Saturday, 07 June 2008 15:28

Palenque History

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Enclosed and surrounded by dense jungle forests with pervasive mahogany, cedar and sapodilla trees, frequently shrouded in fog lies the Maya site, Palenque, resting on the eastern front of the Rio Usumacinta Basin in the neighborhood of the roaming foothills of Chiapas’ Oriental- at elevation of about 3000 meters-overlooking the lower plain extending to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mayan archaeological site of Palenque represents the western regional variant of Classic Maya civilization. Although the earliest occupation of the site dates to about 100 BC, became a major population center only at about 600 AD. Nearly all construction at Palenque stopped by about 800 AD.


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Unlike its cousin site of Chichen Itza or Tikal, Palenque's well-preserved ruins now visible are the heavily restored remains of the ceremonial center the ceremonial center may be divided into three major areas:

  • The Pyramid of the Inscriptions, the west facade of the Palace and the unexcavated mound Temple XI;
  • Arroyo Otulum, Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross;
  • Ball Court and the Temple of the Count, Palace, Temple X, and the North Group.


In 1952 an impressive tomb was uncovered under the Temple of the Inscriptions, demonstrating for the first time that the Maya pyramids served – contrary to former belief of the Maya- both as funerary structures and temple platforms. To this day many of the inscriptions at Palenque have been deciphered, revealing much of the dynastic history of the site. The following descriptions of the different elements are best described via the time frame that corresponds to the rulers. This is because it was the rulers, namely Pacal and his children that held the greatest and most influential power in Palenque, sponsoring structures during their reign.

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Perhaps one of the greatest and most ambitious, not to mention precocious Mayan kings, Pacal assumed power in 603 AD at the very early age of 12 and ruled for 68 years until his death in 683 AD. Well known for his drive and contributions of Palenque, Pacal built the Forgotten Temple in 647 AD. He also sponsored the Temple of the Count, as well as underground galleries beneath passages in the Palace. Stucco reliefs of masks in tableros on the west end of the north facade of the Palace and figures with well defined facial features on columns on the north facade celebrate Pacal's ancestry. His remains, adorned with jade ornaments and face covered with a jade mask were deposited in a stone sarcophagus covered with an elaborately carved stone located in a chamber 1.5 m below the surface of the plaza above which was erected as the Pyramid or Temple of the Inscriptions. The sarcophagus is currently accessible by a stairway from Temple of the Inscriptions on the top of the pyramid.

Pacal left more than just majestic temples to remind the Mayan world of his existence; Chan-Balum, the eldest son, assumed power in 684 AD upon the death of his father ruled under the same lineage for another 18 years. He was responsible for the completion of the temple atop the Pyramid of the Inscriptions modeled after the Forgotten Temple and the construction of the Group of the Cross temples: the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. The panels on the rear interior walls of all these temples depict Chan-Balum and Pacal containing texts purporting to legitimize Chan-Balum's power.


Kan-Xul the younger son of Pacal succeeded his older brother in 702 AD at the age of 38 and ruled for yet another 23 years. He remodeled the Palace adding rooms, galleries and courtyards with bas-relief slabs some exhibiting fine detail. Under his direction the Palace assumed roughly its present form including T-windows (also present in other structures at Palenque and at other sites) whose function is unclear. Some theories suggest that the T formations functioned as vocal points for an system of acoustics within the walls of the palace that allowed for communication around its walls. The T-form also appears in the Ik day glyph which means `wind" and `breath" and might be taken as a metaphor for `life'.

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Though uncertain, Kan-Xul may also been responsible for adding the tower to the Palace. This structure supported by wooden lentils with an interior staircase is thought by some to have functioned as an astronomical observatory, a theory supported by the presence of a venus glyph on a landing. Temple XIV is also attributed to Kan-Xul. This structure was apparently deliberately placed to block access to the Group of the Cross. Kan-Xul is thought to have been made a prisoner of war and decapitated.

Palenque is easily accessible by car, bus or (charter) plane. An air strip is an essential accessory for all self-respecting ruins in Central America, and Palenque is no exception. As this is a veritable tourist mecca, food, transport and accommodation are always in plentiful supply. There is even a camp site near the ruins for the brave hearted who wish to bond with nature - mosquitoes come free.

Share taxis commute frequently between the town and the ruins, 6.5 km, and charge a very reasonable rate. Open from 8 am to 5 pm, archaeological site also offers a small museum, visitors centre and a car park.

There are plenty of jungle walks and trails around the main group of ruins. Mountain behind the Temple of Inscriptions has interesting trails dotted with small ruins. There is also an Indian village a few hours walk away on the far side of the mountain. For all such adventures and excursions, dress sensibly. Wear good walking shoes, full length trousers, shirt/ blouse and hat. It is better to steam a little rather than become lunch for the local mosquito population. Other basic rules are, use plenty of insect repellent, keep a torch handy and never explore the jungle by your self.

Excursions from the town can be taken to Nututun, Misol-HA or Agua Azul for a pleasant swim and exploration of the tropical rainforest. Longer treks can be arranged to visit the ruins at Yaxchilan and Bonampak further out in the jungle. There is plenty to see and explore in the surrounding mountains of the "Chiapas". There are great waterfalls, cascades, rapids and idyllic villages within easy reach of Palenque. Higher up the Chiapas, weather is refreshingly cool and scenery is always breath taking. Town of San Cristobal de las Casas, 5.30 hours by bus, is famous for its charming colonial architecture, scenic beauty and refreshingly cool weather - perfect country for horse riding.

Of Palenque's 500 main buildings, only 34 have been excavated. However, don't attempt to play Indiana Jones - it is illegal and dangerous. Resist the temptation to touch unguarded paintings and stucco works. As these are not properly restored yet, your loving caress will cause permanent damage to the delicate surface. For our own selfish pleasure of seeing all this again in the future, please be a conscientious tourist.


Some good links:


Some Great Mayan Ruins Tours




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