Palenque is a Maya archeological site near the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas, located at 17°29′0″N, 92°2′59″W about 130 km south of Ciudad del Carmen. It is a medium-sized site, much smaller than such huge sites as Tikal or Copán, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and bas-relief carvings the Maya produced.
The site was already long abandoned when the Spanish arrived in Chiapas. The first European to visit the ruins and publish an account was Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada in 1567; at the time the local Chol Maya called it Otolum meaning “Land with strong houses”, de la Nada roughly translated this into Spanish to give the site the name “Palenque”, meaning “fortification”. Palenque also became the name for the town (Santo Domingo del Palenque) which was built over some peripheral ruins down in the valley from the main ceremonial center of the ancient city.
An ancient name for the city was Lakam Ha, which translates as “Big Water” or “Wide Water”, for the numerous springs and wide cascades that are found within the site. Palenque was the capital of the important classic-age Maya city-state of B’aakal
While the site was occupied by the middle Pre-Classic, it did not gain importance until several hundred years later. By 600 the first of the famous structures now visible were being constructed. Situated in the western reaches of Maya territory, on the edge of the southern highlands, B’aakal was a large and vital center of Maya civilization from the 5th century AD to the 9th century.
The B’aakal state had a chequered career. Its original dynasts were perhaps Olmec. Politically, the city experienced diverse fortunes, being disastrously defeated by Kalakmul in 599 and again in 611.
Nevertheless, B’aakal produced what is arguably the best-known Maya Ajaw (king or lord), Pacal the Great, who ruled from 615 to 683, and left one of the most magnificent tomb-works of ancient Mesoamerica, beneath the Temple of Inscriptions. This is a grand temple atop a step pyramid dedicated in 692; inside is an elaborate, long hieroglyphic text carved in stone detailing the city’s ruling dynasty and the exploits of Pacal the Great. A stone slab in the floor could be lifted up, revealing a passageway (filled in shortly before the city’s abandonment and reopened by archeologists) to a long interior stairway leading back down to ground level and the shrine/tomb of the semi-divine Pacal. Over his crypt is an elaborate stone showing him falling into the underworld, and taking the guise of one of the Maya Hero Twins in the Popul Vuh who defeated the lords of the underworld to achieve immortality.
Other important structures at Palenque include:
* The Palace, actually a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards built up over several generations on a wide artificial terrace. The Palace houses many fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings in addition to the distinctive four-story tower
* The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross. This is a set of graceful temples atop step pyramids, each with an elaborately carved relief in the inner chamber. They commemorate the succession of King Chan Bahlum II to the throne after the death of Pacal the Great, and show the late king passing on his greatness to his successor. These temples were named by early explorers; the cross-like images in two of the reliefs actually depict the tree of creation at the center of the world in Maya mythology.
* The Aqueduct constructed with great stone blocks with a three-meter-high vault to make the Otulum River flow underneath the floor of Palenque’s main plaza.
* The Temple of The Lion at a distance of some 200 meters south of the main group of temples; its name came from the elaborate bas-relief carving of a king seated on a throne in the form of a jaguar.
* Structure XII with a bas-relief carving of the God of Death.
* Temple of the Count another elegant Classic Palenque temple, which got its name from the fact that early explorer Jean Frederic Waldeck lived in the building for some time, and Waldeck claimed to be a Count.
The site also has a number of other temples, tombs and elite residences, some a good distance from the center of the site, a court for playing the Mesoamerican Ballgame and an interesting stone bridge over the Otulum River some distance below the Aqueduct.
All pictures by the author
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