The Spectacular Ancient Maya City of Uxmal
The ancient Maya city of Uxmal is located in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It was one of the regional capitals during the Maya Late Classical period and is considered today to be one of the most important Maya archaeological sites. Located in the Puuc region, the ruins of Uxmal are an impressive document to the architectural feats of the Maya.
Controversial History and the Mythical Legend of How Uxmal Was Built
Uxmal (pronounced “oosh-mal”), means either “built three times” or “what is to come, the future.” Legend says that the first king of the city was bested by a magical dwarf, named Itzamna, who won Uxmal and the position as king by building the tallest monument (now known as the Pyramid of the Magician) in the city in one night.
The exact date of the founding to the city is uncertain, although archaeological evidence suggests that it was some time in the 6th century AD. However, Uxmal did not gain status until about 850 AD.
Some researchers have suggested that there are distinct times, that may be called Golden Ages, in which monumental building is thought to have taken place and life was believed to have flourished for Uxmal: the 9th-10th centuries and also the 13th-14th centuries. Part of the evidence for this belief is that much like the famous site of Chichen Itza; Uxmal survived the collapse that brought an end to many of the Maya cities in 900 AD.
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Panorama of Uxmal (Wikimedia Commons)
Nonetheless, other scholars disagree and believe instead that after the 10th century Uxmal did see a decrease in population; with some saying it became nothing more than a site for pilgrimage before the Spanish conquered the region.
One area in which most people are in agreement is that after 1000 AD, when the Toltec conquered the Yucatan peninsula, Uxmal became a part of the League of Mayapan. Later the city was taken under control by Xiu princes. Finally it was abandoned around 1450, close to arrival of the Spanish.
Overview of Uxmal’s Architecture
As opposed to many Pre-Hispanic cities, Uxmal was not organized with geometry in mind. Rather it was laid out with a focus on astronomy and adjusted to the hilly terrain.
A Site Map of Uxmal. (C.S. Rhyne)
Most of the buildings were created in the style of Puuc architecture. In this style the buildings are split in two horizontally, with the lower part plain and the upper richly decorated as a mosaic. The upper level often was made with sculptures over doorways and at the corners. The most popular figure represented in the sculptures being the rain god, Chac/Chaac.
A corner sculpture of Chac, Chichen Itza, Mexico. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Unique Architecture of the Pyramid of the Magician
The Pyramid of the Magician/The Magician’s House/The Pyramid of the Dwarf are all names for the 35 meter (115 feet) construction that first presents itself to modern day visitors. Contrary to the legend, it appears that the pyramid was actually built in two to five stages between the 6th-10th centuries.
The rounded corners of this pyramid show a unique architectural choice for the Maya. It also consists of a steep staircase with a doorway on the west side, which is an uncommon location for the main entryway. The doorway has been sculpted in a way that it appears as if the person entering the structure is passing through the mouth of a serpent-like monster.
The western staircase of the Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal. (B. Mackenzie)
The east side is less ornate and lower than the west. There is a single room that can be entered via the east side of the pyramid.
The center of the Pyramid of the Magician is made of limestone and it was covered by plaster which was painted in red, blue, yellow, and black.
The Impressive Mosaics of the Governor’s Palace
The Governor’s Palace at Uxmal is a 24 room building believed to have been constructed in the 10th century in honor of the last great ruler of Uxmal, Lord Chahk. The Governor’s Palace is thought to have been the administrative center of Uxmal.
It is 15.2 meters (50 feet) tall, and covers approximately 5 acres of land. The most attention-grabbing feature is not, however, the size. Instead it is the decoration of more than 20 thousand specially created stones creating beautiful mosaics which draws in visitors. The mosaics depict Chac, serpents, and astrological symbols.
The location of the Governor’s Palace puzzled researchers for many years. It was only in the recent past that they have understood that the central doorway is not only the largest of the entrances, but is also in perfect alignment with Venus.
Recently, archaeologists with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) also found a large concentration of medicinal plants were cultivated by the ancient Maya people near the Governor’s Palace. Some smaller gardens were also found in other locations at the site and altogether 160 different medicinal plant species have been identified. The plants could have been used to treat snake bites, intestinal infections, sores, gastritis, stomach ulcers, and fever, among other illnesses.
Front View of the Governor’s Palace, Uxmal (Wikimedia Commons)
The Nunnery Quadrangle: An Ancient Gathering Place
The Nunnery Quadrangle was likely the main place for people living in Uxmal to socialize. It is believed that at its peak Uxmal probably numbered around 20,000 people. The Spanish provided the name as “The Nunnery” for its likeness to Spanish convents. Scholars believe that the buildings surround the quad were probably places of learning for healers, shamans, priests, astrologers, military training, etc.
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The buildings around the quad were not all built at the same time. First the North, than South, followed by East and finally the West. The final Western building is the most elaborate of the four, with various serpents and masks of Chaac.
Drawing of part of the Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal (1844) (Wikimedia Commons)
Although there is controversy on the past of Uxmal, all can agree that the site has been very well-preserved and the buildings present make an impact on visitors today. Since Mexico’s Independence, thousands of visitors have made the trip to view these unique ruins.
The conservation efforts at Uxmal have greatly enhanced the experience for tourists. Original materials, such as lime, have been used in these efforts along with advanced technology. Overall, there is still a lack of understanding about past life at Uxmal, but the modern site is well taken care of and continues to draw attention on an international scale.
Featured Image: The grand pyramid at Uxmal (Grand Velas Riviera Maya / Flickr)
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Rhyne, C.S. (2008). Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná. http://academic.reed.edu/uxmal/introduction2.html
Sacred Destinations (2015). Uxmal. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/mexico/uxmal
UNESCO (2015). Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/791