Seeking out Maya masterpieces in Yucatán

El Castillo de Kukulcán (on the right) and the Round Temple (on the left) at Mayapán.

Head off the beaten track in Mexico and you might be rewarded with some magnificent Maya archaeology, as Tom St John Gray reveals.

The Spanish have built a city here and called it Mérida, because of the strangeness and greatness of its structures.

In 1566, Diego de Landa – a Spanish Franciscan priest who later became the Bishop of Yucatán – wrote about the ancient structures of T’Hó, ‘of whose founders no memory remains’. Landa was referring to the new colonial city of Mérida, which had been established by the Spanish in 1542, and constructed over the abandoned Maya ceremonial centre of T’Hó. Meaning ‘five hills’ in Mayan, T’Hó was home to five large pyramids that were dismantled by the Spanish to build their own colonial settlement.

Today, Mérida is capital of Yucatán and celebrated as a charming city steeped in rich history. Grand avenues, tree-lined plazas, Maya-themed museums, and boutique hotels are attracting record numbers of visitors and a rapidly growing population. Away from the mass crowds of Cancún, Tulum, and Chichén Itzá, Mérida and the surrounding archaeological sites offer a more peaceful journey into the sophisticated world of the ancient Maya.

The facade of the palatial residence of the conqueror of Yucatán, Francisco de Montejo, pulls no punches when it comes to comparing the victorious conquistadors with the defeated locals standing at their feet.

Within the fabric of the city are clues that connect Mérida to the faded memory of T’Hó. To build their new capital, the Spanish used the ancient structures of T’Hó as quarries. Maya masonry remains visible in the walls of Mérida’s grand buildings, domineering cathedral, and the door lintels of colonial houses. On the south side of Mérida’s Plaza Grande, the palatial Casa de Montejo was constructed on the orders of Francisco de Montejo, the conqueror of Yucatán, and completed in 1549. The facade leaves little to the imagination, with two fierce conquistadors armed with halberds standing on the severed heads of vanquished barbarians.

The Thebes of Mexico

One of the star attractions of Yucatán is undoubtedly Chichén Itzá (CWA 82), but the ancient city of Uxmal is equally impressive and with far fewer visitors. Located 50 miles south of Mérida, archaeological investigations indicate the earliest settlers arrived here in 800 BC, while the city was founded around AD 700. The site grew to become a major political, religious, and economic centre in the Maya world, with a population swelling to an estimated 25,000. From AD 1000 to 1200, Uxmal began its terminal decline as a regional power, and the settlement was slowly surrendered to the invading forest. American explorer John Lloyd Stephens first visited Uxmal in 1839 and recounted its enduring splendour:

emerging suddenly from the woods, to my astonishment, we came at once upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins, and vast buildings on terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a bush to obstruct the view, and in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes.

The grandest structure in Uxmal is the 115ft-high Pyramid of the Magician, with a striking elliptical base that is unique to Maya architecture. To its west is the Nunnery Quadrangle, which contains four vast structures with ornate facades that face each other across a large trapezoidal courtyard. Other impressive structures include the 300ft-long facade of the Governor’s Palace, celebrated as a masterpiece of Maya art; a 100ft-high pyramid offering spectacular views of the site; and a traditional Maya ball court.

The Maya city at Dzibilchaltún covers 6.5 square miles and includes the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after the figurines found inside the structure when it was excavated.

Uxmal’s architecture is adorned with hundreds of carvings of Chaac, the Maya god of rain, who is depicted with a hook nose and bearing the rain-making tools of an axe and snakes. Water was key to life here. With no local sources of fresh water, the settlement was transformed from a peasant town into a powerful administrative centre through an ingenious series of hydraulic works. Using underground cisterns, or chultunes, Maya engineers stored large volumes of rainwater for the city’s burgeoning population.

Unlike Uxmal, the ancient city of Mayapán benefits from being excluded from the hectic Maya tourist trail. Situated 25 miles southeast of Mérida, Mayapán has no facilities apart from a dilapidated ticket booth, and it is entirely possible to enjoy this magical place in solitude. It is worlds apart from a visit by Stephens in 1841:

the ruins cover a great plain, which was at that time so overgrown that hardly any object was visible until we were close upon it… Ours was the first visit to examine these ruins. For ages they had been unnoticed, almost unknown, and left to struggle with rank tropical vegetation.

The natural sink-hole at Dzibilchaltún offers a tempting dip for locals and tourists alike.

After decades of archaeological investigations that began in 1938, Mayapán is now recognised as the last great Maya ceremonial and political capital before the Spanish Conquest. Once assumed by some experts to be a cultural backwater, excavations reveal that Mayapán was a large urban centre with trade routes to settlements in Oaxaca, Central Mexico, and Guatemala. The walled city flourished during the Late Post-Classic period (AD 1250-1450), housing over 4,000 structures and a population of 17,000 inhabitants. Archaeologists estimate two-thirds of these residents lived within the confines of the great defensive walls, and that the settlement was one of the most densely populated Maya cities. At the peak of its power, Mayapán ruled over vast swathes of north and northeast Yucatán but the city was plagued by violence and political instability. It was eventually abandoned between AD 1441 and 1461.

All images: Tom St John Gray

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 90 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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