Leaving Merida a little later than I had expected that morning, after having forgotten to charge the battery for my digital camera the night before, the bus moved through town and out into the countryside. Charging time combined with the travel time of about an hour-and-a-half to get to Uxmal from Merida by public bus, it was no surprise that I landed in the middle of the Puuc just before the archaeological ruins witching hour, high noon. Temperatures had started to climb, but for some reason the temperatures were still tolerable and remained so throughout the afternoon.
Uxmal is the Maya word for the place of plentiful harvests. Ux meaning harvest and mal meaning a repeated number or action. This site is located in the center of the Puuc region where there are a few very fertile hills, the only hills in the landscape for hundreds of kilometers across the Yucatan peninsula. The locals here now grow corn and citrus, but in the day of the ancient Maya, this land was relied upon for growing everything the community needed to survive. The water on the peninsula was not plentiful, but the Maya contrived a way of creating cisterns to hold water that was pumped out of the underground limestone caverns, while also depending on the rainfall each year, to water their crops.
Village life in this area of the Puuc seemed to begin around 800 BC with a primarily agricultural focus until around 200 AD. Between the years of 200 and 1000 AD the population of the village grew to approximately 20,000 people, making it the Governor’s seat and the ceremonial center in the region. From 1000 until 1200 AD the city of Uxmal turned into a merchant city with the infiltration of the Xiu clan. But by 1200 the city was in decline and people were moving on to other cities and regions on the peninsula.
Walking down the path towards the Temple of the Magician, the landscape felt familiar. It felt like I was at home in California. The oak trees, the dirt under my feet, and the smell in the air all seemed like home. The temperature was just on the warm side of comfortable. As I walked I imagined a Temple of the Magician in San Francisco and chuckled to myself. I’m sure it would be considered a waste of valuable real estate. Better yet to imagine a Temple of the Phallus there, hidden amongst an oak grove in Golden Gate Park.
Uxmal happens to have both.
Uxmal also happens to be an ancient city that I could imagine living in. Even though the architecture is highly structured, the feel of the city is down to, and connected to, the earth. Elements of the earth were used to build the structures on the site, local limestone for the buildings, and wood and thatch for the roofs. Artisans of all kinds – painters, sculptors, stone cutters, woodworkers, potters – were all employed here. The people who lived here knew their place in the community, and no matter what that place was, it was important.
This is a city that is known for the beautiful sculptures and stone mosaics that adorn the walls of almost all of its buildings. Coming from Chichen, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the two sites. The stone of Chichen was colder, greyer, the signature building El Castillo was boxy, angular. Here at Uxmal, The Temple of the Magician was rounded, earthy, and took on the hue of the pale yellow-ish pink limestone, as did almost all of the other buildings in the city.
The Story of The Magician
The Magician that is referred to in the name of the temple is one of Maya legend.
In the neighboring village of Kabah there lived an old woman who was considered to be a witch. It has been said that she had birthed a baby boy out of an egg and as he grew older, he did not grow in stature and remained a dwarf. The child was full of curiosity and imagination. One day he noticed that the old woman was hiding something under the fireplace. The Dwarf found a gold tambourine and a wooden drum there and he began to play. The sound was heard throughout the neighboring villages and when the Lord of Uxmal heard the sound, he knew his days were numbered. It had been prophesied that whom ever found and played these instruments would take over his throne.
The Lord of Uxmal sent for The Dwarf in hopes of intervening and stopping the inevitable. He gave The Dwarf a number of tests to pass, which The Dwarf easily did. In one last desperate attempt to rid himself of The Dwarf and The Prophecy, he subjected The Dwarf to a test of strength and pain, hitting him over the head with cocoyols. The Dwarf agreed to this only if The Lord would endure the pain should The Dwarf himself survive. The Lord agreed, thinking The Dwarf was going to die before he would have to prove himself. But the witch had placed a strong piece of flint on The Dwarf’s head, hiding it in his hair and The Dwarf passed the test of pain with flying colors. The Lord of Uxmal did not fare so well, dying on the first hit.
The Dwarf came to rule Uxmal, favorably and wisely, building the Palace of The Governor, The House of the Old Woman, and The Temple of The Magician.
The Temple of the Magician dominates the current entrance into Uxmal, but it is by far not the most spectacular building. The Nunnery Quadrangle could compete for that title, with its beautiful Western Edifice that has sculptures of rattlesnakes and bleeding hearts, thrones backed by plumes of feathers, as well as masks of Chaac.
One of the more striking facades at Uxmal is The House of The Doves, called so only because the shape of the wall is reminiscent of a dovecote.
Walking down the path through the trees on my way to visit the last part of the site, The House of The Old Woman, I pass a palapa covering a group of rocks, placed neatly in rows on the ground. I stood looking at them for a moment before I realized what they were. They were all sculpted in the shape of a penis. All different – amazingly – large, small, thin, thick. A very nice and varied collection. The Temple of the Phallus, which is near The House of The Old Woman, is called such because of its rain gutters – each sculpted in the shape of a penis. Uxmal has more than one reference to sex, and because of that it is thought that fertility worship played a large role in this Maya city.
Uxmal is a place where hours or days could be spent looking at all the details of the city. The mosaics are like eye-candy – for those of us who like that kind of thing. When I felt like my eyes were filled for the day I walked back out to the main road to catch the bus, which happened to be waiting when I got there. That happens sometimes. When I got back to the hostel I shared my day’s photographs with anyone who look.
Uxmal is a World Heritage Site
The unlit path leading through the jungle and up to Chichen-Itza was crowded with a processional of people walking up to the archaeological ruins. The focused quiet of everyone as they walked suggested a mood of solemnity. The darkness made everyone overly cautious of their steps as they walked with their heads bowed, watching the path as they stepped over tree roots, rocks, and little holes on the dark and dusty earth. Our first view of El Castillo, or The Great Pyramid, was in the unlit darkness. The giant structure seemed to appear out of nowhere through the leaves and branches of the trees. As we walked, the full moon rose in the clear, cool, night sky behind El Castillo, lending an even more mysterious aura to the ancient site …
Early the next morning I returned to Chichen-Itza, the heat already threatening to swell my fingers and feet, and the sun was taking its time to burn my skin to a crisp. This ancient site was the first and most developed archaeological site that I was to visit in The Yucatan and I wanted to take it slow, to savor the experience, to really get a sense of this mystical place. By the time I arrived, there were already a few enthusiastic climbers on top of El Castillo, taking in the views across the site and the jungle before the crowds arrived for the day.
Chi is the Maya word for mouth, Chen is Maya for well. When the word Chichen is pronounced, both syllables are emphasized as if they were two different one syllable words. Itza is the name of the people who, it is believed, conquered the original inhabitants of Chichen and then held power there for over 300 years. Chichen-Itza, which means Mouth of the Well of the Itzas is named so because of the sacred cenote that exists on the edge of the archaeological site, and the Itzas that came to live and rule in the city.
Water was at a premium in the Maya cities when they were inhabited at full capacity, especially those in the hot inland areas of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was also thought that the name could mean Mouth of the Well of the Water Sorcerers, since the ancient Maya – of which the Itzas may have been a part – worshiped and paid tribute to the Rain God Chaac at the sacred cenote.
As I walked along the dusty paths from building to building, it became increasingly clear how valuable a resource water would be here. I thought that I myself might even be praying to Chaac before I left Chichen.
Walking along, each building or complex I explored gave me more of a sense of just how developed and advanced this culture was. To put it into a white European art historical perspective, these buildings arose while the Romans were losing power in Europe and North Africa. The Roman’s greatest architectural achievements were aqueducts, paved roads, and temples. During this same time while Europe slunk into the Dark Ages, across the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula in what is now Mexico, the Maya people of Chichen and those all over the Yucatan peninsula, were building observatories, temples, nunneries, ball courts, administrative buildings, stone-paved roads, and marketplaces. Their culture was full of life and ceremony, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and mystery. And they were obsessed with the concept of time.
Chichen-Itza is probably the most famous ancient archaeological site on the Yucatan peninsula, next to Palenque. It was certainly the most impressive ceremonial center in southeastern Mexico when it was an active and alive city. It seems to have had three major development periods:
- Chichen was founded in 435 AD by the Maya, with the first structures being built between 495 and 625. Their religion was centered around Chaac, the Maya Rain God.
- Around 900 AD the Itzas arrived, bringing their worship of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a new architectural style and a new name, Chichen-Itza. It is unclear as to where the Itza came from. Some think they came from the Toltec region of Central Mexico, while others think they were Mayas from Chompoton, or even from the Peten region of Guatamala.
- 1200 – 1400 AD brought internal conflicts to the Itzas when Chichen was conquered by the Cocom, when the Mayapan Alliance fell apart, effectively expelling them and ending their long rule. This was the period in which many buildings in the Toltec military style were built. The city was abandoned for unknown reasons after 1400.
El Caracol, or The Observatory, is one of the the many interesting, and one of the most important, buildings in Chichen-Itza. From here the Maya astronomers recorded the lunar and solar cycles as well as the cycle of Venus, a planet that greatly interested them. They understood the equinoxes and solstices, as well as lunar and solar eclipses from their observations. The Maya studied the constellations, especially Tzab, the one we know as The Pleiades, and plotted the paths of many heavenly bodies. From their observations and exquisite mathematics, they also developed the two Maya calendars, the Haab and the Tzolkin. The Haab being the everyday calendar, made up of 365 days, with 18 months consisting of 20 days each, and 5 empty days. The Tzolkin was a ritual, or astrological, calendar, used in conjunction with the Haab, that could be used to define the destiny of an individual.
Maybe because of the Maya obsession with the concept of time, they also seemed to be obsessed with the concept of death. There are reminders of death all over Chichen-Itza, from the skull carvings on the wall of El Tzompantil, The Ossuary, the possible rules of the ball games played on the Ball Court, to the stories of human sacrifices made in the Sacred Cenote.
The Temple of The Warrior holds the famous sculpture of Chac Mool which sits between two sculptural columns of the feathered serpent Kukulcan. The Nunnery has beautiful lattice work and sculptures on the outside on its walls. The Thousand Columns are a mystery. The Bath House, The Platform of Venus, every building in Chichen-Itza has at least one unique detail to look at, something to learn, something to discover, something to think about, and possibly, something to remember.
Visiting the Site
Think about going to the light show the night before touring the ruins as being within the compound at night gives a haunting sense of the site. The best time to view Chichen-Itza is early in the morning before 11am. The site opens at 8AM and is fairly easy going until about noon when the tour buses start rolling in and the temperature rises dramatically. Plan on spending anywhere from two hours to two days exploring this incredible place, depending on your level of interest in ancient archaeological sites.
Chichen-Itza is a World Heritage Site