gave the building its name. In 1952 it was discovered that this magnificent building was actually a magnificent burial monument. In fact, it is deemed the most elaborate burial ever built in the Americas and was the resting place of ruler Pakal II (AD 615-683 AD). The 8-level building had a series of complex and hidden staircases leading down deep into the elaborate sarcophagus. The tomb is now closed to the public in effort to preserve its murals, but we did get to see a replica, both at the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City and also at the Palenque Museum.

The ancient Mayas believed that upon dying humans began a journey to the underworld. Among other expressions related to death, they used the term ?ochah-bi? meaning that a person ?had started on the road? which implied that the deceased had taken the path into the depths of the Earth. In Palenque, bodies were normally stretched out with their feet pointing southwards, the direction associated with the lowest level of the underworld. The type of burial, funerary attire and the quality of the offerings depended on the social position of each individual. The rulers did not begin their journey to the underworld alone, and were sometimes accompanied by other individuals (perhaps some of their servants) who were sacrificed for this purpose.

We also visited the wondrous Palace, which is divided between four courtyards, and has a tower, many inscriptions and some underground passages. The Grupo de las Cruces is another breathtaking site which consists of three pyramids surrounding a main plaza and the Grupo Norte contains a ball court for the ancient ball game as well as the another temple called Templo del Conde. Other groupings of ruins include a set of smaller jungle-covered buildings (likely residences) and plazas called Grupo C. And of course, the site wouldn?t be complete without a breathtaking waterfall and natural bathing pools, which it has, named the Baņo de la Reina (Queen?s Bath).

Peter has told us that he has spent weeks exploring the site, and it is easy to see why. Not only is it wonderful to explore the mazes of stairways, galleries, corridors, sanctuaries, underground passages, patios and buildings but it is also wonderful to find a quiet spot and sit, absorb and enjoy the magical surroundings.

The ancient Mayas developed a highly elaborate glyphic writing system. Up until about 50 years ago epigraphy (the discipline of deciphering ancient writing) had only managed to explain the calendaric part of this system or the arithmetic mechanism of Maya dates and their equivalence in our calendar. The Mayas used a 20 base numbering system so there were 20 months and 20 days in each month. More recently, using the Indigenous Chol language as a base, Epigraphist have deciphered that many of the glyphs represented syllables that were combined to form words. This enabled the recent deciphering of much of the history represented by the tablets of glyphs.

Archaeologists think the city was abandoned between 850 and 900 A.D. The tropical jungle gradually began to cover the magnificent buildings and they were temporarily occupied by groups of farmers who adapted them for use as housing and practiced a few simple rituals there. During the colonial era, the Chol indigenous people lived near an ancient city which they called Otolum, a word that means ?stockade? or ?fortified place?, but it was not until 1784 that Spanish Explorer Jose Antonio Calderon made the first official exploration of the site. History books credit several other explorers for the discovery and investigation of the site, the most famous of which is Mexican archeaologist Alberto Ruz Lhuilier who discovered Pakal?s hidden crypt. However, I found it very interesting to hear Peter?s tales of Indigenous in the area who tell stories of their distant relatives being the first to discover and explore the site, of course without any credit. Today some excavation slowly continues as the secrets of that ancient world continue to be unveiled.

Considering that 1400 people on average visit this site a day, I was shocked when Peter mentioned that many of the Indigenous living in the area (descendants of the Maya) had never actually been. The cost of transport and admission is out of their means. Several years ago, upon discovering this, Schools for Chiapas organized a few bus-loads of indigenous youth and brought them to the ruins. I could not imagine the extreme inspiration and awe that these youth must have felt upon admiring what their ancestors had accomplished and built.