Suitcase and World: Uxmal.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Ponounced "Oosh-mahl", the ruins of this once great Mayan city are located nearby Campeche. Though not as well known to the general public as Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal is rated by many archaeologists as the finest example of an ancient Mayan city.

The name Uxmal means 'thrice-built' in Mayan, referring to the construction of its highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician. The Maya would often build a new temple over an existing one, and in this case five stages of construction have actually been found.

Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula, and at its heyday (around 600-900AD) was home to about 25,000 Maya. Today, it stands as a monument to the great Mayan civilization and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ancient Mayan architecture in this region of Mexico has several predominant features, most notably constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. Carvings most commonly found include serpents, lattice work and masks of the god Chac.

Chac was the god of rain, greatly revered by the Maya at Uxmal because of the lack of natural water supplies in the city. Although the Yucatan has no surface rivers, most Mayan cities, including Chichén-Itzá, used cenotes to access underground water,  However there were no cenotes at Uxmal. Instead, it was necessary to collect water in cisterns built in the ground.

The Pyramid of the Magician, standing 38 meters (117 feet high, dominates the landscape of Uxmal. Built on an elliptical base, the  pyramid is the result of five superimposed temples.

I think that to appreciate the structure, you really do have to climb it and it is permitted.  It's hard to tell from the pictures but I'm guessing the steps are steep and tall.  It will be a slow hike up for me!
Parts of the first temple can be seen when ascending the western staircase; the second and third are accessed by the eastern staircase, in an inner chamber at the second level. The fourth temple is clearly visible from the west side and the fifth temple is at the very top.  From high above, we should get a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

The Pyramid of the Magician got its name from a legend that when a certain gong was sounded, Uxmal would fall to a boy "not born of woman". One day, a dwarf boy, who had been raised from an egg by a witch, sounded the gong.  This struck fear into the ruler who responded by ordering the boy to be executed. The ruler promised that the boy's life would be saved if he could perform three impossible tasks, one of which was to build a giant pyramid in a single night. The boy achieved all the tasks and became the new ruler.  That was the legend. Truth is probably that the pyramid took thousands of Mayans to build over several years.

Aside from the Pyramid of the Magician, there are several other important structures in Uxmal.

The Palace of the Governor is also another important structure on the site. Regarded by many experts as the best example of  Mayan architecture in existence, the Palace of the Governor stands on an artificial raised platform and is thought to be one of the last constructed building on the site (around 987AD). The structure has a typical plain lower section and a richly carved upper. Amongst the depictions are serpents, lattices and masks and also a central seated god-like figure with a long plumed head-dress.

The House of the Turtles which is built on the same raised platform as the Palace of the Governor.  The house is so named because of a frieze of turtles carved around the cornice.  Cute, huh?

The Nunnery Quadrangle which is collection of four buildings built around a rectangular shaped courtyard.  The place was named Casa de las Monjas (The Nunnery) by the Spanish because the 74 small rooms around the courtyard reminded them of nuns’ quarters in a Spanish convent. Each of the four buildings has a unique ornate façade, and each is built on a different level. The exact purpose of the group is not known, though, given the size and importance of the site, it is thought likely to have housed visiting dignitaries or administrative offices.

According to the guidebooks, Uxmal is a compact city but it will still take at least a half day to see the major structures.  I'm looking forward to exploring the place!