What makes this site special?
The Wall of Zoomorphic Masks
Kabáh ruins live in the shadow of the more popular Uxmal site but its Palace of the masks is a marvel and a must for any Mayaphile. To understand Uxmal it is also important to understand Kabáh and vice versa. Just stroll around (not many tourists) and enjoy.
Kabáh is one of the sites along the Puuc Route, named after the hills that surround these ancient cities. The main Puuc cities today are Uxmal, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná. Puuc means 'low range of hills' in Mayan. The sites are a few kilometres from each other. Each location shares architectural similarities, which point to their relationship to one another.
We came here with my husband Rhod during our two-week road trip in September 2017. We visited nine ruin sites on the Río Bec Route and five Mayan sites on the Route Puuc (and some haciendas). I would go back any time. Kabáh is less restored than Uxmal but it gives more space for your imagination. Here is my take on it.
One of the characteristics of the area is the mix of architectural styles, because despite being located in the Puuc Region, (yellow on the map) elements of the Río Bec and Chenes (tan and orange respectively) styles can also be seen. Most mosaic parts of Chenes masks, including eyes, are made up of openwork relief stepped frets. This style is often used in framing the doors with monster masks. This contrasts to Puuc mosaic masks, which usually employ a variety of relief elements including round discs for eyes. They often include lattices made up of thousands of 'X' forms, T-shapes, serrated discs, stylised serpent heads, and stepped frets. The Río Bec style used towers topped by 'false temples' (as in Tikal or Xpujil), to give the building a greater height and importance. It also used 'false' doorways (that did not lead anywhere) flanked by large zoomorphic masks and 'false' stairways, too steep to climb. We can see elements of all three styles in Kabáh.
Kabáh (or Kabaah) in Mayan means 'strong hand'. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) states that the city's name is mentioned in the books of Chilam Balam (from Chuyamel), where the translation gives 'the powerful hand'.
I also came upon the translation 'the hand that sculpts' but I can't verify how accurate that is.
An alternative name given by Teoberto Maler is Kabáhaucan, 'royal snake in the hand'.
The age breathes from the ruins. The Puuc area was inhabited by the mid 3rd century BC. Most of the architecture now visible was built between the 7th century and 11th centuries AD. Around 850 AD, the Puuc cities were at their peak. This city was abandoned before the Spanish Conquest.
The Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901) put a stop to all visits to the area until the 1920s, as the indigenous Maya revolted against the European-descended population and it was too dangerous for explorers to enter the area. In 1922, to strengthen the Yucatán, the highway to Uxmal was built. Since then, many researchers have worked on the sites in this area, among them Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Harry Pollock, Ignacio Marquina and, more recently, Ramón Carrasco, Sylvianne Boucher, Antonio Benavides, Jeremy Sabloff, Michael Smyth, Lourdes Toscano and José Huchim. Since 2003 Ramón Carrasco has been working on the Kabáh restoration.
It is speculated that Kabáh may have been as large as Uxmal and its political equal. Kabáh is the more ornamental and larger of the two sites, which has led historians to believe it had greater influence.
The urban population of the Puuc region was more nucleated than in other areas. Nevertheless, more than 70 percent of the land was reserved for agriculture, food processing, storage and pottery making. Domestic gardens were a vital part of the urban landscape, devoted to orchards of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, ornamental plants, and even fields of maize, beans and squash. Features of the settlement include rain capture in chultunes (bottle-shaped underground storage chambers), as there was no surface water in the area (due to the porous limestone, the rainfall immediately disappeared). At some point in the classic era there was competition for agricultural land. Needless to say, that would have led to wars. In the 9th century Uxmal established itself as a regionally dominant centre, thus creating a single state of sorts.
Kabáh was an ally of Uxmal. The ruling families would have been in contact and most likely strictly regulated the seasonal dispersion of the population in relation to the land: part of the urban population was always sent during the growing season to the small hamlets and farmlands to cultivate the land in the region. An 18km sacbé (white road ) connected Kabáh with Uxmal.
In Kabáh, a square platform was erected in the place where this causeway arrives. Two ramps lead up to the platform with a single free-standing arch on top, which served as the entrance to the city. We did not get to see the arch as we did not go to the other side of the road (we were not aware at the time that the site is split into two sections, divided by the main road). If you do get there, just try to imagine the traders carrying the goods (as in this image of Aztec merchants carrying cocoa for long distances: wordpress.com), the pilgrims on their way to a temple, the busy daily life. It helps immensely to imagine what life must have been like in this city.
The sacbé roads were used for trade but they were not designed for caravans or oxcarts as the Maya did not use the wheel. They knew of the principle, as they levelled the roads with large stone rollers and they also used the wheel, strangely, in toys, but not in transport. There were no pack animals either so most goods were transported on people's backs (this work was done mostly by slaves). The white roads were also used for processions and pilgrimages. They culminated in the centres of the cities, which were dominated by temple pyramids where the rituals were held and the residential complexes of the nobility were located. When the Spanish missionaries arrived in Yucatán, they trusted these roads, as they always led them to important places.
The life of the rulers was usually portrayed in stone slabs called stelae. One stela can be seen near the entrance by the bathrooms (not the best location, in my view), protected by a roof. We could not see any explanation of who the characters might be but I could recognise the outlines on the stela. To me, it is remarkably similar to the stela that we saw in the nearby Puuc site of Sayil. In the case of Sayil, it is the God of Fertility Yum Keep. Do you see the resemblance as I do? Phallic worship was present in the Puuc region and also in Chichén Itzá in Post-Classic times (from the 10th century onwards). Phallic symbols were interpreted as an expression of the human desire for regeneration and as a symbol of fertility (not sex). However, the character on Kabáh stela seems to be a skeleton so I can only speculate that it is a war captive (a king would not have been portrayed as a skeleton and not with a phallus).
The Focus: The Palace of masks
It is also known as the Codz Poop, meaning 'Rolled Up Matting', from the pattern of the stone mosaics. This massive repetition of a single set of elements is unusual in Maya art, and here is used to unique effect. In addition to the 'rolled up matting' motif the building had four hundred masks, although many have fallen away over the centuries. In some sense, the repetitive masks reminded us of wallpaper. I am not sure if they enhance the meaning that the rulers wanted to express or if the meaning is a bit lost in the repetition. On the other hand, it creates awe, which was probably the aim. My own imagination tells me that each nose may have held a lit torch. Just imagine the effect!
So let's have a look at the 'mat' motif and the mask separately. The 'rolled mat' gives the building its name. Our guide told us that this motif it represents the skin of a snake. I don't like that analogy. In essence it is stone latticework that looks like a lot of X shapes. X was a symbol of the sky and also in the old Olmec iconography a symbol of the snake. If worn by a ruler, it represented his kinship (if worn on the chest) or a symbol of deity (if worn on a headdress). So, the symbol of power.
My favourite archaeologist and epigrapher Karl Taube explains the rolled mat very logically. Some cities were too big to be ruled by one almighty king. Instead, they had a Council government (like we have parliaments or congress). When the noblemen went into a meeting of the Council, they had to bring their own woven mats to sit on, as the stone benches were hard. They were woven in X-shapes. It was a symbol of power, of belonging to the ruling dynasty, and the building was 'signposted' by this ornament as a 'council' house. I prefer the expression 'assembly' house. The nobles also wore jade ceremonial bar pectorals of rolled mats on their chests (as a symbol of power and status). I copied below some of the drawings from Taube's article, for a better illustration of such mats that were found at various burials:
- A - from burial in Copán (drawing by Seiichi Nakamura)
- B - from burial in Tikal (Shook and Kidder)
- C - from burial in Costa Rica (Jones)
The main feature of the building, the façade with the zoomorphic masks, is much harder to define. I have dealt with the 'mask' topic in my posts on Uxmal and Monsters but the trouble is that the masks from different sites differ slightly, so it is easy to get misled. I therefore briefly repeat the three possible options of what the masks represent:
- Chac, the God of Rain (with down-curling nose and knotted headband)
- Witz, the Mountain Monster (with extended upper lip and flower headband)
- Itzam Yeh (also Itzam Kah), the Celestial Bird
Chac was pretty important because the Maya in Yucatán did not have enough rainwater so they sacrificed to him in times of drought. But did the Maya really mark their buildings with this cult? It is more likely that the Maya 'marked' their buildings with a more important story: that of life and death, the resurrection of the kings, their immortality. For that purpose, the second or third mask options apply better.
The Witz (Mountain) Monster guarded the entry to the cave (underworld). The deceased king entered the underworld and began here his journey to resurrection (of his soul). He then continued up the sacred Tree of Life (Milky Way) and the Celestial bird was sitting there (perhaps waiting for him?). The king was then reborn in the sky. So both Witz and Itzam Yeh guarded the rebirth journey of the king and have therefore the same symbolic meaning: immortality of the kings and the cycle of life. The scientists now say that the masks on all Puuc sites represent the celestial bird (the same applies to Chichén Itzá). The celestial bird Itzam Yeh (sometimes also called Itzam Kah) sits on top of the World Tree and is also a symbol of rebirth (Schele, Grube, Martin). This is a crucial discovery. The bird is a manifestation of the god Itzamná (creation god of the sky).
While the masks in the Puuc region look very similar, there are subtle differences. For example, the Uxmal mask has a spiral eye, the Kabáh mask a round one. The majority of the masks at Uxmal have flower headbands (Chac has a knotted headband).
Karl Taube calls all such masks Flower Mountain. It does not matter, it seems, if it is a Mountain Monster (Witz) or Celestial bird monster (Itzam Yeh). The monster represents a process of rebirth of the king, which happens in the Flower Mountain (in the mountain itself). The deceased starts his journey in the underworld, then goes up the mountain to the sky (paradise). Flowers, birds, singing (breath spirals) and aroma (spirals or flower symbol) all represent paradise.
So what is the correct answer? You decide for yourself. My decision is the Celestial Bird for all Puuc sites because I believe that the story of the immortality of the kings (and life) represented by this bird was somehow most important for the Maya. Admittedly, I don't see the flower headband on the Kabáh mask and it is difficult to judge the nose from the front view. Furthermore, one has to also allow for artistic freedom. Admittedly, the masks are very confusing. Some masks seem to have a nose pointing downwards, some upwards and then down. Instead of thinking about the nose shape, perhaps we can imagine 'the energy, the breath'. The creature breathes in and out, hence the variation of the spirals ('noses'): receiving and giving energy. If you can't decide, the best option is to call it Flower Mountain, as that is what those monsters represent.
As for other ornaments, the large male figures may be worth mentioning. To me, they don't look like the known portraits of Chac. They could be kings or priests. Some say they are Atlantean figures but they don't seem to be holding the sky or the roof. These are carved stone pillars in the shape of fierce men, known from the Toltec town of Tula, portraying Toltec warriors.
This style could have been brought here from the city's ally, Chichén Itzá (similar statues were discovered in Chichén, which was indeed influenced by the Toltecs; after all, the feathered serpent king from Tula, Quetzalcóatl, conquered Chichén ).
And here is my attempt to decode other motifs:
- zig-zag pattern (could be a water symbol, which represents the underworld)
- four petals with a marked centre (the 'kin' glyph, meaning sun; also a symbol of cosmic regeneration. Also the petals represent the four cardinal directions and reflect a belief in a four-cornered world with an axis mundi, or connection between heaven and earth.)
- waves and spirals (symbol of breath: stones buildings, pyramids and mountains were breathing, they were alive and worshipped)
- Mountain Monster eyebrow (upside down U-shape with three dots; sacred Mountain was a symbol of paradise and rebirth)
So again, all the symbols seem to be connected to the story of life and death, rebirth, and immortality.
Flower patterns are frequent in Maya art. They had many meanings.
For example the water lily is a symbol of Xibalbá (the underworld) and the gods were born from this flower. The marigold is the flower of the dead ;squash flowers are associated with the ballgames. Quatrefoil flowers are also caves, portals, and symbols of kingship.
Flowers can symbolise fragrance (a symbol of paradise) and the sensual richness of court life. You choose!
The Mystery: conciliar government?
For me, the intriguing part of the history of the city is its position in the region. We know that Kabáh and Uxmal were allies but we don't know if the rulers of Kabáh were subordinate to the rulers of Uxmal or vice versa. Was Kabáh a satellite town? Well, it was larger than Uxmal, so this would not fit the notion of a satellite. We know that some wars took place, for example Lord Chac of Uxmal was portrayed on Stela 14 at Uxmal standing on defeated and naked captives (who were then sacrificed). Who were the enemies?
Another source of information is on the four door-jambs of the Codz Poop building. The reliefs show a ruler spearing an enemy and taking captives. He wears a padded-cotton war jacket and has a short goatee and prominent scars around his eyes and down his face. He was a warlike king, but we don't know his name or his story. Many scientists have tried to date the glyphs on the door-jambs but they all differ slightly. David Stuart and Meghan Rubenstein claim that the date of the inscription is 873 AD and I will happily settle with that.
You can't see these lintels today at the site; they would have been removed to museums elsewhere.
Stelae that have been found in the Puuc region focus on one dominant individual, often elaborately dressed. The glyphs apparently indicate that the individual was ajaw (lord) but we don't have the names. It is clear that around the ninth century the region was ruler-centric. Each city had its own paramount ruler chosen from the dominant lineage, who may have shared a certain amount of their political and economic power with the heads of competing lineages. But what happened when Uxmal became dominant in the latter part of the 9th century?
Ramón Carrasco Vargas observes that the Uxmal-Nohpat-Kabáh sacbé demonstrates that all three cities were part of a regional organisation, based on a political agreement that allowed their autonomous populations to interact equally and to retain their own integrity. He makes the extraordinary claim that Nohpat may have been as important as Uxmal, as the monumental area of Nohpat surpassed in some ways the monuments of Uxmal. I find that rather intriguing.
Interestingly, in the western Puuc region the scholars noted some changes in political organisation from the 7th century onward. Here the lords had the title sajal (a noble title used in the southern Maya lands). In Nikolai Grube's view, this term suggests a joint or conciliar form of government, rather than one paramount ruler. In the 16th century much of the western Puuc region (see the map below) was part of the Aj Canul polity, a kuchkabal (council government) dominated by the Canul lineage. It seems this area was less hierarchical than the east. The East part of the Puuc region was ruled by the Xiu dynasty even then.
Don't Miss: The Arch and the Governor's Palace
Don’t miss (like we did) the Arch on the other side of the road, marking the end of a ceremonial sacbe to Uxmal (and in the other direction to Labná). It is a bit of a walk but it is the largest Mayan free-standing arch.
Also browse around the Governor's Palace. It is the largest building in the city, next to the Palace of the Masks, on an elevated platform, like the Palace in Uxmal.
The Palace is a group of about 12 structures, including altars, low platforms, and units with rooms on two levels. It is relatively well preserved and there are remains of two stairways. You can climb the steps and look through the many doorways at the top, although there is nothing much inside. It is estimated that the palace had more than 30 rooms. The building probably had a dual purpose, like the Palace in Uxmal: it was both the administrative centre and the residential palace. Note the beautiful ornaments on the building.
The importance of this construction and the great number of people who inhabited it, is demonstrated by the many chultúns around it: 14 have been found so far (we could not see them).
The main decoration that we can see today on the Palace is a pattern of Maya huts, the same as in Uxmal. This is unusual, to portray the houses of common folk on royal buildings. The huts are represented by columns, as a symbol of the reeds used for the walls of the huts and trapezoidal shapes representing the thatched roofs (the rural Maya live until today in such houses). I searched for an explanation of this motif of reed huts and found one in the article by Stephen D. Houston (Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, 1998). Houston states that in Classic Maya monuments temples are referred to as otoch or otot, a term meaning 'house' in Mayan languages. In ancient Maya temple scenes, gods frequently appear in their thatched houses, and the thatched buildings on Maya structures probably denote them as dwelling places of the gods.
To get a fuller image of how the palace might have looked, I will finish with a reconstruction drawing by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (in 1946). The Governor's Palace is on the left, and the Palace of the Masks on the right (source: pinterest.com). It seems it was one big joint acropolis.
You don't have to be a Mayaphile to enjoy this site. Just test your imagination when looking at the ornate masks and friezes and think what message or mythology the rulers may have had in mind when they built this extravagant city. What message would you convey for mankind if you were to build your own city?
The site map
Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm
Services: bathrooms, refreshment kiosk
Entry fees (2017): $50 MXN, discounts for locals
Mérida has an airport for both domestic and international flights.
If you are going by bus from Mérida, there is only one bus for the Puuc, which leaves from the 2nd class TAME terminal on Sundays at 8:00 am, for around $160 pesos. The bus visits first the last site, which is Labná, then Xlapac, Sayil and Kabáh; in these zones the bus gives you 30 minutes to visit each zone and the last one is Uxmal where the bus gives you two hours.
By car, use the highway to Uxmal. From Playa del Carmen or Cancún, the best option is to rent a car. The fastest way is to go along highway 180, pass Mérida and turn off at the village of Uman. The road is well-signposted but in Uman the trick is to turn off under the bridge. If you go over the bridge, you have missed the turning point.
From Uxmal it is 22km to Kabáh; there is only one road leading there.
If you are travelling by car, you can do all five Puuc sites in one day (if you start early). This is not possible by public transport. See my post Oxkutzcab for my accommodation recommendations.
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