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The Temple of Kukulkan, Mayapan.

An Ancient Maya City Founded by a God and Conquered by a Death Cheating Despot

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Mayapan is a Maya site located in the modern Mexican state of Yucatan, about 55 km (34 miles) to the southeast of Merida, the state’s capital. This reconstruction of the site’s history poses a challenge to scholars, as the different written sources referring to it often contradict each other. As a result, only a partial reconstruction of Mayapan’s history has been achieved using them. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence may serve to verify the claims of these sources.

Founded by God or Man?

The name Mayapan may be translated literally to mean ‘Flag / Banner of the Mayas’, and was known also as Zaclactun, which may either mean ‘place where white pottery was made’ or ‘white cave’. According to local legend, Mayapan was founded by Kukulcan, the Maya snake deity, following the decline of Chichen Itza (which lies about 100 km (62 miles) to the east of the city) around the middle of the 13 th century.

Kukulcan himself is a somewhat problematic figure, as it was the name of both a Maya god and of a mortal ruler, and the distinction between the two has been blurred. Some archaeologists, however, are of the view that Mayapan was established around 1000 AD, and was in an alliance, known as the League of Mayapan, with the powerful cities of Uxmal and Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan as a snake deity at the base of the west face of the northern stairway of El Castillo, Chichen Itza (CC by 2.0)

Kukulkan as a snake deity at the base of the west face of the northern stairway of El Castillo, Chichen Itza (CC by 2.0)

City Attacked by Death Sentence Survivor

Mayapan flourished during the late Postclassic period, i.e. between the 13 th and 15 th centuries AD. This was a time when the Maya civilization was in decline, and Mayapan served as a major political and cultural center that exerted a strong influence on other, smaller Maya city states. It is recorded in the written sources that towards the end of the 12 th century, Hunak Ke’el, a native of Telchaquillo who founded the Cocom dynasty, was captured by the inhabitants of Chichen Itza, and thrown into a cenote as a sacrificial offering to the gods. Hunak Ke’el, however, survived this ordeal, and declared war on the city. Chichen Itza fell to Hunak Ke’el around 1224 AD.

Hunak Ke’el and the Cocom dynasty are important figures in the history of Mayapan, as they ruled the city until the second half of the 15 th century. The sources, however, are at odds with each other regarding this ruling family. Some, for instance, have stated that Mayapan was founded by Hunak Ke’el during his war with Chichen Itza, whilst others record that the Cocom dynasty began to rule the city during the latter half of the 13 th century, following the death of Kukulcan.

Mayapan (CC by SA 3.0)

Mayapan (CC by SA 3.0)

The Capital of a Powerful Dynasty

Mayapan served as the capital of the Cocom dynasty, and it was from this city that the dynasty dominated the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula for over two centuries, from the 13 th to the 15 th centuries AD. The Cocom dynasty came to an end sometime between 1440 and 1460 AD. Uprisings against their rule during this time resulted in the defeat of the Cocoms by the Xiu, another Maya noble family. Members of the Cocom were slaughtered by the Xiu, and Mayapan was abandoned after being destroyed. It has been suggested that an epidemic that ravaged the area also contributed to the fall of the city.

The Mayapan ruins (Graeme Churchard / flickr)

The Mayapan ruins (Graeme Churchard / flickr)

Today, the Mayapan ruins are being investigated by archaeologists, an undertaking that began as early as the late 1930s, and work at the site continues till today. It has been reported that as many as 4,000 structures have been identified in the city, though not all have been excavated yet.

One of the architectural highlights of the site is the pyramid that dominates the city’s central plaza. This structure is referred to by archaeologists as ‘Structure Q162’, though popularly known as the Temple / Castle of Kukulkan. The pyramid bears a striking resemblance to the pyramid in Chichen Itza, though the one in Mayapan was built on a smaller scale.

The Mayapan pyramid (Arian Zwegers / flickr)

The Mayapan pyramid (Arian Zwegers / flickr)

There are also circular towers, known as ‘observatories’, which may have been used for astronomical purposes, or as temples to the Maya wind god. Additionally, there are 26 cenotes located around the city, which provide water to the people of Mayapan. Thus, residential areas grew up around these sinkholes so that water could be conveniently obtained.

Top image: The Temple of Kukulkan, Mayapan.  Source CC by SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren 


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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008. Mayapán. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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