What makes this site special?
The largest Mayan palace. And it is pink!
Sayil feels undiscovered and magical with so many unexcavated ruins still sitting in the jungle. And then you come to a clearing with an enormous palace that once accommodated 350 people. Pretty amazing! The Palace has a pink tint from the stones and is so elegant. In the past it would have been painted red. Try to imagine its full beauty.
Sayil was incorporated together with Uxmal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. So let's have a look at what is known today about this mysterious city. It sits on the Route Puuc, south of Mérida. It is located 7km south of the site of Kabáh, 5km from Xlapak and 5km from Labná. It was built in a shallow valley among low hills, in the mountain range called Puuc in Mayan. Its architecture style is named after the hills. Sayil was even more extensive than Kabáh (which was in the past larger than Uxmal). That poses a question about its importance and perhaps even independence in the past.
We came here with my husband in September 2017 as part of a two-week tour around the Puuc Route and Río Bec Route. We did all five sites of the Route Puuc in one day (the map below right). Believe me, it is doable, if you start early.
Sayil means 'Place of the Muleteer Ants' in Mayan. I always find it fascinating how the ancient Maya named their cities after features of nature. But what happened in this case? Did the chicleros (forest workers collecting gum from the trees) see a lot of ants here and named the site, as happened in Hormiguero? Did the archaeologists see the ants and name the city with this 'modern' Mayan name?
John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the site in 1841 and in their book Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, they called the city Zayi. Zayi or Salli means 'Casa Grande' (Large House). So that has nothing to do with the ants, it simply tells us that Sayil has a large palace (and it is indeed large). Sayil is just a later modification of the name, I presume.
Sayil developed from an earlier settlement known as Chac II, which is part of the Sayil urban area, 2km from the Great Palace. Chac II was occupied from the 5th century and and participated in a trade network linked to the great metropolis of Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico. Chac II kept its dominance until the end of the late Classic Period (9th century).
Sayil urban centre was settled circa 700 AD, possibly by a small Chontal warrior or elite dynasty. The city reached its greatest extent around 900 AD, when it covered an area of approximately 5km² and had a population of perhaps 10,000 in the city itself and about 7 thousand peasants in the near vicinity. Several monuments have been dated by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, for example Stela 6 dated to circa AD 810 and Stela 3 and Stela 5 dated to the ninth century.
Sayil began to decline around 950 AD and the city was partially abandoned by 1000 AD, a pattern typical of the Puuc region. This means a total collapse, as it is often referred to. It means that the royal dynasty would have left but the farmers, the common folk, would have stayed.
Various C-shaped structures around the Mirador Complex and the structure of the terrace of the Great Palace are evidence of continued occupation after the abandonment of the monumental structures.
In the first half of the twentieth century Jeremy Sabloff and Gair Tourtellot carried out archaeological investigations. From 1990–1992, Michael P. Smyth and Christopher D. Dore conducted a systemic large-scale surface collection of artefacts.
Political, economic, social, and religious leadership at Sayil appears to have been distinct and relatively decentralised. The royal ruler would have paramount power, partially shared with the head of the most important lineages. Settlement studies have revealed that Sayil included sites like Sayil-Sodzil, Xcavil de Yaxché, Chac and Grotto de Chac. It means they would have been tributaries and gave the royal family tributes such as food, animal skins or luxury objects. What a way to pay tax!
Apart from the tributes, another source of wealth was trade. At an early stage, as I mentioned, Sayil traded with Teotihuacán in the valley of Mexico. Ceramics uncovered on the site also indicate that Sayil had trade relations with the Petén region of Guatemala (for obsidian, as the excavations show). The obsidian artefacts recovered from Sayil derive largely from El Chayal in Guatemala. The trade was enabled by a sacbé ('white road' or causeway, built of white limestone and stucco) that ran from north to south (all monumental buildings in Sayil are actually arranged along this road).
The wealth of the royal dynasty was also based upon control of the best agricultural lands. Within the Sayil valley, 'the principle of first occupancy' determined the control of prime agricultural land. In Sayil the residential complexes of leading lineages lie adjacent to tracts of soil used for intensive gardening (Nikolai Grube). This pattern can also be seen on a regional scale. Minor settlements were established on good agricultural land lying some distance from Sayil.
At the height of the city's occupation, the population reached the limits of the agricultural capacity of the land. The fields and the gardens grown in the residential complexes were irrigated from artificial cisterns (called chultúns), dug out from stones to store water from the seasonal rains, as otherwise the porous limestone surface did not hold any of the rainfall, thus causing an absolute lack of surface water. There were hundreds of chultúns in Sayil supporting the population of 5,000-10,000. The jungle has damaged a lot of buildings but the damage could also have been a sign of a social revolt by peasants against the ruling dynasty, probably during the times of drought between 800-950 AD, when the population of four million people in the region fell to a few hundred thousand.
The Focus: The GREAT PALACE
The Palace dominates the site. The ruling family lived here; however, the palace had a dual function. It also served as an administrative seat, in the same way as the Governors' palaces in Uxmal and Kabáh. It is a large building, roughly 85m long and 35m wide. It was built between 650-900 AD, in several stages. When new wings and platforms were added, the rooms on existing levels were filled with rubble and sealed off. According to Nikolai Grube, this was to stabilise the structure.
It is composed of three separate levels, and the features are unlike other Puuc structures in the area as it is not quite symmetrical. The left side of the building contains 12 small chambers, although not all have the typical Mayan 'double' design to the inner room. The sign in front of the Palace states that there were 94 rooms, the largest number for any Maya palace.
The design is consistent with the Puuc style. There are masks in the friezes of each floor. If you check the online information about the site, you will find out that most of them claim these masks to be of Chac, the Rain God. As I stated in my posts about the Puuc sites of Uxmal, Kabáh, this theory is now outdated.
I deal with the topic of identifying the monster masks in a separate post Monsters but here is a brief recap again.
There are three possible options for what the masks represent:
- Chac, the God of Rain
- Witz, the Mountain Monster
- Itzam Kah, the Celestial Bird
Chac (on the left) has a long down-curling snout (to create storms). The worship to this god was for an obvious reason: rain (fertility).
Witz means in Mayan 'mountain'. So the Witz monster is Mountain Monster, sometimes also referred to as Earth Monster. If such a mask was placed on a pyramid, it most likely indicated that the building was a sacred mountain – a place where deceased rulers can be buried but also where they can be reborn. The deceased Maya first entered the water of Xibalbá (underworld), then they travelled via the Tree of Life (the symbol of the cosmic galaxy) to a flowery paradise (the sky), where the celestial bird was waiting for them. They, or their souls, have been reborn. The building with a Witz mask was therefore marked for its purpose as a Flower Mountain. The Flower Mountain, so identified by Karl Taube, was a symbol of paradise surrounded by flowers, birds and music.
The celestial bird Itsam Kah (sometimes also called Itsam Yeh) sitting on top of the World Tree was also a symbol of rebirth (Linda Schele and Nikolai Grube). The bird was a manifestation of the god Itzamná (creation god of the sky). Apparently, the bird also represented the Big Dipper constellation. One can only presume that the resurrection happened in that place. The scientists now say that the masks on all Puuc sites represent the celestial bird (the same applies to Chichén Itzá). I personally like this idea but I will leave these options open to your decision.
Other common motifs are a repetition of those in Uxmal and Kabáh: namely the façades, which symbolise typical Maya huts. The Classic Colonette style used columns in the upper wall 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 an article by Stephen D. Houston (Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, 1998). Apparently, in Classic Maya monuments temples were 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 representations of thatched buildings on Maya structures probably denote them as dwelling places of gods.
There was clearly a cult of the Descending God in Sayil, as carvings of the Descending God similar to those found in the city of Tulum can be seen on the second floor. I have an entire post dealing with the mysteries of this god. Click here to read. Some believe that he is Ah-Muzen-Cab, the Bee God. Bees symbolised a link to the spirit world. Historically, twice a year the Maya priests harvested honey from the log nests in live trees as part of a religious ceremony. In the Dresden Codex there is a representation of the Descending God. His name is Az Tzul Ahaw, the God of Venus (the Venus glyph appears where his face is). There is also the possibility that the god has no wings, that it is actually flames of fire and it could be a descending sun. Erich Von Däniken believes that it is an ancient astronaut who descended to teach the Maya agriculture, astrology, writing etc, all their wisdom. This mystery is still 'open' and I will follow up with any new theories if and when they appear.
There are types of structures in Sayil that are mysterious. The first one relates to common folk, and the other to the royals. Both hold a key to our understanding of the social structure of the Classic Maya cities and the way they lived.
Mystery 1: Stone houses for the poor
Sayil would have had the same social structure as all other classic Mayan cities: the ruling class, the middle class (artisans, architects, astrologers, leading warriors, craftsmen, scribes, mathematicians and traders) and the lower class (peasants, hunters, slaves). It is generally believed that the common folk, and even the middle class, lived in huts composed primarily of perishable materials such as cane, mud and palm roofs. That is also the reason why these houses were not preserved for us to see today. Often composed of a single rectangular room, these simple houses had no windows. But one household spread between different (shared) buildings such as a kitchen, storehouse, workshop, and sweat bath, built around a square patio. Nearby would be a kitchen garden.
However, the houses of the common folk in Sayil tell us a different story as it appears to have a high number of homes that were made of stone. It has been concluded by some that have studied the area that stone was the most common material used for the standard Mayan homes of Sayil and they were not reserved for the elite as previously thought. Similar conclusions have also been made at other Mayan sites such as Kohunlich and Dzibanché. One theory is that these cities had an inordinate number of elite Maya families that warranted the stone construction.
Mystery 2: The Temple of the Hieroglyphics
The Temple is so named after the hieroglyphs visible on the partial doorjamb buried under the rubble of the ruined building. Many archaeologists believe that this building has glyphs telling so much story that it could be compared to a stone version of the written Maya codices. A codex was a folding paper book made by the ancient Maya of wild fig bark where they recorded their mythology and astrology. Only four of these survived as the rest were burnt by the Spanish. It would be marvellous if these could be deciphered as I personally believe that Sayil was more complex and more powerful than nearby Uxmal.
The scholars suspect there is a hidden floor leading to a tomb. If found, that would give us so many answers, along with the hieroglyphs. Can't wait for this discovery!
Don't Miss: The treasures in the jungle
The treasures include El Mirador and the Stela of a figure with a very large phallus.
The first structure on your jungle walk is El Mirador, a pyramidal temple. El Mirador is a Spanish name and means 'Lookout Tower'. It is crowned with a perforated cresting. The front and sides were decorated in the past, but not the back. The city market was found near this structure. Today you can still see the remnants of the building sitting on a mound of grass, covered with crumbling rocks and the remnants of the crest. The stones, which project from the south side, functioned as spikes to support stucco elements. There were possibly two human-shaped figures at each corner. Remnants of feather and rosette motifs can still be seen as well as red, green and blue paint (from close up).
From El Mirador, there is a short path leading to Yum Keep, an ancient stela with a carving of a man with an enormous dangling phallus. It could be a war captive (like those found in Palenque) but the Puuc region also had phallic worship (Uxmall even has the Temple of Phallus). Phallic symbols have been found by archaeological expeditions all over the world, and they are usually interpreted as symbols of regeneration. The phallic worship was also present in Chichén Itzá in Post Classic times (from the 10th century onwards). The phallus sculptures were spread across the city in heaps when it was rediscovered. In Alfred Tozzer's view human sacrifice, phallic worship and sodomy were introduced by Chichén Itzá, as a result of a mixture of their cultures (the first intruders to Chichén Itzá were Toltecs led by Quetzalcóatl or Kukulkán I, then it was Itzás from the Gulf Coast led by Kukulkán II and finally the Mexicans from Tabasco). Well, it seems that the Toltecs are always blamed for everything…
Two kilometres south of the Palace is the South Palace and the Ball Court, a long walk. The South Palace has zoomorphic masks again. We did not make it that far.
The site map
Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm
Entry fees (2017): $50MXN. This includes tax.
How to get there:
The most common way is to combine Sayil with other Puuc sites. Uxmal is located 62km south of Mérida. From Hwy 261, a road branches off to the east (5km south of Kabáh) and winds past the ruins of Sayil, Xlapak and Labná, eventually leading to the Grutas de Loltún.
To get to Uxmal, you can take a 2nd class bus ($70 MXN), from the TAME terminal, located on the 69th street between 68th and 70th in Mérida downtown. The journey takes an hour and a half. By car, use the highway to Uxmal.
From Playa del Carmen or Cancún, the best option is to rent a car. There are three possible routes (see the map) but the fastest is to go along highway 180, pass Mérida and turn off at the village of Uman. The road is signposted well but in Uman the trick is to turn off under the bridge. If you go over the bridge, you have missed the turning point.
As for accommodation, there are a few hotels near the ruins. The Hacienda Uxmal retains the colonial elegance that has attracted visitors such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace and Queen Elizabeth. We stayed here one night (100US per night) and it was indeed very pleasant. This used to be a working hacienda plantation and it was built into a hotel (with a pool). There is a small memorabilia room in the hotel. It is about 800m from the Uxmal ruins.
The second night we stayed at the Uxmal Resort Maya Hotel (about 55US per night). Modern, minimalist, with a pool and a very reasonably priced restaurant, this hotel is 2km from the Uxmal ruins site.
Mix & Match
Taube, Karl (1992): The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Dumbarton Oaks
Coe, Michael D. and Houston, Stephen (2015): The Maya, Thames and Hudson (9th edition)
Grube, Nikolai (2012): Maya: Divine Kings of the Rainforest, H.F. Ullmann
Boot, Erik: Ceramic Support for the Identity of Classic Maya Architectural LongLipped (Corner) Masks as the Animated Witz 'Hill, Mountain', mesoweb.com
Taube, Karl (2014): Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty, and Paradise Among the Classic Maya, academia.edu
Houston, Stephen D. (1998): Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks: staging.doaks.org
Stephens, John Lloyd (1843): Incidents of travel in Yucatan, Vols I and II, Cosimo Inc: books.google.com.mx
Sayil site map: reed.edu