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The grand pyramid of the Maya at Uxmal

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.

Panorama of Uxmal

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 1000AD, 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.

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.

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.

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 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 recently that they have understood that the central doorway is not only the largest of the entrances, but is also in perfect alignment with Venus.

Front View of the Governor’s Palace, Uxmal

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.

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 Chac.

Drawing of part of the Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal (1844)

Drawing of part of the Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal (1844) ( Wikimedia Commons )

Modern Uxmal

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 the visitors to Uxmal 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 some lacking in understanding of 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 )

By Alicia McDermott

References:

Cartwright, M. (2014). Uxmal. http://www.ancient.eu/Uxmal/

Inner Optics (2015). The Mayan Kingdom: Uxmal. http://inneroptics.net/mayan_kingdom_book/uxmal/

Kohlschmidt, M. (n.d.). Maya 3D: Uxmal Governor’s Palace. http://www.uxmal-3d.com/uxmal/governors_palace.htm

Mackenzie, B. (2009). Uxmal. http://mayaruins.com/uxmal01.html

Powell, M. (2014). Uxmal: Thrice Built Home of the Dwarf King http://yucatan.for91days.com/uxmal-thrice-built-home-of-the-dwarf-king/

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  

Comments

Rob Lorez's picture

These ruins are fantastic!  Uxmal is worth seeing for yourself.  The technology of the ancients is amazing not only at this site but many others around the world.

 

 

Here we go again. No one knows exactly when or by whom Uxmal was founded but dates of the 6th century and 850 AD are presented as though they are scientific. They are not.

The real issue is that in spite of the best efforts of modern researchers the true nature and dates of origin of any of the Mayan sites is not known. That is because dating is based on "context" and/or carbon 14 dating techniques.

Sorry, a building can not be dated by its artifacts (context). It would be like dating the pyramids by finding a cell phone and declaring it was built in the late 20th or early 21st century. Not so.

Our research over the past six years indicates that these sites were re-inhabited by modern people but were originally built millions of years ago. In fact, we have dated several sites in the Yucatan to 66 millions ago.

We discuss this and other issues in our black2tell blog. In fact, we have just posted an essay listing the new science supporting our claims for intelligent life hundreds of millions of years ago. Mr. Black

You lost your credibility when you started talking about 'millions of years ago'.
I'm all for the theory that advanced civilisations were around more than 10 thousand years ago, but millions? Nope.
Even IF they existed that long ago, we wouldn't be able to find remnants on the surface or just below.

So yeah, Uxmal, Giza, Pumu Punku and all those megalithic sites date (in my opinion) from more than 10 thousand years ago, but millions is just to far fetched.

If you're in a car, don't miss several nearby small sites, such as Labna, with it's unique arch.

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