Uxmal

Yucatán, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Mix & Match


Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_46.jpg
Fraderick Catherwood, The Governor's Palace:  pinterest.co.uk.
 

What makes this site special? 

Elegant ICONOGRAPHY

Uxmal is truly elegant and beautiful, full of ornate masks, friezes and complex iconography. I will try my best to reveal the latest theories on their meaning as I believe that without understanding the masks and the motifs it is difficult to appreciate the site.

 
Outside the Pink Palace with a group from Playa del Carmen, March 2017.
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_70.jpg
 

Uxmal is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol in Belize, and Tikal in Guatemala. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance.

It is located 62km south of Mérida. Within a small radius of Uxmal there are other smaller ancient towns: Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná, Chacmultún, Loltún, and Oxkintok. Together with Uxmal, these places make up the Ruta Puuc – (Puuc Route), named after the hill chain that surrounds the ruins. The architecture is called Puuc style.

I came here with my husband Rhod in September 2017, on a hot and humid day. We spent two hours here but I did not have enough and I will have to return. I could stare at the ornate masks for ages. There are various theories of what they represent but let's start from the beginning.

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_97.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_106.jpg
 

The Name

Uxmal is pronounced 'oosh-mal'. I rather like that name. It seems to derive from Oxmal, meaning 'three times built'. However, the etymology is disputed. In addition, we now know that the Magician's Pyramid was rebuilt five times. We don't have to take it literally, though. If the city was built a few times, it means it was 'prosperous'.

Some imply that it loosely means 'a prosperous city', from the name Uchmal, which mean 'what is to come, the future'. By tradition, this was supposed to be an 'invisible city', built in one night by the magic of the dwarf king.

Another name option could be K'ahk'nal. The famous king of Uxmal, Lord Chac, has his inscriptions on the Ball Court as K'ahk'nal Ajaw so it could be a title denoting him as the Lord of K'ahk'nal city (ajaw means 'lord').

The names of the buildings are also confusing, as they were coined by the conquering Spanish and are neither indigenous nor do they indicate the actual functions of the buildings (the same applies to many other sites).

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_54.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_77.jpg
 

The Age

This is the tricky part. The historians have not reached a consensus on the dates of founding the city. The Puuc area was inhabited by the mid-3rd century BC. A few archaeologists suspect Uxmal may have been built on a site more ancient than the classic-period city. Wikipedia contradicts itself in two different articles, in one stating that Uxmal was founded about 500 AD by Hun uitzil Chac Tutul Xi, in the other article it names Ah Suytok Tutul Xiu as the founder of Uxmal. The date that this happened is disputed by a codex from Tizimín and another from Maní. According to the latter source, this ruler came from Nonohual, possibly situated in the Petén Basin of Guatemala, but possibly also from Tabasco or Tula in Mexico.

According to Dennise Bustos, who produced the main booklet that they sell at the site, Uxmal witnessed two different Xiu occupations: the first one at the end of the 7th century and the second at the end of the 10th century.

 
Frederick Catherwood (1841-42). Source:  pinterest.co.uk .

Frederick Catherwood (1841-42). Source: pinterest.co.uk.

 
Linda Schele: Masks on the Nunnery Quadrangle. Source:  research.famsi.org .

Linda Schele: Masks on the Nunnery Quadrangle. Source: research.famsi.org.

When in doubt, I prefer to go by the established scholars such as Nikolai Grube. According to him, the founding of Uxmal coincides with the arrival of the Tutul Xiu lineage in 751 AD. At that time, Uxmal was a small community but by the 9th century it was competing for control of territory (for agricultural land) and became the capital of the regional state. The city was then connected to the centre of Nohpat by a sacbe (white road, causeway), and by another sacbe to the nearby city of Kabáh.

Such roads were built everywhere in the Maya Lowlands, showing the trade and political relationships. Uxmal, Nohpat and Kabal undertook major monumental constructions in the late 9th and 10th centuries, while other small cities experienced a slowdown. It is believed that population and labour from the small cities around (Xkipche, Xkoch and Rancho Mex) were shifted to the capital.

It is at this time that the ruler Chan Chac K'ak'nal Ajaw built the Government Palace, the Ball Court, the Nunnery Quadrangle and other constructions (all between 890-915 AD). He is better known under the simple name of Lord Chac. Chac was the God of Rain and rulers often took gods' names as their noble titles. Some scholars believe that there may have been more rulers of Uxmal who carried one form or another of the name Chac (as hieroglyphs on altar 10 show), variably spelt as Chak, Chahk or Chaahk.

 
Emblem glyphs in Uxmal from: ballcourt (a), Capstone (b) and altar 10 (c). Source:  researchgate.net ..

Emblem glyphs in Uxmal from: ballcourt (a), Capstone (b) and altar 10 (c). Source: researchgate.net..

 

I found a ruler from Uxmal in Dzibilchaltún Museum of the Maya People. The museum sign just says 'personage' but I call him a ruler because he seems to have a pierced penis and self-sacrifice by cutting into the penis was done by kings on special occasions, such as accession to the throne or marking the new beginning of an era. What else can support this story?

Well, he is holding a bundle of tied sticks. I have since found out that such sticks, called atado de años, represented years, or rather the time cycle of 52 years. The 52-year period was called a 'bundle' and meant the same to the Maya as our century does to us. It means a new cycle of life/time began every 52 years, because two Maya calendars (Tzolkin and Haab) would start on the same day every 52 years. So this person carrying the bundle is marking the beginning of the new cycle of time, like we celebrate the beginning of the millennium. That was a time of big rituals, when all the fires in the town were extinguished, human sacrifice followed and then new fires would be lit for the next 52 years (never to be extinguished until the last day of year 51).

There is also the altar panel with hieroglyphs which names the ruler Lord Chac from Uxmal. We now know his full name name: K'ahk' Pulaj Chan Chaahk. The glyphs call this king Lord Chac, because the king took the god's name as his noble title and he acted as an impersonator of the rain god Chac, wearing a mask of the deity.

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_50.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_16.jpg
 

For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the founding Xiu family. It was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and for a while, in alliance with Chichén Itzá, dominated all of the northern Maya area (from 875 to 900 AD).

For the period of 975-1000 AD the Xiu dynasty from Uxmal and the Cocom dynasty from Mayapán (both claimed to be of Mexican origin, to get a stronger status), allied themselves with Chichén Itzá. The alliance lasted for almost two centuries and proved favourable to the Itzá, whose city was influenced by the Toltec culture. It is possible that the Toltecs never occupied Uxmal.

In 1194 Mayapán broke the alliance and conquered Chichén Itzá and the Xiu dynasty of Uxmal. The power in Yucatán was shifted to Mayapán. The Xiu therefore moved their capital to Maní and construction at Uxmal ceased. In 1411 AD Ah Xupan Xiu of Uxmal and tribe chieftains rebelled against the Cocom dynasty in Mayapán, leaving it in ruins. Following this, the Mayan territory began a rapid decline. By 1461 the League of Mayapán had been completely organised into seventeen Kuchkabals (regions).

 
Kuchkabals of Yucatán after 1461.

Kuchkabals of Yucatán after 1461.

You can feel the age of the unrestored House of the Doves.

You can feel the age of the unrestored House of the Doves.

 

In addition, recent surveys show that between 800-950 AD, a series of horrific droughts struck the region and the estimated population of four million people fell to a few hundred thousand. The system of divine kinship would have collapsed, as the people would have revolted against kings who could not provide rain and fertility (which was the king's responsibility, as the main 'rainmaker'). Warfare would follow, of course, and I describe some of it in the next section (The People). The Maya continued to live in Uxmal as late as 1550 when the site became part of a Spanish hacienda.

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_52.jpg
View of the Southern Nunnery building and the Governor's Palace.

View of the Southern Nunnery building and the Governor's Palace.

 

New forms of government developed under the victorious Spanish conquerors. Decimation of the population by their European diseases (such as smallpox) was followed by the Spanish programme of relocations, in which populations were forcibly moved to a smaller number of towns in the 18th century.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_63.jpg
Frederick Catherwood, Governor's Palace:  latinamericanstudies.org .

Frederick Catherwood, Governor's Palace: latinamericanstudies.org.

 

Today's tourism has revived the area to a certain extent. That is due to work by the archaeologists who excavated and restored Uxmal and the nearby cities. The first detailed account of the ruins was published by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited Uxmal in 1839, then again in 1841. They were followed by Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay (1862–63, 1885), Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1865), Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon (1873–81), William Henry Holmes (1895), and Eduard Seler (1917). The visits of Charnay and the Le Plongeons to Uxmal were pivotal in the recording of Maya art and architecture, as they were the first to successfully photograph the ruins, which pioneered the way for later photographic methods.

 
Frederick Catherwood:  latinamericanstudies.org .

Frederick Catherwood: latinamericanstudies.org.

The view from the Governor's Palace, now and in 1841 (left).

The view from the Governor's Palace, now and in 1841 (left).

Princess Carlota of Mexico:   wikipedia.org .

Princess Carlota of Mexico:  wikipedia.org.

Empress Carlota of Mexico (Princess Charlotte of Belgium), the wife of the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilan I, visited Uxmal in 1863. In preparation for her visit local authorities had phalluses removed from the ancient facades (!!!!). What a pity! The 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). Furthermore, rulers used this imagery to refer to their ancient ancestors and underscore their connection to sacred ancient Maya lineage. The Temple of the Phallus is not accessible today. It sits behind the Pyramid of the Old Woman.

 

The People

Lack of water was historically a problem for the people in the Puuc region. The long winters between the rainy seasons were dry and in the absence of surface water (rainfall quickly drains into the porous limestone bedrock), the solution was to excavate down through the hard limestone and hollow out a chultún, a bottle-shaped cistern, which was filled by rain in the summer seasons. They also used aquadas (still water reservoirs). Each residential group in a Puuc settlement had at least one chultún, and in nearby Sayil there were more than 300. During the growing season, a portion of the urban population may well have been dispersed to small hamlets and farmlands to cultivate the land. This pattern of seasonal dispersion suggests that access to prime farmland was strictly regulated by the ruling families.

 
Chultún just outside the Nunnery, a source of water for the Maya.

Chultún just outside the Nunnery, a source of water for the Maya.

Rhod with our guide Jorge. 

Rhod with our guide Jorge. 

 

So I wonder what attracted the people to settle here if they did not have enough surface water. Modern surveys show that Uxmal and other Puuc sites were 'green cities' with garden plots and maize fields, according to Michael D. Coe. Did the chultún system work miracles for them? In Nikolai Grube's view, a significant environmental factor was the availability of groundwater. Where the hill country merges with the coastal plains of Campeche, the permanent groundwater is much closer to the surface, and is accessible in cenotes. However, even the water from cenotes was not sufficient at times of drought.

And today? Who are the people of the Puuc region today? We could take as an example our guide, Jorge Chan Borges. He lives in the small town of Muna, near the ruin site. His father and grandfather and all generations before had always lived here. The Maya never 'disappeared'; they just lost their rulers and priests but they continued to live in the jungle around. Jorge has five children, and three of them work in the tourist industry as guides to the ruins, like himself. Tourism is an important source of income here; bear that in mind when hiring guides or purchasing other services.

The routing and killing of panicked men in the forest, from the mural at Mulchic, Yucatán. Source:  researchgate.org .

The routing and killing of panicked men in the forest, from the mural at Mulchic, Yucatán. Source: researchgate.org.

The political context is also important, when describing the life of the ancient Maya at Uxmal and the Puuc region. The creation of a regional state was a violent process. Major Puuc centres were in competition for agricultural land (Uxmal had 20 square km at its peak). Military themes can be seen in the art and architectural ornamentation at Uxmal, Kabáh, Oxkintok around 900 AD. The bound and naked captives below Lord Chac on Stela 14 at Uxmal are evidence of it. The king stands on the double-jaguar throne held by the captives' backs (they are kneeling underneath). As Nikolai Grube points out, murals at the site of Mulchic near Nohpat show the Lord Chac of Uxmal attacking and capturing people who were subsequently sacrificed. This human sacrifice, giving blood to the gods, should have provided rain and fertility for his people.

 
Stela 14. In 1983 it was removed for exhibition in the Visitor Centre, at the entrance to the ruins. Source:  wikipedia.org .

Stela 14. In 1983 it was removed for exhibition in the Visitor Centre, at the entrance to the ruins. Source: wikipedia.org.

Battle scene of Uxmal lord Chac, on Mulchic mural. Photo Pedro Cuevas, 1990. Source:  revista.unam.mx .

Battle scene of Uxmal lord Chac, on Mulchic mural. Photo Pedro Cuevas, 1990. Source: revista.unam.mx.

Several individuals from Chichén Itzá are also named in the inscriptions of Uxmal, which evidences the alliance with this large neighbour, which allowed the use of Itzá warriors in Uxmal's military campaigns.

However, the late construction of a defensive wall in the 10th century suggests that the city was violently subjugated by the Itzá and their occupation was violently resisted by the Puuc Maya.

 

The Focus: The masks

All buildings at the site are beautiful and have iconography that conveys meanings. Our task is to decipher the message that the ancestors left here.

The Governor's Palace is a long and elegant low building atop a huge platform, with the longest façades in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright described it as one of the most outstanding works of architecture on the entire American continent. The palace took immense effort to build. It was built by Lord Chac around 900 AD. The Puuc-style building was constructed over some earlier buildings in the Chenes style.

 
Right: The double-headed jaguar throne at the Governor's palace.

Right: The double-headed jaguar throne at the Governor's palace.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_42.jpg

For the construction, they first raised and levelled an immense mound of earth and stone, then raised a second long platform. The Palace itself was then erected on top of the second platform. This was a huge public works project for a city whose population, including farmers in surrounding settlements, was around 25,000 people. This is why we can believe that the labour came from the surrounding small cities, as I mentioned earlier. In addition to the Governor's Palace, a second, smaller structure called the Turtle House was built next to it (so named from the frieze of sculptured turtles).

The Spanish often gave fanciful names to Maya ruins, but they may have been right this time. The Governor's Palace is now believed to combine a royal residence with a popol nah, or 'council house'. The mosaic façade is lined with geometrical ornaments, masks and figures. The stone sculpture above the main entrance shows the ruler Lord Chac, surrounded by 'sky' serpents and seated on the throne (see the photo below).

 
Lord Chac  above the doorway.

Lord Chac  above the doorway.

 

The building has a lot of motifs and they are similar to those in the Nunnery building. I deal with them in the next section. And then there are the corner masks of a monster with a long nose. A lot of online sites will tell you that the masks are of Chac, the rain god, but this is an outdated theory now. You can find similar masks in all the nearby Puuc sites, also at Chichén Itzá, Ek' Balam, in all the sites of the Río Bec route, such as Chicanná, Hormiguero, Balamkú, and Calakmul. I deal with the topic of identifying the monster masks in a separate post Monsters but here is a brief recap again.

 
Stacked masks on the Magician's Pyramid.
Stacked masks on the Nunnery.

Stacked masks on the Nunnery.

 

So how to understand the masks of Uxmal? The Maya wore ritual masks to connect to their gods and ancestors. Most Mayan masks were symbols of their gods. When these masks were used in architecture, they told a story, either the creation myth or the purpose of the building. Like a 'signpost'. And this applies here.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_115.jpg
The eyebrow of Witz in detail: an upside-down u-shaped element terminating in volutes. Source: metmuseum.org.

Mountains were central to Lowland Maya cosmology; the ancient Maya viewed their pyramidal buildings as mountains from which water and sustenance emerged. After all, the ancient Maya started building pyramids in Guatemala, by imitating the hills that surrounded them. Accordingly, the builders of ancient Maya temples marked the building with what is known as the Witz monster. They are often portrayed with enlarged snouts and gaping jaws which represented overhangs and watery caves beneath mountains. Note, for example, the eyebrow (photo above on the right). It is an upside-down u-shaped element terminating in volute (source: metmuseum.org). It matches the purple eyebrow in Linda Schele's drawing.

Witz means 'mountain' in Mayan, and the Witz Monster (Mountain Monster) is an analogue of the Maya creation story expressed through architecture. If a building had a witz sign, it made the pyramid a living mountain, representing the original Creation Mountain. Karl Taube calls such a pyramid or artificial mountain a Flower Mountain, which represented paradise. The deceased (ruler) entered the waters of the Xibalbá underworld, then followed his rebirth into a paradise populated with trees, flowers and wild animals, the access to which was provided by the Flower Mountain.

American epigrapher Linda Schele outlined the features of the witz on Stela 1 from Bonampak. Here the creation or rebirth story is based on the Maize God emerging after his death in the underworld from the stepped cleft in the mountain's head (top middle). I have used my own colouring to make it clearer to the reader. Now compare it with the mask on the Governor's Palace.

Oxkutzcab   masks: Witz on the left, Chac on the right.

Oxkutzcab masks: Witz on the left, Chac on the right.

By pure chance I also found two masks, Witz and Chac, displayed by the pool in the Puuc hotel in the town of Ozkutzab. I show their photo on the left.

What looks like a long nose or elephant’s trunk on the Witz mask is actually an extended upper lip. The witz monster is characterised by its strong teeth, and lack of a lower jaw. He 'wears' a flower band (a central flower medallion). For comparison, Chac wears a knotted headband.

The witz had a connection to the underworld and it was used as a symbol of rebirth. There are plenty of witz masks also on the corners of the buildings  - they were often stacked one on top of each other, for greater impact, so the person who entered the site could see the purpose and importance of the 'Mountain' straight away (from whichever angle).

Admittedly, the masks are very confusing. Some masks seem to have a nose pointing downwards, some upwards and then down. Our guide Jorge believes that the noses portray 'the energy, the breath'. The mask breathes in and out, hence the variation of the spirals ('noses'). He advised us not to think about it as a nose, just as a symbol of breath, of energy, of receiving and giving energy.

 
Scanned from Eduard Seler, Die Ruinen von Uxmal, 1917

Scanned from Eduard Seler, Die Ruinen von Uxmal, 1917

The mask from the Governor's Palace.

The mask from the Governor's Palace.

 

To confuse us further, the recent research view is that the majority of the masks at Uxmal actually represent the Itsam Kah bird (also referred to as Itsam Yeh). This is the celestial bird which sits on top of the Sacred Tree of Life (in the sky). The bird 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, the symbol of the resurrection of the kings. In other words, it expresses their immortality, a message that needed to be conveyed to the common folk, for them to obey the ruler's power. I can clearly recognise the celestial bird in the masks on the Magician's pyramid in Uxmal. The scientists now say that the masks on all Puuc sites represent the celestial bird (the same applies to Chichén Itzá).

 
Itzam Yeh, the celestial bird deity (from Palenque), sits in the sky band, represented by the X motif.   ancientamericas.org .

Itzam Yeh, the celestial bird deity (from Palenque), sits in the sky band, represented by the X motif.  ancientamericas.org.

Close up of the mask. From this angle I can easily see it as a bird. Can you?

Close up of the mask. From this angle I can easily see it as a bird. Can you?

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_56.jpg
 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_64.jpg

On a different note, scholars recently discovered that the central doorway of the Palace perfectly aligns with the planet Venus, so perhaps the palace was also used as an astronomical observatory for watching settings of Venus. How can such a statement be evidenced? I could not see any Venus glyphs, I must admit, although apparently there are plenty about. We just got too hot and tired by the time we reached the Governor's Palace. Try to look out for them yourself; the Venus glyph has a dot in the middle and flower petals around it. The Governor’s Palace looks towards the distant (now ruined) pyramid of Cehtzuc, 5km away. You can see on the site map that the building sits at a different angle from other buildings, which are oriented along a north-east axis. The palace direction, east-south-east (at an azimuth of 118 degrees), corresponds to the maximum southerly rising point of the planet Venus at around the time the temple was built. Another possibility, argued strongly by some scholars such as the Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Sprajc, is that the Venus alignment actually operated in the opposite direction, from Cehtzuc toward the Governor’s Palace.

 

The Mystery: The Nunnery Quadrangle

It was difficult for me to choose which building at Uxmal is more mysterious or more iconographic.

The Nunnery Quadrangle has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside faces. The Nunnery was so named by the Spaniards for its similarity to their convents. However, according to Michael Coe, these structures were actually used as schools for the training of healers, astronomers, mathematicians, shamans and priests. In other words, they were the Young Men's Houses. Aztecs of central Mexico called them telpochcali (in the Nahuatl language), an academy for young princes and nobles. So this concept could have been an import from the Mexicans. In Nikolai Grube's view, the buildings of the quadrangle (on three elevated levels) represent a cosmogram of the Mayan universe (underworld, earth and sky).

Between the Magician's pyramid and the Nunnery there is a closed courtyard, the Bird Quadrangle, built in the 6th century AD. It was a residential palace and its name comes from the sculptures of birds on the House of Birds. The birds according to our guide Jorge are as follows: parrot, quetzal (sacred bird for the Maya), turkey, humming bird and dove. It is not clear to me what mythological significance these birds represented.

 
The Bird Quadrangle.

The Bird Quadrangle.

Parrot, quetzal, turkey, humming bird and dove

Parrot, quetzal, turkey, humming bird and dove

 

Together, this complex was a powerful political statement, proclaiming that the ruler (Lord Chac) was enthroned at the centre of the universe. At the centre of the Nunnery Quadrangle was a huge column representing the World Tree and a two-headed jaguar throne. Overall, the themes and motifs covered by the four buildings represent world creation, war, sacrifice, death and rebirth.

The North Building of the Nunnery is the highest and has a terrace accessible via a second wide staircase leading from the courtyard. This structure has 13 doorways, almost certainly a representation of the 13 levels of the Maya heavens. The images generally concern themes of the supernatural legitimisation of dynastic authority and the display of captives taken in battle. It was decorated with celestial symbolism and was called either Chan Nah (Sky House) or Ch'ok Te Nah (Sprout-tree House, or Lineage House).

The West Building has seven doorways, this time reflecting the Maya number of the earth. It has lattice motifs, fret motifs, serpents and the rulers. The serpent was considered a vehicle of rebirth, taking the king from the underworld to the 'heaven'. However, here we can see Tlaloc's bundles. Tlaloc was the God of Rain from Teotihuacán (and later in the Aztec culture) and his bundle is associated with war and sacrificial imagery. Also, one of the snakes has a human wearing a xok (fish, shark) mask emerging from its open maw. The fish represents the primordial sea, in which Tlaloc floats in the primordial sea, whereas at Uxmal it floats among clouds and flowers, but the effect is the same—the war serpent is sanctioned by supernatural space.

The East building has a motif of a simple mat-weave background, stacked masks, and two-headed serpent bars arranged in trapezoidal structures. Our guide told us they are upside-down pyramids but I don't like that explanation. 

 
East Nunnery building.

East Nunnery building.

East building close up. Lattice pattern around the mask. 

East building close up. Lattice pattern around the mask. 

North Nunnery building.

North Nunnery building.

North Nunnery building.

North Nunnery building.

The South Building has nine doorways, reflecting the nine levels of the Maya Underworld (Xibalbá). Significantly, it is also the lowest-set building of the four, decorated with underworld symbolism and named Itzam Nah (Conjuring House). It also has a pattern of Maya huts. This is unusual, to portray the houses of common folk on the 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). The huts are topped by reptilians sprouting corn shoots. 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). 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 representations of thatched buildings on Maya structures probably denote them as dwelling places of gods.

Southern Nunnery.

Southern Nunnery.

West Nunnery with stone lattice, fret-steps, serpents and gods.

West Nunnery with stone lattice, fret-steps, serpents and gods.

The building linked architecturally with Ball Court 1 (bottom right photo). Ball courts were considered portals to the underworld. Some of them had markers on the court, which were the places where the ruler playing the game 'entered the underworld' to fight its lords, defeat them and thus bring fertility and prosperity to their people. However, there are no markers on this ball court. They may have been destroyed with time. Jorge's father remembers corn growing here because in the 16th century there was a ranch established in the vicinity of Uxmal ruins.

 
Southern Nunnery with the Palace at the background.

Southern Nunnery with the Palace at the background.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_6.jpg
 

I find the ornaments on the Mayan buildings fascinating so I dug further for more explanations about them.

The first motif that struck me was the lattice stonework in an X-shape, all over the buildings. In short, these could be woven mats. 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. So it was a symbol of power, of belonging to the ruling dynasty and the building was 'signposted' by this ornament as a 'council' house. The nobles also wore jade ceremonial bar pectorals of rolled mats (as a symbol of power and status?) and Karl Taube elaborated on this topic in his article The Symbolism of Jade In Classic Maya Religion. I copied some of the drawings from his article, for a better illustration of such mats that were found at various burials. I found this explanation very pleasing. It is simple and logical. Our guide at the site maintained that the X-shape pattern represented the serpent's skin. I very much prefer the 'woven mat' theory. It marks the Council House, the Mat House (Popol Nah). In places the lattice pattern has zig-zags on the edges and flowers in the middle. In such cases the Council House was called the Flower House (Nikteil Nah). Whichever type of the council house, the message here is clear: the city had a multiple form of government, not an all-powerful king.

Let's check those mats at the rolled woven mats in the drawing below:

A - from burial in Copán (drawing by Seiichi Nakamura)

B - from burial in Tikal (Shook and Kidder)

C - from burial in Costa Rica (Jones)

 
Ceremonial bar pectorals of rolled mat (in the shape of letter X).
The lattice pattern on the Western building, here with a zig-zag on the edges, meaning it is a Flower (Council) House.

The lattice pattern on the Western building, here with a zig-zag on the edges, meaning it is a Flower (Council) House.

 

You will also see feathered serpents on the façades of the West structure. At first scholars thought that it was an influence from Toltecs (Tulla) or Teotihuacán (as Uxmal had trade relations with them in the 7th century) but now it is believed that this Uxmal iconography was copying the style of its cultural and political ally, Chichén Itzá (which was indeed influenced by the Totlecs; after all, it is believed that the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl came to conquer Chichén from Tula). For that matter, the round shape of the Magician's pyramid was also likely a copy of the Caracol observatory from Chichén Itzá. On the East structure you may also spot the mask of an owl, with big eyes, an imported symbol of war, sacrifice and the underworld.

 
An owl: a symbol of war, sacrifice and the underworld.

An owl: a symbol of war, sacrifice and the underworld.

A close-up of the spiral eye and square ear flare.

A close-up of the spiral eye and square ear flare.

 

In essence the Maya considered a serpent an ethereal being of life, breath and wind. It served as a conduit for passing through the heavens and underworld. It ties in with the scenes of the king's (or god's) resurrection. When the king dies, he enters the underworld, then he travels via the tree of life up to the heaven. The serpent appears in scenes of celestial ascent: the 'breath serpent' (G-shaped pattern) pulls the ancestors from the watery underworld into the heavens. 

 
The serpents, the lattice pattern and the step-fret motif.

The serpents, the lattice pattern and the step-fret motif.

The serpents 'pulling' the god and the king from the underworld...

The serpents 'pulling' the god and the king from the underworld...

 

Fret, often called key pattern (looks like letter G), was used for decoration not only by the Maya. It was common in Egypt, Greece (known as Greek key), Rome, Syria and also in Peru on their textiles, for example. Surely this symbolism was used with some meaningful purpose. One view that I encountered was that the stepped fret could be a modification of stylised waves (water symbolism) or a symbol of birth. I sought more comprehensive answers from Karl Taube. In his view, the continuous repetition of the step-fret motif in ornamental bands on the East Annex building (it can also be found at Chichén Itzá) may be an abstracted reference to the Witz Hill or Flower Mountain (the mountain with flowers brings the deceased into paradise, so it symbolises paradise). 

 
Vase 5166 with step-fret motif, photo by J. Kerr:  research.mayavase .

Vase 5166 with step-fret motif, photo by J. Kerr: research.mayavase.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_30.jpg
Step-fret motif represents the Flower Mountain:  mesoweb.com .

Step-fret motif represents the Flower Mountain: mesoweb.com.

The buildings incorporating either the Witz masks or the double (opposing) step-fret motif are envisioned as the Flower Mountain (a floral paradise). This is where the afterlife was spent, and not in the underworld, as previously thought.

Last but not least, Karl Taube also explored the symbols of 'breath', or spiral shapes. The ethereal breath soul was commonly portrayed in jade (the jade was put into the mouth of the deceased, to capture his soul). This breath soul relates to music and flowers, and the importance of sound is reflected in the jade belt celts often suspended from ancestor masks and also in the ear spools worn by the nobles. Even the Olmecs portrayed breath in front of the faces. In short, jade symbolised the breath essence of the soul, allowing for ritual contact with otherwise remote gods and ancestors. It is possible, that if a spiral motif of breath was placed on a building that represented the Flower Mountain, it expressed that the mountain was breathing; it was a living being (which was the belief of the Maya). It could be considered a symbol of life or rebirth, thus marking the purpose of the Flower Mountain building. Below are portrayals of breath scrolls from the zoomorphic Witz heads (from Karl Taube: Flower Mountain, source: academia.edu.), as follows: a: from Hormiguero, b: from Xkimook, c: from Chicanná, d: from Tabasqueño.

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_44.jpg
The sculpture of a musician and breath spirals on the left.

The sculpture of a musician and breath spirals on the left.

 

Don't Miss: THE MAGICIAN'S PYRAMID

Well, you can't miss this large oval pyramid; that is what you will see first when entering the ruined city of Uxmal. I find it very elegant, perhaps because of its rounded corners.

The structure is featured in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, the Dwarf of Uxmal, which is also the basis for the pyramid's name. It was popularised by John Lloyd Stephens in his book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841). According to his version, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the ruler of Uxmal. He promised him the throne if he managed to build a pyramid overnight. Which the dwarf did. The dwarf's mother (a witch) apparently helped and you can see her pyramid on the site.

 
The mural room behind me. They are small; only two people can go in at a time.
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_53.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_108.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_92.jpg
 

While the Governor's Palace was devoted to the royal administration, this pyramid served the royal cult. The Adivino, aka the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf, is unusual because of its oval or elliptical shape. It was common practice in Mesoamerica to build new temple pyramids atop older ones, but here a newer pyramid was built centred slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side of the temple the old pyramid is preserved, with the newer temple above it. In addition, the western staircase of the pyramid is situated so that it faces the setting sun at the summer solstice.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_91.jpg

Given what you have read so far, I hope you can now perhaps identify the door entrance to the pyramid as the Witz monster (photo on the left) and the pyramid as the Flower Mountain. People entering This Temple IV appeared to be walking into the gullet of the monster (entering the underworld). Often a ruler's burial was inside such a pyramid (although it was not found here), so the Flower Mountain was built for his rebirth. 

 
Witz monster on the temple doorway and Itsam Yeh along the steps.

Witz monster on the temple doorway and Itsam Yeh along the steps.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_61.jpg
 

One more sculpture is worth noting: a sculpture of a person coming out of a serpent's jaw, which was located on the façade of the Pyramid of the Magician. It is known as the Queen of Uxmal (600-900 AD). 

In reality it is the face of a young man, not a female, as previously thought. Out of the gaping jaws of a serpent emerges a human head with ear-flares and a pierced nose. His facial expression is grim, and extremely concentrated. This is a person of high status, possibly a ruler. The museum suggests that the man has apparently carried out a ritual in which he was symbolically swallowed by a boa and then resurged with the powers of a shaman (and the marks on his right cheek suggest this rite).

However, for me it is the usual scene of the king's resurrection, on his way to the Flower Mountain (paradise), as I described above and in many other of my posts (you can see similar resurrection sculptures in Chichén Itzá on the Temple of the Warriors). The serpent served as a conduit for passing through the heavens and underworld. The soul of the ancestors thus became immortal. This sculpture alone tells me that the pyramid should have some burials (although they have not been found). As for the scar, Mayan lords scarred their faces as it was fashionable at the time, in the same way as having crossed eyes (which was considered to honour 'Kinich Ahau' the Sun God).

In conclusion, try to imagine all this symbolic iconography when strolling around in Uxmal and you will never see the stones as just stones again. They were living beings and they tell us the fascinating story of its inhabitants even today.

Uxmal Queen.  I took the photo at the Mayan Museum in Mérida.

Uxmal Queen.  I took the photo at the Mayan Museum in Mérida.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_104.jpg

The site map

Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm

Services: shops, bathrooms, refreshment kiosk

Entry fees (2017)

  • $223 MXN for foreigners. This includes tax.
  • $157 MXN for locals. Free on Sundays. Local pensioners, disabled tourists, teachers and students are free any day.
 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_100.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_55.jpg

Light shows (7pm in winter, 8pm in summer):      $92 MXN, locals $59 MXN

 

How to get there:

If you are going by bus from Mérida, you can take a 2nd class bus ($70 MXN), from the TAME terminal, located on 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 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.

 
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_86.jpg
Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_27.jpg
 

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 ruins.

 
Our room in Hacienda Uxmal.

Our room in Hacienda Uxmal.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_33.jpg
 

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 ruins site.

 
Our room in Uxmal Resort Maya hotel.

Our room in Uxmal Resort Maya hotel.

Hammocks_and_Ruins_Riviera_Maya_Mexico_Explore_What_to_Do_Yucatan_Ruins_Uxmal_37.jpg

Mix & Match

Along the Puuc Route there are the smaller sites of Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná, all within a few kilometres of each other. If you have time, I also recommend the caves of Loltún (one hour's drive) with mural paintings of hands, faces and animal bones from ancient times.

If you are interested in haciendas, you could visit Hacienda Yaxcopoil (33 min drive north) or hacienda Ochil (30 min drive north).

 
Hacienda Yaxcopoil.

Hacienda Yaxcopoil.

Hacienda Ochil.

Hacienda Ochil.

Sources:

Nikolai Grube, Maya, Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, 2012, Ullmann

Braswell, Geoffrey (2012): The Ancient Maya of Mexico

Schele, Linda (1998): The Code of the Kings, The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

Taube, Karl (1992): The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatán. Dumbarton Oaks

Coe, Michael D. and Houston, Stephen D. (2015): The Maya, Thames and Hudson (9th edition)

Houston, Stephen D. (1998): Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks: staging.doaks.org

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

Taube, Karl (2005): The Symbolism of Jade In Classic Maya Religion, academia.edu

Kristan-Graham, Cynthia and Kowalski, Jeff Karl (2007): Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, books.google.com.mx

Stela 14: Lord Chac

Figure 5, drawing: Mural at Mulchic

Site map of Uxmal: ancient-origins.net

Doyle, James (2014): A Mountain's Eyebrow: The Met's Earliest Ancient American Acquisition, metmuseum.org

 

 

RuinsLydia Jones2 Comments