Uxmal, Mexico 2021
In October of 2021, I explored the Mayan Ruin of Uxmal. Uxmal is located in the Santa Elena Valley to the south of the Puuc hill country in the southwestern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and just 60 km south of Merida.
The zone was first settled in 500 B.C., but it wasn’t until the ninth and twelfth centuries A.D. that it become the seat of Mayan political and economic power.
It is estimated that a population of around twenty-five thousand inhabitants was distributed throughout a territory of 37.5 square kilometers with enormous agricultural potential, but lacking in permanent water sources. For this reason the Mayas constructed chultunes, or under-gound cisterns, and a complex drinking water system, including aguadas and bukteoobob for the utilization of rainwater.
The architecture at this site dates to the Late and Terminal Classic periods and is one of the most authentic examples of the Puuc style. Decorative features such as the three-dimensional masks of the god Chaac, colonnades, the two-headed jaguar, and iconographic symbols demonstrate Uxmal’s position in the most important cultural and commercial circuits of the Maya Classic Era.
Pictured above, the first major structure near the entrance to the site is the monumental El Adivino (also called the Temple of the Magician, Soothsayer or Dwarf). The base is often referred to as oval or elliptical, but since its east and west faces are on a straight line, perhaps it is better described as a rectangle with severely rounded corners.
An old Mayan legend tells of a witch who hatched a child from an egg, and this child developed into a dwarf in one year. The dwarf had supernatural powers and was challenged by the Lord of Uxmal to build a temple in one night or face death. He succeeded in this task as well as others, and finally became Lord of Uxmal. For this reason the great Pyramid at Uxmal is called the House of the Magician. It is the tallest pyramid structure here, rising to 30 meters.
El Adivino was built during five separate construction periods. The top structure, Temple V, is of course the latest, and it brings the building to its final height of approximately 33 meter. The earliest, Temple I, is beneath the lower portion of the stairway of the west face, (seen in the above photo), and it was almost totally covered by later construction. It’s rooms were filled with rubble beforehand, but portions of two well-preserved Chaac masks were visible over the central doorway until fairly recently.
Temple II is no longer visible from the outside of the pyramid but may be reached by climbing the east stairway and entering a chamber made during excavation. This temple has only been partly excavated, but its central chamber is supported by columns, and it is topped by a roof comb that is visible in a trench in the floor of Temple V above.
Temple II (no longer visible) was attached to the west side of Temple II. Later, Temple IV was added on in the same direction. Temple IV is visible from the outside of the pyramid on the west side. This temple has a monster-mouth mask forming it’s doorway and is referred to as the Chenes temple for that reason.
When the crowning Temple V was constructed, it effectively buried the earlier Temples II and III, as well as the rear and part of the sides of Temple IV. Temple I was probably built around 800 A.D., and Temple V about 950-1000 A.D.. The Magician or Dwarf who gave his name to this structure is a character in Maya folklore.
West of El Adivino is another of Uxmal’s more impressive structures: The Nunnery Quadrangle, or Casa de las Monjas. This is actually a complex of buildings surrounding a large, roughly rectangular courtyard or plaza. The individual buildings are labeled the North Building, the East Building, and so forth, and they rest on platforms that rise above the plaza level.
Pictured above, the plaza-level structure on the west is called the “Temple of Venus” because of the designs on it’s upper facade. Some of the decorations on building show motifs that are considered Aztec, such as the feathered serpents, warriors and the figurehead of Chaac, (pictured below). There are also decorative elements that simulate houses with thatched roofs and figurehead waterfalls with protracted noses.
The plaza-level structure on the east is called Building Y. A painted capstone was found in Building Y, and the inscription on it included a probable date of 907 A.D. and the name of Lord Chaac, one of Uxmal’s rulers.
The decoration in the Nunnery Quadrangle is among the richest and most varied of all the archaeological zones. Each facade has a combination of designs whose discourse is associated with different deities and cosmological concepts evoking a strong cult of fertility. . There are also residential structures in the surrounding area.
Pictured below, the building located to the north seems to be the most important as it is on a higher platform with respect to the others; although those located to the east and west are no less impressive.
There is an inner structure in the North Building, which, along with the South Building, was constructed first, then the East and West Buildings.
Stela 17 is presently found at the base of the North Building, pictured below. Here Lord “Chaac” is also named and portrayed.
The formal entrance to the Nunnery Quadrangle is through a large corbeled, portal vault in the center of the South Building, (pictured below). There are remains of red handprints in the topo of the vault. It is possible to enter the quadrangle from any of its four corners, as the buildings do not join each other.
The hierarchical organization of structures through the different elevations on which they were build and the absence of household items suggest that this area within the Nunnery, belonged to a royal palace with administrative and non-residential functions. The group sovereign ruler, royal court and governing council must have had meetings to receive tributes, make decisions and pass sentences among other activities.
Once leaving through the southern portal of the Nunnery Quadrangle in the South Building, a path heading south goes between the two side of a small ball court, (pictured above). A copy of one of the stone rings, carved with glyphs, is in place on the west side of the western section of the court. The Ball Court is believed to date to around 905 A.D.
The ballgame was a prestigious ceremonial activity and is associated with rulers and at the same time, with the humiliation of captives. This is reflected in the location of the court and its proximity to the Governor’s Palace, the possible residence of the royal house and seat of power of the ruler.
The game was played with a solid rubber ball whose diameter in the Maya area is varied between 20 cm and 35 cm. The ball could only be touched with the hips, elbows and knees. Players wore protective clothing made from leather to cushion the impact.
From the Ball Court, a path continues south to the Great Pyramid and the Dove-Cote Building. Pictured above, the Great Pyramid has had its north stairway and temple restored, and it gleams a brilliant white against the green vegetation. This monument measure about 80 m on its north side and about 30 m in height. Its overall shape is that of a truncated square pyramid formed by nine staggered sections. The north stairway leads to a platform on which there is a building whose facade has sculptural elements in the form of the macaw hence the name, the “Temple of the Macaws”.
Adjacent to the west of the Great Pyramid is the Dove-Cotes Building (Casa de las Palomas). Another common name for this complex is the “Pigeon Loft Complex”. It is part of a complex that was originally similar to the Nunnery Quadrangle, but it is not as well preserved.
Pictured above, the main feature is the stepped roof comb, which is in excellent condition. The facade has nine crests staggered in the form of triangles that resemble pigeon or dove lofts and give their name to both the structure and the complex. The crests are constructed over a row of pillars covered with painted stucco reliefs and figures of characters on pedestals in the center.
Just north-east of the Great Pyramid, along a terrace, is the House of the Turtles, (pictured above). This small but nicely proportioned structure of typical Puuc style has been restored.
The House of the Turtles, (pictured above), is 30 m long and 10 m wide and is comprised of seven recincts. The decoration is sober and it’s smooth lower walls contrast with the collonades that decorated the upper facade, where, throughout the length of the cornice, one can observe sculptures of turtles, who were important animals due to there association with rain and the Earth Cycles.
The House of the Turtles was most surely dedicated to Aquatic Cults. The architectural style corresponds to the later phase of Flourishing Puuc or Late Uxmal (900-1000 A.D.).
From the House of the Turtles, walk east around to the front of the Governor’s Palace, (one of the real gems of Maya Architecture). This exquisite structure lies atop a platform that was build upon a natural elevation. It is considered by most scholars to be the most perfect architectural building created on the grand scale in the Puuc Hills.
The Governor’s Palace is a massive, 107 m long structure, broken by two of the highest vaulted arches created by the Mayas for a palace building. These arches are the doorways that at one time separated the three sections of the palace building. At some time in Maya history these doorways were closed by filling them in with cut stone, (pictured below).
Picture below, the frieze above the architrave is composed of twenty thousand beautifully cut and fitted pieces of mosaic stone. These form a design of stepped frets, latticework, rain-god masks, and serpent motifs that move in an unbroken flamboyant rhythm from one end of the palace to the other. The use of a fret pattern is very old, dating back to Pre-classic times.
The Palace of the Governor has no decoration below the medial molding other than on the base molding. Twenty-four rooms with vaulted ceilings suggest that the function of the building was as a palace for the families of the ruling chiefs.
Most of the structures at Uxmal are oriented 9 degrees east of North. A notable deviant from the plan is the Governor’s Palace. It was erected on an elevated artificial platform skewed 19 degrees clockwise from the common axis of the buildings so that it faces 28 degrees south of east. Also uncharacteristically, if faces outward, away from the site axis. Pictured below, the powerful imagery of Lord Chaac’s double-headed jaguar throne in front of the building on axis with sculpted of the ruler himself, surrounded by bicephalic serpents and cosmic symbols carved over the central doorway of the outward-looking building, support the notion that the Palace of the Governor was the chief administrative center.
With an approximate azimuth of 118 degrees , the building is oriented to the main pyramid of Cehtzuc, a small site located nearly 5 km to the southeast. Observing from there, Venus as evening star, when reaching its maximum northerly extremes, would have set behind the northern edge of the Governor’s Palace. Since these events occur every eight years, always in late April or early May, heralding the onset of the rainy season, it is significant that the decoration of the building’s facade contains almost 400 Venus glyphs placed in the masks of the rain god Chaac. Additionally, from the Governor’s Palace central doorway, precisely along a perpendicular to the facade, one can see the only noticeable feature along the horizon at 208 degree azimuth, (and over the double-headed jaguar): an artificial structure several kilometers distant (called Nohpat). The perpendicular to the doorway of the Palace of the Governor also points to teh place on the eastern horizon where Venus would have risen at the time of it’s maximum southerly eight-year excursion about 800 A.D.