Yaxchilán

Chiapas, Mexico


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


Source:  latinamericanstudies.org . Right: Usumacinta River

Source: latinamericanstudies.org. Right: Usumacinta River

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What makes this site special? The River setting.

Yaxchilán is for thrill seekers. The remoteness, the river, the dark interiors, an eerie silence, you will feel it all. It is famous for the lintels depicting the rulers' bloodletting rituals. These are now held abroad but I felt their ghosts stayed here.

Yaxchilán is situated in the 'horseshoe' of the Usimacinta river. The site is not huge, but it’s everything you could ask for; dense jungle, calls of howler monkeys and cavernous ruins.  It is remote and you can reach it only by boat along the Usumacinta River at the Guatemala border, starting from the river town of Frontera Corozal. On a high point the river encircles the site in the shape of a Greek omega (Ω).

If you do brave the boat trip, you will get a taste of what it must have been like to be a Mayan trader and transport jade ornaments and quetzal feathers down the Usumacinta in 700 AD. It is a fast river; it would have been hard to navigate with heavily loaded, flat-bottomed canoes. Today, your boat will be much lighter and the boat trip will take about an hour. Watch out for the crocodiles! On our boat trip, we passed some Guatemalan ladies doing their washing in the old traditional way at the river's edge, and a couple of boys swimming across to Mexico, worried neither about the crocodiles nor the Immigration patrol. What spirit!

 
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The Name

It is believed that the ancient name for the city was probably Pa' Chan meaning 'Cleft Sky'. For some time, the emblem glyph was Siyaj Chan (Sky Born). Explorer Teoberto Maler gave it its modern name, said to mean 'Green Stones' in an unspecified Maya language (while the town of Piedras Negras downriver means 'Black Stones' in Spanish, a reference to coal deposits in the area). Sitting on the stone of the ruins and watching the river, I wondered what 'green stones' referred to. Jade is green but to my knowledge no jade was found here. Unless the traders brought it in and the town was known for 'green stone' markets? Any suggestions out there? Please send them my way.

Maler was way ahead of his time in thinking it was wrong for archaeologists to remove artefacts from Mayan sites (and elsewhere) for preservation in distant museums. As the frequent references below to the British Museum show, this was the fate of much of the wealth of Yaxchilán. Shouldn't we attempt to preserve things where they belong?

 
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The Age

Almost every building has a doorway that tells a story, albeit not always easy to interpret due to destruction. When visiting here, be sure to look up at the carved lintels on top of the doorways. Structure 16 has three lintels, lintel 39 is best preserved . You will also find here all the usual ancient Mayan structures, such as a ball court or masks on the buildings. I am persuaded that the mask on Structure 6 and the multiple masks on the labyrinth are Witz (Mountain) monsters, although they are mostly referred to as Chac, the rain god. You will need to look at the masks from a distance to realise they are masks. The Witz monster basically represented a sacred mountain. If such a mask was placed on a pyramid, it indicated that the building was the burial place of a ruler. It is a living mounting, a creation mountain, 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). Ball courts and Witz monsters were basically telling the story of the king's rebirth and immortality.

 
Lintel 39 structure 16
Ball court. Left: Lintel 39 on Structure 16.

Ball court. Left: Lintel 39 on Structure 16.

 
Mask on Structure 6.  Witz  monster?

Mask on Structure 6. Witz monster?

The known history of Yaxchilán starts in the 4th century AD with the enthronement of Yopaat B'alam I (on 23 July 359). He was the founder of a long dynasty. King Moon Skull gained a victory over Piedras Negras in 460 and captured the enemy king, known only as Ruler A. The long-running rivalry with Piedras Negras was due to their desire to dominate the Usumacinta trade route. Nearby Bonampak was also at war with Yaxchilán and by 600 AD had become its satellite.

The ruler K'inich Tatb'u Skull II was another successful war leader (526–537). He attacked Bonampak and also Calakmul, captured its lords  and then commissioned carved lintels to depict his victories and dynastic lists of the early kings of the city.

Yaxchilán flourished between 580 and 800 AD, benefiting from commerce via the Usumacinta River and trading in copal resin and dyes processed from Brazilwood. Some of the most impressive buildings and sculptures were created during this late-Classic period before the city-state collapsed in the 9th century. The most impressive one that remains today is perhaps structure 33, a temple built by the Bird Jaguar IV (752 to 768 AD) in the left photo. You just look out of the window of any temple and you get a feeling of the age of the place.

 
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Stairs to Structure 33 (note the roof comb on the structure).

Stairs to Structure 33 (note the roof comb on the structure).

The People: Kings and Queens

As in all Maya city kingdoms, the people inside the city were warriors, traders, rulers, priests and artisans (the plebs lived outside).

While the ruling dynasty rose in the 4th century, its heyday followed later, with Lord Itzamnaaj Bahlam II, also known as Shield Jaguar II. He ruled for 60 years beginning in 681. The majority of carvings commemorate the important historical events occurring during his life, the lives of his famous wives Lady Xoc (also known as Lady Fist-Fish) and Lady Eveningstar, and his son Bird Jaguar who ruled here in the 8th century. Some of the lintels are now at the British Museum but there is still a lot of artwork that can be seen on the site. The rulers were portrayed in stelae (tall sculpted stone slabs) and lintels.

Shield Jaguar is portrayed as a war leader, ruler and ball player. He commissioned the Acropolis building, carved lintels and stairs faced with hieroglyphic writing. He designed them to impress both citizens and visitors and they do impress us till today. His son and heir, Bird Jaguar IV, continued this tradition. Stela 1 depicts him with a sceptre and in a magnificent headdress and in stela 11 he can be seen wearing a sun god mask and at his feet are three prisoners captured during Yaxchilan's wars with its neighbours. Being visible from the river they were designed to impress upon travellers the magnificence and power of the ruler.

 
Stela 1. Right: Stela 11.

Stela 1. Right: Stela 11.

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Lady Xoc (pronounced 'Shock') was his principal wife and possibly the sister of Lady Pakal from Palenque. We have no evidence if she bore him a son but her lineage led him to his throne. The dynastic history of the site is recorded in numerous inscriptions and was worked out by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (she worked many years on this site and was also buried at nearby Piedras Negras at her request). Tatiana pointed out the mystery of the missing heir between 742-752 AD. Lady Xoc appears in the images performing ritual sacrifices (women are not commonly seen doing so at other Mayan sites). Actually, many images in Yaxchilán depict women engaged in the ritual of bloodletting. The speculation has it that the ritual indicates that she could have acted as a regent (to whom?). His secondary wife Lady Ik' Skull, portrayed in stela 35, also known as Lady Eveningstar, was performing the same rituals. She may have ruled for a short time until her son Yaxun B'alam IV (Bird Jaguar) was old enough to take the throne. Upon the death of Shield Jaguar, the right to the throne would traditionally have gone to his heir through Lady Xoc's line; however, in this case, ten years after his death, it was his son from Lady Ik' Skull who took the throne. The Bird Jaguar's wife, Lady Balam-Ix is also taking part in the blood-letting ritual with her husband in Lintel 17 from Structure 21, now in the British Museum (right photo).

 
Lady Ik' Skull. Stela 35. Right: Lady Balam Ix.  Source:   pinterest.com.mx .

Lady Ik' Skull. Stela 35. Right: Lady Balam Ix. Source: pinterest.com.mx.

Lady Balam Ix.  Source:   pinterest.com.mx .
 

Lintel 24 shows Lady Xoc (681-742 AD) performing a blood sacrifice, pulling a rope through her tongue, kneeling before Shield Jaguar (681-742) who holds a torch. Now in the British Museum.

Lintel 25 shows Lady Xoc and the Vision Serpent ritual in 681 AD. This is now held in the British Museum. The Vision Serpent is prevalent in bloodletting Maya ceremonies. One possible conclusion is that massive blood loss caused the brain to release natural endorphins, which are chemically related to opiates. As the body goes into shock, a hallucinatory vision occurs. Once the actual bloodletting was over, the blood-soaked ceremonial papers were burned, releasing a column of smoke (i.e a serpent).

Serpents were considered the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, crossed the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal. The visions took the form of a giant serpent which served as a gateway to the spirit realm. The vision serpent thus came to be the method by which ancestors or Gods manifested themselves to the Maya. Thus for them, the Vision Serpent was a direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world. It was the royal responsibility to ensure this communication. The Q'eqchi' Maya still perform a ritual very similar to the vision quest during the initiation ritual of a new shaman for the village.

 
Lintel 24: Source:  latinamericanstudies.org .  Right: Lintel 25. Source:    britishmuseum.org .

Lintel 24: Source: latinamericanstudies.org.

Right: Lintel 25. Source: britishmuseum.org.

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The Focus: The design of a ceremonial city

Much of the surviving architecture is in the Petén style, as seen at sites such Tikal, and contact between the two sites was established through royal intermarriages. In addition, the narrow entrances and ornate roof combs remind you of Palenque. However, my focus is on the city design, rather than architecture.

The numerous and preserved carved lintels and stelae found here contributed greatly to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs. Furthermore, we can learn a lot about how the Maya designed the layout of the city, based on the direction the buildings and stelae face. According to Carolyn Tate's analysis, almost every building faces one of two directions: either the winter solstice line or the summer solstice.

On the site map (from mayaruins.com) we can see that the entire Main Plaza is oriented from north-west to south-east. Several small buildings sit perpendicular to this axis, and their apertures face south-east, the same direction as the plaza. 

Bisecting this major axis is a strong line in the form of the stairway to Structure 33, and the group of monuments in the centre of the Main Plaza. All these face north-east. This is not accidental, nor is it common at other Maya cities. 

 
El Castillo (the Castle, as the Spaniards named it).
 

Like the summer solstice orientation group, the winter solstice buildings are set slightly outside the path of the sun, which is clear in the map. This allows for a few minutes of illumination of the interior of the buildings, providing the trees at the end of the plaza were kept cut. No tall buildings block the path of the sun on the winter solstice.

So these alignments suggest that at Yaxchilán, the winter solstice was the time and direction for the commemoration of the deceased. The buildings and stelae which face the summer solstice, on the other hand, all document accessions, captures, and sacrifices of living kings. I find it fascinating. I could actually clearly see the sunny and the shady parts of the city (right photo above).

I found this design somehow reflecting the atmosphere of the place. I could feel those alignment lines in my bones, so to speak, and imagined all those commemorations of the deceased. It felt a bit like being in a cemetery. In the old times the town was undoubtedly majestic, sitting on the river with a large bridge. The trees would have certainly been cut down so there was a nice river view from all the buildings, receiving sunshine. Today, however, the ruins sit between the trees, rather melancholy and alone, and all you hear is the sound of the river and the howler monkeys. We heard what sounded like two males fighting over one female and I vividly imagined the ancient people doing their bloodletting rituals in that remote jungle set-up, connecting with nature and their ancestors. And for the first time it got to me that the ancient Maya were scared! Pretty spooky! They needed the religious rituals to keep them going. I was eager to leave, yet their powers were holding me there…

 
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The  Witz  mask on the Labyrinth adds to a spooky atmosphere.

The Witz mask on the Labyrinth adds to a spooky atmosphere.

The Mystery: the longest bridge in the ancient world

There is an unusual raised terrace beside the river and a pier in the river itself; these structures were long theorised to be the remains of a bridge. The Usumacinta River, now separating Mexico and Guatemala, formed a large U-shaped bend around the city. This natural barrier protected the city from invasion from outside but during the six-month rainy season Yaxchilán was flooded and became an island.

With Michelle outside the pyramid, March 2017.

The ingenious Maya engineers solved the transportation problems caused by the river floods by creating a passage – the suspension bridge. This was a necessity because the river was the source of trade for the city. You can see the remains of the bridge from the boat (left photo). If not, ask the boatman to show you. One could say that is a speculation, though. It has been reconstructed on the computer by engineer James O'Kon. He used computers to integrate archaeological studies, aerial photos and maps to develop a 3-dimensional model (see the model below from mexicolore.co.uk). The bridge would have been the longest bridge discovered in the ancient world, dating to the late 7th century. The bridge was 100m long and it had three spans; the longest was 63 meters. It was likely suspended by cables made from henequen rope and transported the city’s citizens across the river. (In 1377, a bridge with a longer span was built in Italy over the Adda river, now also destroyed).

 
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Don't Miss: The Labyrinth and Stairway 2

You can't miss the Labyrinth because to enter the site you have to go through it. It is a bit spooky, admittedly. You really feel like stepping into the underworld.

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The Labyrinth is a limestone temple with painted stucco panels and topped with decorative battlements (cresterías) dedicated to ruler kings such as Moon Skull. These are not really visible any more. They represented the Underworld Xibablá (a similar Temple of the Underworld can be found in nearby Toniná). The exact use of this building in ancient times is unknown. The interior replicated the soul's descent to the Underworld at death, and portrayed the story from the book of Popol Vuh about the twin brothers and their descent to Xibalbá. The twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque represent day and night, sky and earth, life and death, sun and moon. They play the ball game with the lords of the Underworld; they lose the game and their life but then come back to life. The Hero Twins are then made rulers of the Earth by the gods of the sky. It is the story of rebirth, so crucial to Mayan beliefs of creation.

We went into the labyrinth with a bit of apprehension, although the smile on the face of my friend John does not show it. Inside it was pretty scary.

 
The float in the canal is so cool!
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When you get out of the Labyrinth, your eyes will fall on the main plaza. Looking up the hill you will see the intact roofcombs of the buildings in this ceremonial centre. You can climb to level after level of buildings, each with some remarkable detail worth noting. You may stumble upon some evidence of recent worship by the Lacandóns, a small group of indigenous Maya who still practise the ancient ways of worship here.

Leading up to the front of Structure 33 from the plaza is a stairway, the top step of which is sculpted. This step is known as Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. Steps 6, 7 and 8 are extremely well-preserved and depict Bird Jaguar IV and two of his predecessors dressed as ball players. Do check them out!

Step 7 frieze shockingly shows that the ball was a bound captive human. This would have either killed the captive or injured him severely; in any case it was a torture. It appears that Bird-Jaguar must not let the ball hit the ground. Behind the king (on the right) are two dwarfs. Dwarfs (or people with other deformities) were considered by the Maya to be very spiritual. Maybe they were related to the ancient Olmec belief that four dwarfs held up the cardinal points of the sky? Or could they be the king's advisors? The dwarfs on the step are marked with Venus signs and one wears a shell earplug.  Venus was called the sweeper of the path of the sun so perhaps they are presented as the sweepers of the path for Bird Jaguar on his journey to confront the Lords of the Underworld in the ball game. The ball game was not a sport, it was a serious ritual depicting the Mayan mythology of creation.

 
Frieze from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 in Yaxchilán shows two dwarfs in advisory role to the king during the ball game. Source:  mayaruins.com .

Frieze from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 in Yaxchilán shows two dwarfs in advisory role to the king during the ball game. Source: mayaruins.com.

The site map

  • Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm.
  • It is wise to arrive well before 4:00pm for the last entry.
  • Entry fee: 65 pesos

To access Yaxchilán, you have to come to the small town of Frontera Corozal on the Guatemalan border (there is an entry fee to town, of 30 pesos, collected by the locals on the road). It is known for its dock with boats called 'lanchas', which ferry people to the ruins and to Guatemala on the opposite side of the river. The price depends on the number of people. We bought ours at the hotel for 1,600 pesos for 4 people. You will need an hour at the site and two more hours for the boat rides there and back.

 
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During our trip we stayed overnight in the cabañas of the hotel Nueva Alianza. If you want to go back to Palenque, it makes a very long day and in any case we wanted to visit nearby Bonampak. The only other larger hotel is Escudo Jaguar. Both hotels are on the river; you can't miss them. I preferred Nueva Alianza for its better restaurant but Escudo Jaguar has a pool. Your choice!

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Mix & Match

The site is relatively remote and normally one visits it in a combination with Palenque. It takes 2.5 hours to drive from Palenque to Frontera Corozal from where you take a boat. On the way from Palenque to Frontera Corozal there is the site of Bonampak, 30km away, known for the most well-preserved Maya murals, and is certainly worth a visit. One could also stay for trekking in the Lacandón jungle, a truly magic experience.

There is an immigration office by the river in Frontera Corozal for people who want to cross to Guatemala. The crossing fee is 120 pesos (2017) and you can take a bus on the other side to anywhere you want to go in Guatemala (most people go to the ruins of Tikal).

Sources:

1. Yaxchilán horseshoe

2. Usumacinta suspension bridge

3. O'Kon's reconstruction of the bridge

4. Carolyn E. Tate: Design of a Ceremonial City

 
RuinsLydia JonesComment