Sunday, March 8, 2009


Emerging out of the jungle after a grueling 5 hour car ride from San Cristóbal, we found ourselves in Palenque, a Mayan city at the base of the foothills on the way to the Atlantic Coast. The place has long been overgrown by dense forest, so much so that when Cortés and his men passed through here in the 1500s they did no even register its existence. Today only 2% of the ruins have been uncovered, the rest lie under hills of jungle trees and vines.

The temple above hosts the tomb of the Mayan king Pakal, who was coronated at the age of 12 by his mother (an engraving of the ceremony is pictured at the right). Like most members of royal families from around the world, Pakal was inbred and carried a physical deformity because of it. Depicted on this stone carving to the left is the king with one leg bent and the other straight to compensate for the different lengths of his appendages. In Mayan culture, physical deformities like this were seen as a sign of nobility or giftedness.

In the adjacent temple lies the tomb of the Reina Roja, an unidentified woman who was probably the wife of Pakal and later the queen of Palenque. Her bones were found dyed red as a result of a post-mortem treatment with cinnabar.

Next door is the Templo de la Calavera, with an image of the god of death carved in to the base of one of the pillars.

The palace overlooking these buildings has a maze of interior courtyards, including bedrooms with stone blocks for beds and toilets with plumbing. The walls are lined with carvings depicting famous rulers and the ceilings are done in ornate architecture. The palace also boasts the astronomy tower, the top half of which was rebuilt by archaeologists after it was destroyed by tree roots during the time it was buried. The Maya were some of the great astronomers of their time.

My favorite temple, of course, is the Templo de Maíz, the house of corn, pictured above. Corn was the staple food for all the people of Mesoamerica, having been bred there, and is rightly honored with this homage. Beneath and behind the temple rise hills, probably still-buried ruins of more Palenque sites. 

At the end of days, however, the Maya abandoned Palenque because of a series of wars over resources. Not only were food and space short, but the surrounding forest had been depleted of wood and other resources used to keep the city running. Like Teotihuacan around the same time, the city could not sustain itself.

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