Suitcase and World: Palenque.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Palenque was a Mayan city that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date back to 100 BC to its fall around 800 AD. After its decline it was consumed by the jungle around it and since it's discovery in the late 18th century, archaeologists have been working to excavate the site.  By 2005, the excavated area totaled up to 2.5 km² (1 sq mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.

In fact, just today, through the miracles of modern technology, archaeologists discovered a  1500 year old tomb at Palenque.  What an amazing find!

Link to full article
According to most records, Palenque was first *discovered* in 1735 by Father Antonio Solis, who had been sent to Palenque by his bishop.  What Father Solis saw was some *stone houses*  in the forest. In 1784, the governor of Guatemala commissioned a series of individuals to investigate. In 1785, surveyor and architect Antonio Bernasconi drew a plan of the site and, in 1787, Captain Antonio del Rio concluded that these ruins predated the Spanish conquest and were the work of the Mayan nation. It was John Lloyd Stephens who revealed Palenque to the world in 1841.

Compared to other Mayan sites such as Tikal in Guatemala or Copán in Honduras, Palenque is a medium-sized site.  But good things come in small packages so Palenque contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayans produced. In fact, much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments.

K'inich Janaab' Pakal (23 March 603 – 28 August 683) who is also known as Pakal the Great is the Mayan ruler who is credited with the construction or extension of some of Palenque's most notable surviving monuments including the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions.  The latter structure holds Pakal's tomb.

The Palace, which was built up over several generations of Mayan rulers, is actually a complex of several adjacent buildings, connected by a maze of corridors and rooms.  Four courtyards divide the complex up into distinctive spaces and a distinctive four-story tower completes the building. The Palace houses many fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings.

The Temple of the Inscriptions held a remarkable secret for centuries.

In 1948, Alberto Ruz investigated four curious stone plugs in the floor of the temple and discovered a secret passage filled with rubble. It took four long seasons to remove the rubble from the steep and slippery stairway that came to a landing then changed directions and continued on for 80 feet below the temple floor and 5 feet beneath the level of the central plaza.

Behind a triangular slab door, Ruz made a discovery that would change the world's view of Mayan amazing stone chamber that housed an elaborately carved sarcophagus and the remains of a royal person along with a multitude of jade and other artifacts. It was not until epigraphers learned to decipher the glyphs on the sarcophagus and the inscriptions in the temple above that these remains could be identified as Pakal the Great.

It was Pakal himself who had this magnificent pyramid built and his eldest son and successor, Kan B'alam II who completed it. The temple rises 75 feet high and the roofcomb would have added an additional 40 feet.

There are eight stepped terraces to the base of the temple, each banded with a molding that lends a horizontal line to the structure. A narrow stairway leads up to the temple.

The front of the temple is composed of five doorways separated by six piers, or vertical panels. These are labeled A through F, each with texts, artistic representations, or both executed in reliefs made from plaster stucco. Piers A and F have only hieroglyphic text on them. Piers B through E have images of people holding an infant-like figure, which has a snake as one leg.

Inside the temple, two large vaulted chambers house three hieroglyphic panels which are the second longest known inscription by the ancient Maya. These panels recount the dynastic history of Pakal's ancestors.

Kan B'alam II continued his father's aggressive building program and is credited with the construction of three temples that are collectively known as the "Cross Group".

The Cross Group is a set of three graceful temples atop step pyramids.  The temples are considered to be among the most elegant of all Mayan architecture. All three temples have a large central opening flanked on each side by two stucco decorated piers and a narrow portal. The interiors are divided into front and back rooms, much like the traditional Maya home. In the back room is a sanctuary that houses a three part panel. In each temple the panel has a similar theme, depicting what is now believed to be Kan B'alam II as a boy on one side and as a man on the other. The central icon is different in each temple but the glyphs tell the same story - how Kan B'alam II is rightful heir and ruler of Palenque.

Temple of the Sun
Carvings inside commemorateKan B'alam II's accession to the throne in 684 AD. He is shown facing his father.

Reproduction of carving from the Temple of the Sun

Photo by Olivier Bruchez
Temple of the Cross is the largest of the three pyramids that occupies the north end of the "Cross Group" of temples.  Its main staircase faces away from the rest of the city.  The interior design of the Temple of the Cross is the same as the other temples, only more spacious.

The Tablet of the Cross-panel inside the temple shows Kan B'alam II and Pakal during the accession ritual just before Pakal handed over the scepter of power to his son.

Reproduction of carving from the Temple of the Cross

Between them rises the World Tree showing its role as the axis of the Universe, arising from the underworld to the Heavens with all four directions coming from it.

The Temple of the Foliated Cross.  This temple doesn't look either of the other two temples because its front half is lost so the corbel arches and keyholes are completely exposed..... revealing how the architects at Palenque designed these buildings.

Reproduction of carving from the Temple of the Foliated Cross

The Tablet on the Foliated Cross is perhaps the most impressive of all the Palenque tablets. It contains a scene from  Kan B'alam II's   enthronement.  A rear tabletl features a stylized maize plant flanked by a youthful and older Kan B'alam II.

Comparatively speaking, Palenque maybe a small site, but the more I read up about it, the more I realize that there's so much to see.  I just hope we have time to see it all and that it won't be raining that day!  Can't wait to be there.