Royal Metropolis of the Maya Golden Age


Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown.… We lived in the ruined palace of their kings; we went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power.


Intrigued by the accounts of a few earlier visitors, travel writer John Lloyd Stephens and his partner, architect Frederick Catherwood, journeyed to Central America and Chiapas. Even after an arduous six months of travel to Copán and other spectacular Maya ruins, plagued by illness, insects and torrential rains, Stephens was overwhelmed by what he saw at Palenque – and justly so. In the 175 years that have since passed, the impression on the visitor of Palenque’s graceful architecture against its mountain backdrop makes it one of the most beautiful cities of ancient America, if not the world.

The ruins occupy an area of only 2.2 sq. km (less than a square mile), densely packed on a narrow shelf of land halfway up the north-facing slope of the Chiapas highlands. From this vantage point Palenque overlooks a vast and fertile plain where many streams – the Murciélagos, Otolum and others – with their precious bounty, fall from the heights and pass through the city on their way to the Gulf of Mexico, 145 km (90 miles) distant.

The heart of Palenque, today largely explored, cleared and restored, is dominated by the massive Palace, a complex system of vaulted passages, rooms and courtyards in a roughly rectangular plan, covering some 8,000 sq. m (86,100 sq. ft). From it rises the famed Tower. Near the southwest corner, facing north and set against a mountain slope, lies the Temple of the Inscriptions and adjacent Temples XII and XIII, fronting a great plaza.

A general view of Palenque in Frederick Catherwood’s lithograph of 1844. The Palace is shown at left, dominated by the towering mountain backdrop; in the centre is the lofty Temple of the Inscriptions. The vertical exaggeration of the view, quite uncharacteristic of Catherwood’s work, may reflect the artist’s faulty memory, perhaps tempered by ill health.

Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, MA.

Beyond this and the Ball Court lie the North Group and neighbouring buildings that form the north boundary of the plaza. And behind them begins the mountain slope that leads downwards to the plain. Southeast of the Palace, across the aqueduct of the walled Otolum river, rise two more major clusters of buildings – the Cross Group and the adjacent trio of structures to the south.

Decades of careful excavation at Palenque, along with analyses of the ceramic sequence and interpretations of art, architecture and hieroglyphic texts, reveal a rich history spanning some 2,000 years, from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC to the abandonment of the city shortly before AD 1000. Initially, the place was but one of many small settlements in the area, an isolated and self-reliant community of farmers and householders drawn to the fertile lands of highland valleys and the plain below, all well watered by the streams that gave the site its early name, Lakamha’, ‘Big Water’. As the centuries passed, external contacts increased, along with the needs of a growing population. By the early centuries AD the stage was set for the emergence of Palenque as a prosperous regional capital.

Ongoing decipherment of Palenque’s numerous, lengthy and elegantly rendered hieroglyphic inscriptions has provided the most complete picture we have of the cosmology of the ancient Maya in their own words. Inscriptions tell of the Triad, the three supernatural patrons of the city, of divine ancestors, and of the sacred realms of sky, earth and water. All the significant events of this mythical history are keyed into eternity by means of the ‘Long Count’. This elaborate system, used from the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 10th century AD (according to the correlation currently in use), was based on a positional notation that recorded, in a base-20 system as opposed to our current decimal, or base-10, system, the number of days that have elapsed since 11 August 3113 BC, the mythical date of the last Great Cycle of the count. The five periods usually expressed are the Bak’tun (144,000 days), the K’atun (7,200 days), the Tun (360 days), the Winal (20 days) and the K’in (1 day). Following this Long Count series, the Maya scribe added the day and month of the ‘Calendar Round’, a statement of two interlocking cycles that repeated every 18,980 days, or about 52 years in our decimal count. Thus the Maya of Palenque and elsewhere were able to record any single day in the infinite span of past and future time.

The Palace complex served as the setting for Palenque’s royal court. Most of its buildings, courtyards and the reliefs that adorn them date from the late 7th-century reign of Pakal, Palenque’s ‘King of Kings’.

© Kenneth Garrett.

The jade mask of the ‘Red Queen’. The mask adorned the skeleton of a middle-aged woman found in a sarcophagus in a tomb close to Pakal’s funerary temple. Possibly Pakal’s wife, she was covered in jade beads and red cinnabar, hence her modern name.

Héctor Montaño-INAH.

Texts with Long Count dates also reveal the names of the succession of kings and queens who ruled Palenque between AD 431 and the late 700s. They tell, as well, of military victories and defeats involving Palenque and neighbouring cities. A particular problem for Palenque lay 235 km (146 miles) to the east – the arch-rival, Calakmul. According to an inscription in one of the Palace courtyards, Calakmul warriors invaded and conquered Palenque on 7 April 611. They held the kingdom a vassal state for the next five years – perhaps the nadir of Palenque’s history. Soon, however, the city’s fortunes were reversed with the appearance of one of ancient America’s truly heroic figures, K’inich Janab Pakal II (or simply Pakal), who reigned from AD 615 to 683.

Under Pakal, Palenque’s ‘Golden Age’ began on 12 October 652, when the ritual calendar reached, the end of the eleventh K’atun of the Long Count. The Palace was built anew from the ground up, with ornate halls and private courtyards above a complex of subterranean chambers. Parts of the great structure held special chambers, including the Throne Room in House E, where the royal seat of power was surmounted by the Oval Tablet set into the wall, depicting the crowning of Pakal by his mother.

Residences of the royal family and other elite members of the court, including scribes and calendar priests, probably occupied the area east of the Palace, on the other side of the Otolum river. The city itself held not only clusters of dwellings for everyone from farmers to warriors, but also workshops for ceramicists, stonemasons, sculptors and architects. At its peak, Palenque’s estimated population was less than 10,000. One can visualize the city in its heyday as a grand panorama with temples at its centre, many brightly painted and some adorned with row upon row of smoking incense burners, themselves unique examples of the craftsman’s art. In the plazas and private courtyards of the royal Palace, the spectacle of rituals of incredible pomp and ceremony can only be imagined.

With prosperity came power. On 7 August 659 the military forces of Pakal defeated nearby Santa Elena, east of the city, and took its ruler captive. Such victories, mainly over allies of hated Calakmul, served well to avenge the humiliation of Palenque’s defeat in 611. K’inich Janab Pakal II died on 31 August 683. His son K’inich Kan Bahlam succeeded to the throne the following January. First the new ruler oversaw the completion of the great funerary monument to his father – the Temple of the Inscriptions, which he dedicated on 6 July 690. For nearly 1,300 years Pakal’s tomb lay hidden at the base of a deep and narrow stairway that led from inside the summit temple downwards through the platform to the level of the plaza below. Archaeologist Alberto Ruz discovered it after four arduous years clearing the passage of rubble, concrete and offerings. The search ended on 15 June 1952, when Ruz shined his flashlight into the sarcophagus chamber, a discovery which ranks as one of the greatest ever made in the Maya area.

The elaborately carved lid that protected Pakal’s sacred body portrays him surrounded by cosmic symbols, rising as the Sun, emerging from the jaws of the Underworld against the background of a great tree laden with jewels. The sides of the sarcophagus portray Pakal’s ancestors rising from the earth as trees laden with fruits. Thus was the dead king placed at the very the centre of the divine cosmos.

In the century following the death of Pakal, a succession of his sons, nephews and grandsons continued the dynasty, expanding Palenque with the Cross Group and others, adorning them all with masterpieces of sculpture and calligraphy that pay homage to their builders, and to the great and revered K’inich Janab Pakal II.

A detail of Temple XIX’s limestone panel depicting K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb, who ascended to the throne of Palenque on 3 January 722, in an elaborate feathered dance costume, revealing the fineness of the carving and the effective treatment of portraiture achieved by Maya artists.

© Jorge Pérez de Lara.

We know little of Palenque’s final years as a living royal city. The last known king, K’inich K’uk’ Bahlum, took office on 8 March 764 and ruled at least a decade. After that, the royal court came to an end for causes unknown, for the written record ceases. Other evidence indicates that a remnant of the population lived on for a time in the old buildings abandoned by the nobility. By 850, however, Palenque lay deserted, lost to the outside world for the next nine centuries.

Today, the story of ancient Palenque continues to emerge from the mounds of rubble in the city centre. Meanwhile, most of the ancient city remains in ruins in the dark shadows of the forest, silently waiting to complete the story of one of the greatest cities of antiquity.

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