Today we are leaving Merida early to journey to Uxmal Yucatan. Purportedly one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, Uxmal is a Mayan word meaning “thrice built.” We are excited as this is one of the sites recommended by a good friend which lead to the decision to base out of Merida. The trip south is about an hour and a half along an excellent “highway.” Among the great things about driving in this country is that the land is flat, the roads are straight, and they are uncongested. It still took Garmin to help us navigate through the town of Umal. Beltways are unheard of in this part of the country.
I will walk you around Uxmal and share some stories as we heard them. I have decided to hire a guide today to glean the most out of our day. A very wise choice. We came by an excellent fellow by name of Demitrio, a local man of Mayan and Spanish descent. For the very reasonable price guides charge in this country, one should not hesitate to support the local folk and take advantage of the wisdom available. Far more photos and more detailed information will be found on the Uxmal Gallery page linked at the end of this blog.
Here is a map to help orient you along the tour. Along the way I will offer information and insight for the various photos following the photo. Espero que disfrutes del espectaculo.
Climbing the rise from the entrance, Demitrio gives us some cultural background. He points out the cieba tree; sacred to the Maya. It represents the three realms. Its branches represent the heavens, and is associated with the Quetzal who lives among the branches. The trunk represents the earth and is associated with the rattlesnake. The roots of the cieba represent the underworld and is associated with the black jaguar. In this part of the country there are no cenotes, so the Mayans of Uxmal devised a clever system of cisterns and wells, which we will see throughout the city.
Topping the rise, the Temple of the Magician is the first bit of the city we see. What a way to make an impression, particularly after Dzibilchaltun. The pyramid stands roughly 35 meters (115 feet) tall but sure looks bigger. To date, five construction phases have been detected; carried out at different times and in different architectural styles. This will be more easily seen from the other side of the pyramid. There has been a lot of restoration on this face of the pyramid which is easy to see by way of “fresher” cement. Demitrio tells us the city was abandoned and covered by jungle when the Spaniards arrived, so they never found the city until later. He is also proud of the fact that the architecture here is completely Mayan, and not the hybridized style of Mayan and Toltec typical of Chichen Itza.
Chaac, the god of rain, is prolific throughout the city. He has a characteristic nose, which is long and either turned up or turned down. When it is turned up, this signifies praying for rain. When it is turned down, thanks is being offered. There are Chaac noses lying around everywhere, as the majority seem to have broken off through the years.
(Chaac is the name of the Maya rain deity. With his lightning axe, Chaac strikes the clouds and produces thunder and rain. Unlike many rain gods from around the world, Chaac does not live in the sky. Instead, he dwells within the earth where the sacred waters of creation flow out of caves and cenotes, water-filled sinkholes. In ancient artwork, his mouth is often drawn as a gaping cave opening. However, he is also depicted with a long, curling nose. Chaac is also credited with bringing the essential maize plant to the Maya, a corn crop vital to their survival.)
Next along the way is the Nunnery, also known as the Quadrangle of the nuns. This name was given to the complex by Diego Lopez de Cogolludo in the 17th century. It had nothing to do with nuns or priestesses, but resembled a convent to the Spanish priest. It is comprised of four palaces placed at different levels which surround the Patio. Its construction dates from around 900-1000 A.D. The facades offer a rich combination of decorative motifs such as lattice-work, collonades, huts, masked representations of the Rain God, Two-headed serpents, owls, symbols of the planet Venus, ceometrical elements, human figures, naked or tied up, either sitting or standing. Quite conspicuous are the representations of Chaak the rain god.
The Mayan people believe in reincarnation. The face in the mouth of the serpent suggests the rebirth of a soul, and can also be interpreted as the return of an ancestor. According to several Mayan guides, human sacrifices were often voluntary, as a means of giving a life for the benefit of the people (a call to the god’s for favorable conditions of rain and crops) and the return into a better station of life. These panels are located on the frieze of the Nunnery in Uxmal
Pok-ta-pok was the Mayan ballgame. The game played here was a divinatory ritual activity in which players gained social prestige. It was played with hard rubber spheres that were hit by players wearing special protective gear. The object was to maintain the ball in movement and, if possible, to hit it into a stone ring. This important example is found in the center of an artificlally graded patio coated in stucco. Two parallel buildings with a north-south alignment mark the borders of the court. Construction dates back to the years between 800 and 1000 A.D.
Dimitrio shared a fact that took us quite by surprise. It is a common misconception that the loosers in the game lost their heads as well. In fact, it was the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed, and this was considered to be a great honor. Seems a bit like a built-in term limit for the Superbowl. This fact was backed up by another guide on a subsequent tour at Chichen Itza. It was suggested that the sacrifice allowed him the opportunity to improve his station in life by reincarnating into a higher caste. More on this in the next blog on Chichen Itza.
The Governor’s Palace lies upon a platform of 8 to 12 meters high, 187 meters long and 170 meters wide. The structure is 98 meters on the front and has a width of 12 meters. It was divided into three separate sections of tall transverse vaults. Its facade boasts some of the most beautiful examples of Mayan architectural sculpture. Masks of the god Chaac adorn its four corners and they are also placed diagonally, creating a serpentine molding. Conspicuous in the center is a throne with a majestically seated sovereign, surrounded by intertwining serpents and masks of the god Chaac. It is dated between 900-1000 A.D.
As with the cieba tree, our guide points out there are three main divisions in class in Mayan society. Upper ruling nobility, artisans, and common people. The more noble your class, the higher you lived physically, above all the others. This is where the nobility lived: the Governor’s Palace. When Thompson did his archaeological excavations here, this is where he set up his own residence. This structure is accessible to all visitors, thankfully. Look into the Uxmal Gallery to see a comparison between a restored side and an unrestored side of the structure.
The Great Temple, or Great Pyramid is 30 meters high and 80 meters long on its north side. It is a nine-tiered, broken shaped stepped pyramid. The steps on the northern side lead to a platform upon which a building called the “Macaw Temple” is located. The masks decorating the corners of the building are more rounded than the others in Uxmal. The construction is dated to the 8th century.
Notice the growth on the right side of the pyramid. There was a worker with a machete working on clearing away the jungle that had grown over and covered the side of the Temple. We continually found evidence of structures quite overgrown and dismantled by time and nature. There are some fun shots of people climbing these steps in the Uxmal Gallery. These were definitely not built to our own code standards. Climbing and descending I found it easier to track diagonally across the face of the steps.
Next to the Great Pyramid we found an interesting area referred to on site as the Pigeon Loft Complex. On the map it is identified as the House of Doves. This consists of three squares with a hierarchical spatial arrangement which get smaller with the increasing height of the platforms to the south finished off with a pyramidal base with two side buildings which together constitute a triadic arrangement. This arrangement forms the focus point of the complex. Each square is bound on four sides by long buildings of multiple rooms known in archaeological terms as ‘palace-style.’ Different levels define three complexes that originate in the sunken courtyard, the quadrangle of the pigeon loft and the triadic complex found in the highest part. The main entrance to the complex is formed by a low, elongated mound located to the north. Access to each level is by means of an outset staircase which is a half vault attached to the facade of a building.
This complex, like most of the architecture visible today was built between the third and tenth centure A.D. Its architectural design resembes the acropolis located elsewhere such as Piedras Negras in Guatemala, which are complexes associated with palatial groups that developed administrative and ceremonial activities and, in many cases, housing since they were also the residence of the royal family or groups of noblemen.
The map I have provided shows a rather large complex in this area. Presently it is largely consumed by vegetation.
At this point we have fairly well explored the far reaches of the ground that is available to the pedestrian tourist. Time for lunch. The restaurant on site made a great club sandwich. Not the carnitas I might otherwise opt for, but a welcome indulgence. After lunch we made another trip around and through some areas and angles yet unexplored. As a photographer I do really enjoy walking around and finding new and different angles for composition. I can try to anticipate what works and what does not work, yet I am never completely sure until I get home and give close scrutiny to the day’s fruits. I offer one more shot from Uxmal, and then invite you to visit the Uxmal Gallery where I offer an expanded array of shots of the day.
A final note: on the way out of the grounds we observed a rather prominent notice posted near the restrooms that are withing view of the Temple of the Magician. This was posted by the local worker’s union, who are quite unhappy with the Zone’s administration. The director has failed to make good on many promises given to the workers at Uxmal.
And of course our reward for a day well spent is a cooling dip in a cenote we found as we returned to Merida. This cenote is outside of Cacao. Cacao is a very interesting village that once knew prosperity and now hangs by a thread of memory in concrete shacks whose furnishings are relegated to hammocks. Children sit on the curbs watching the world unfold at their feet. Sometimes there is a smartphone to distract their poverty. The cenote we visit is well cared for and maintained by a local ejido, and we suspect the modest entrance fee may be a significant portion of their economy.
Stay tuned for a link to our next day’s foray to Chichen Itza.
As usual, there are many more photos from Uxmal to share, which can be found in the Uxmal Gallery