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