What makes this site special?
This city is a replica of Chichén Itzá but much more compact so it is somehow more pleasing to the eye. It is easy to walk from one end to the other, unlike its larger counterpart.
This site was on my bucket list for a long time but I wanted to see it towards the end of my explorations of Yucatán ruins, it being the last dominion of the Maya here. I must admit I absolutely loved the site when I visited in May 2018 with my husband Rhod. Despite the fact that its king plotted against Chichén Itzá and most likely destroyed it. We had the site to ourselves and could clearly see the replica of Chichén's ceremonial buildings, such as the Castillo of Kukulkán and the round observatories (they have two here, not just one). From the top of the Temple of the Fisherman we had a view of the whole city and it seemed to me that the whole area had an echo. This would have been deliberate and it certainly felt that the archaeologists built a majestic city, despite its compactness.
The bonus is the murals that were found here. Unlike in Chichén (where they are closed to the public), you can actually see them. The murals show scenes related to cosmology and the death cult, evidence of cultural links to the high plains of central Mexico. The site is surrounded by a stone wall with twelve gates including some with vaulted entrances. Interestingly, there is no ball court. Did they go all the way to Chichén Itzá to play, or not play the game at all?
Mayapán was referred to by several names in the past, including Zaclactún, meaning 'the place where white pottery was made'. It could also be interpreted as Zac Actún, which means 'white cave'.
In more modern times, it was cited in the Chilam Balam books as Ichpá Mayapán (walled enclosure). Other sources say that Mayapán means 'banner of the Maya'. I find this name fitting for the late history of this city as it was indeed the last bastion of the Maya kingdoms (after the fall of Chichén Itzá).
Another possible explanation for the modern name is May ('circle' in Yucatec Maya) and Apan (water in Nahuatl). That would point to close ties with the Aztecs.
The actual date that Mayapán was settled is the subject of controversy. It rose and fell rather quickly for an ancient city; its peak time was between 1200 and 1448 AD.
Archaeological remains in the Mayapán area date back to the Pre-Classic period (400 BC–250 AD). A burial found on Mayapán bedrock dates it between 600 and 780 AD. The burial could not be completely excavated because it intruded into a wall and there was no pottery within it. Little is know about those times; most references are from 1200 onwards when Mayapán is mainly known for its fractious rivalry between two dynasties: the Cocom and the Xiu.
The Franciscan priest Diego de Landa in his book Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan recounts that the site was founded by Kukulkán (the Mayan name of Quetzalcóatl, the Toltec king who conquered Chichén Itzá), after the fall of Chichén. It is presumed that he meant Kukulkán II of Chichén Itzá, known as king Ah Nacxit, who ruled the city of Mayapán between 1263 and 1283 AD. The League of Mayapán was already in place, from 987 AD (other sources give 1007 as the start of the league). The alliance unified Chichén Itzá, Mayapán and Uxmal. Chichén Itzá was then the main city of the league and they continued to incorporate other areas as their vassals, such as Zamá (Tulum), Ichpatún and Izamal.
What we know for sure is that Mayapán became the political and cultural capital of the Maya, from the 1220s until the 1440s, and that its king had a desire for dominance. No new buildings were erected after that but I would not like to say that the city was abandoned. In reality the ancient Mayan families did not die out completely and they even survived the Spanish Conquest. The populations simply dispersed, most returning to their original homelands in Yucatán. Today there are still descendants of the Cocom, as well as the Xiu, living in Yucatán.
In modern history, in 1841 John L. Stephens was the first to document parts of the Mayapán site. The Carnegie project completed its work in 1962. Since 2000, a collaborative Mexican-United States team has been conducting excavations. So slowly this city is revealing its secrets. This is crucial, as it completes our view of the history of the whole of Yucatán.
The People: Love and revenge
I have already mentioned King Ah Nacxit Kukulkán II who ruled the city between 1263 and 1283 AD. Some sources tie this king to the legend of Hunac Ceel (i.e. Kukulkán II could have been Hunac Ceel) and the year 1194 (although scientists can't agree on the date). I rather like this legend that speaks of passionate love and revenge.
Hunac was a general born in a village near Mayapán, who was thrown into the sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá, as a sacrificial victim. Nobody knows why this happened. He survived and after such a miracle he was then made the lord of Mayapán. He wanted to have more power and destroy Chichén. His hands were tied because Chichén, Mayapán and Uxmal had an alliance, which did not allow them to attack each other. The right moment came in 1194 when Canek (Black Serpent or Serpent Star), the king of Chichén Itzá, fell in love with Sac Nicté (White Flower). They fell in love overnight, on their first encounter. Some say that she was the daughter of Hunac Ceel. She was promised to Ah Ulil, the prince of Izamal (he was the subordinate king to Canek), so Canek stole the bride from Izamal on the wedding night. Imagine the outrage of prince Ulil. Izamal was then a vassal to Chichén so Ulil joined forces with Hunac Ceel and they defeated Chichén Itzá in revenge (they were just waiting for an excuse for war). It is said that Hunac Ceel afterwards started the Cocom dynasty in Mayapán.
Interestingly, it is possible that Canek with his stolen bride and his people fled to Lake Petén in Guatemala, as they could not come back to Chichén, expecting Hunac Ceel's revenge. There they established the new kingdom of Tah Itzá (place of the Itzá), which the Spanish later corrupted to Tayasal. Other sources claim that Tayasal was actually established later, by people fleeing the Mayapán area (after the revolt, in the 15th century). I recently watched the old film Kings of the Sun, which portrayed Hunac Ceel attacking Chichén Itzá. In the movie, its people then fled to the lands of today's US, which was an incorrect assumption. Well, we think we know better now but it is still a puzzle.
After Hunac's death, the aggressive Cocom family obtained power and used Mayapán as a base to conquer northern Yucatán. They used Mexicans from Tabasco as mercenaries, to help them control the region. They succeeded, and the Cocom ruled for 250 years until 1441-1461 A.D. To oust the oppressors, another family who lived in the area, the Xiu dynasty (originally based in Uxmal and then in Maní), slaughtered the Cocom family in 1461. They murdered all of the Cocom princes, except one who was on a trading expedition to Honduras on that day. This reminds me the intrigues of the European courts; not very different, is it? The Xius remained in residence here until 1480.
The social hierarchy shows evidence of a high level ruling class made up of priests and kings, skilled labourers made up of tradesmen and craftsmen, and agricultural slaves who worked the fields around the walled city. Mayapán had trade partners that extended directly to Honduras and Belize and the Caribbean island of Cozumel, and indirectly to Central Mexico. Though Mayapán was ruled by a council, the Halach Uinic and the Ah K’in (the highest ruler, and the high priest) dominated the political sphere. The social climate of Mayapán was made complicated by the antagonistic relationship between the factions of nobles, which were often arranged by kinship. No wonder the Xiu nobles rebelled and Mayapán was sacked and burned. A mass grave in the main plaza showed signs of violence: some of the bodies still had large flint knives in their chests or pelvises, suggesting ritualised sacrifice.
As a trade city, Mayapán exported cotton, salt, and honey, and imported cocoa, obsidian and metal, which they would have forged. The presence of Matillas Fine Orange ceramics in Mayapán suggests trade with Tabasco. Sculptures and murals suggest that there was contact with the rising Aztec empire. Some Mayapán figures also showed details of Aztec dress. Mayapán was truly at the crossroads of cultural contact between the Central Mexican and Mayan areas.
Agriculture was important, as elsewhere. They used the slash-and-burn system. Their diet seemed to be balanced, as along with maize they ate white-tailed deer, dog, turkey, iguana, rabbit, turtle and fish. Apparently the fish skeletons were found here without heads, suggesting the fish were being traded into Mayapán.
The houses are arranged in small patio groups. They were built haphazardly, it seems, without organised streets. I would not put it past them that cosmology played a role in the layout, though. Or that the buildings were built along the paths in a way that was practical, perhaps grouping administrative buildings along certain paths.
The residential areas of the site contain many cenotes, perhaps as many as 40; they served as the only source of fresh water. The estimated population was about 21,000 within the walls of Mayapán. Needless to say, beyond the wall the settlement may have been as much as three times larger.
The Focus: The Temple of Kukulkán
El Castillo (the Castle) is the main temple in Mayapán. It is located by the cenote Ch'en Mul. The pyramid is a four-staircase temple with nine terraces, like the Temple of Kukulkán at the earlier site of Chichén Itzá, so we can presume it represents the Maya calendar. The light effect show (on the balustrade only as the snake's head is missing) takes place at the winter solstice. It is the same event as in Chichén Itzá, announcing a change of season, just at a different season (in Chichén it is during the spring and autumn equinoxes). This is enabled by nine platforms on the pyramid, which represent Xibalbá, the Underworld (afterlife, but also the beginning of life).
Overall, it appears to be an inferior imitation; it is smaller, despite the fact that beneath the pyramid that we can see, they found another pyramid. It was common practice to build pyramids on top of each other.
There are two amazing stucco friezes on the pyramid, which look recently renovated. There were several floors of them but only two were renovated. Apparently the skeletal figures depict decapitated warriors (or death god figures or the city ancestors?) The hands of one of them are being pecked at by birds, perhaps vultures. Rectangular niches appear in place of the heads, where skulls were placed. In Chichén and other cities they put the skulls of dead warriors or sacrificed victims on a rack so this is a more stylised version. The frieze is a symbol of war, undoubtedly. But which war? Could it be the one with Chichén Itzá?
The Mystery: symbolism of the murals
The symbolism present in Mayapán is significant. There are similarities with the iconography of the Aztec and Mixteca-Puebla regions. The main symbols that they have in common include the sun disc and serpent iconography. So let's look at some details.
We can see the murals in three buildings: The Fresco Hall, The House of Five Niches and The Temple of the Fisherman.
The Fresco Hall (Sala de los Frescos), adjacent to the Castillo, is a colonnade building. It has several scenes with solar disks. The sun disk could represent the Sun God or Quetzalcóatl (Feathered Serpent), Aztec God of Wind and Wisdom. Apparently one of the murals has the figure of a deity, possibly representing a transit of Venus that happened in the years 1152 or 1275. Another disk has profile figures facing each other across a sun disk. And yet another could be interpreted as a warrior sacrificed to the sun god: his diving posture within the disc is a common motif used to represent a dead warrior: he is bound and his heart removed. In all honesty, I could recognise only solar disks and on one of the murals two figures facing each other. The rest was not clear to me. The colours are still well visible but the drawings are more complex to visualise.
The solar disks have only four rays and apparently seem simplified when compared to the more complex Aztec and Mixteca-Puebla ones. They include a green colour, a colour not seen in the Aztec Templo Mayor murals, and there is an abundance of Maya Blue. Other colours are the same: red, blue, yellow (ochre), and white. The use of Maya Blue in the Templo Mayor murals shows possible connections between the Aztec area and the Mayapán area. The Aztecs may have obtained this pigment from Mayapán, the principal Maya area for this pigment.
There were originally eight different figures on the sun disks, each represented in a descending pose. The eight sun disks may symbolise eight solar years in the Venus almanac, equivalent to five Venus cycles (5 x 584 = 8 x 365 days). The descending figures would be different avatars of the sun representing different years in the Venus almanac. At least one of these seems to be dead, his body pale and covered with what appear to be death spots. I find the symbolism of the ancient painting astounding. What looks relatively simple, always has a complex meaning. The images are very difficult to read, but here they are.
The Temple of the Five Niches (Q80) shows five identical temples painted around south-facing niches, each niche forming a false doorway. In academic articles, this temple seems to be compared to temples in Puebla and Oaxaca’ suggesting a clear Central Mexican or Mixtec presence in Mayapán.
The upper part of the mural is red and the lower part black, a division that evokes associations with day and night. Four reptile heads positioned among the five temples could be crocodilian earth monsters. The link with serpent imagery suggests a connection with Quetzalcóatl’s Venus cult (he was Venus’ avatar and represented the planet’s movements). The drawing by Tatiana Proskouriakoff on the left shows the serpents in Room 1 in the Temple of the Niches (Q80), (www.researchgate.net).
The five niches could be Venus temples, one for each synodic cycle (584 days) in the Venus almanac of eight solar years (five Venus years equal eight solar years). Each niche has a vertical column of dots with numbers from six to eight, painted either red or blue (see the drawing below: researchgate.net.) According to researchers the varying number of dots could represent the varying number of days between Venus disappearing as the Evening Star and reappearing as the Morning Star.
The Fisherman's Temple (Q95) is named after the mural found here, which only survived because it was covered over with several coats of plain stucco. It is damaged but I could clearly recognise a fisherman and a bound crocodile (by ropes). So how to understand this scene?
The imagery alludes to creation cosmology. Karl Taube and David Stuart researched the meaning of the mural and they interpreted it as an image of the great flood, expressed as the decapitation of the cosmic crocodile. The world was restored after the flood and the katun cycle re-established. So it is about the world's destruction and then its renewal. Reference to this can be found in the Chilam Balam book of Maní, which mentions crocodiles and a flood event on the date of Katun 13 Ahau. One katun in the Mayan calendar was equivalent to about 20 years (19.7). Wow! What symbolism!!!!!
According to Gabrielle Vail, instead of the Maya image of the great flood, it rather evokes Central Mexican imagery, with the crocodile being speared by the god Quetzalcóatl. Vail relates the destruction of the earth in the form of a crocodile to a Venus heliacal rise event, rather than floods. The Venus god is hurling his dart into the water, as seen in the Venus almanac on Codex Borgia 53. As we already know, Venus was the avatar of Quetzalcóatl.
Whichever theory is correct, they both seem to be related to cosmology beliefs. I will always try to remember when seeing a simple mural of an animal: it is not an animal but a deep message about planets, the universe and their influence on our planet. On the other hand, if the story is Aztec rather than Maya, it tells us of a strong presence of the Aztecs in Mayapán.
Don't Miss: The Observatory and the Chac complex
The observatory near the pyramid is called Templo Redondo and the Temple of Chac Masks is adjacent to it, creating one complex.
A lightning strike caused the building to collapse in 1869. INAH archaeologists began work on it in 1997. It is very similar to El Caracol in Chichén Itzá. I went around in circles inside the building, looking for the spiral staircase but could not find it. All I could see were four deep niches, corresponding to the building's four entry doors. Later on I found out that the archaeologists named it the Round Temple (Templo Redondo) just because of that: it lacks the spiral staircase that gave the Caracol (snail or conch) its name.
The INAH sign says that the masks are those of Chac. A lot of scientific literature references them as such. I am going to disagree.
The masks seemed to me virtually identical to those from the Codz Poop Palace at Kabáh. I was mesmerised by them in Kabáh on my previous visit. Then I found out that the mosaic masks were most likely transported from Kabáh, about 40km away, an idea which the scientists actually do suggest. It is possible that the people of Mayapán briefly occupied Kabáh around 1200 AD and Mayapan’s masks may have been built to commemorate the Puuc heritage. However, I have read a lot of analysis of the Puuc masks and already described them in all my posts from the Puuc site as the masks of the Cosmic Bird Itzam Yeh instead. Please refer to my posts Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná (in Ruins section) and Monsters in the Mystery section. The same applies to the masks in Chichén Itzá. They are not those of Chac, as the guides still tell us here (I am yet to find one guide who has heard about the cosmic bird). Chac's nose curves down, which is not the case here.
Chac was pretty important because the Maya in Yucatán did not have enough rainwater so they sacrificed to him in times of drought. But Mayapán had 40 cenotes with freshwater. 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.
Linda Schele, Karl Taube and many others have suggested that it could be the Celestial bird monster (Itzam Yeh, also called Itza Kah). This bird sits on top of the Sacred Tree of Life (in the sky) and is a manifestation of the god Itzamná (creation god of sky). It is often identified with the mythical bird monster killed by the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in the stories found in the Mayan book of creation Popol Vuh. Think of it in a simpler way as a cosmic bird, that waits for the deceased king to reach the sky (heaven). The deceased king has to first enter the underworld and fight its evil gods. Then he moves up the World Tree and this bird is waiting for him there, to welcome him to heaven where his soul can be reborn.
There are other stucco friezes along the platform of the Chac Complex. Serpents, jaguars and eagles were also carved on monuments in Chichén Itzá, where Toltecs settled in. Yet again we can see the influence from Central Mexico. Eagles and jaguars were the Aztec military ranks, given to the warriors if they brought back from the battle 20 captives. With this noble title the warrior also received a residence and the right to drink alcohol.
In summary, this site offers a visual feast of murals, masks and pretty views from the pyramids. You don't have to walk great distances and you will have it to yourself.
THE SITE MAP
Open daily 8:00am – 4:30pm.
The entry fee is 55 pesos (price of 2018).
There are clean restrooms at the site by the ticket counter. Bring your own water as there are no other services here.
The source for the map below: latinamericanstudies.org.
How to get there:
Tours do not go to Mayapán, so you will have to get there yourself. First of all don’t confuse the Mayapán Archaeological Zone with the town of Mayapán. They are two different locations.
The Mayapán ruins are located a few miles south of the town of Telchaquillo (where Hunac Ceel was born), about 25 miles south of Mérida and about 60 miles west of Chichén Itzá. Telchaquillo is located on the two-lane highway 18, and the ruins site is well marked a short distance south of Telchaquillo. A bus service is available from the Noreste station in Mérida. Again, be sure you get on a bus to the ruins, not the town. They are far apart.
Mix & Match
We visited the town of Acanceh on the same day, where we stayed the night as we visited the spectacular ruins of Acanceh the following morning. Or you can visit Hacienda Tepich and have a meal there.
Alternatively, you can combine the ruins of Mayapán with the Convent Route and see the churches of Acanceh, Tecoh, Telchaquillo, Tekit, Mama, Chumayel, Tebao and Maní.