I have to admit, as much as I enjoy world history, I have always struggled to embrace ancient Mayan culture. So a couple of years ago when my brother Don sent back photos of Mayabell, the jungle lodge in Palenque, complete with stories of hearing howler monkeys and photos of floating in the refreshing pool, it was the jungle that intrigued me. Two years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that jungle lodge. I had to go there. One of the most significant architectural sites in Mayan history, Palenque, was just a sideline.
Mayan culture is based a lot on mythology, legends, and lore. Many of their Gods take on animal alter egos, like two-headed serpents and the jaguar god of the underworld and lots of other esoteric stuff, making it impossible for me to mentally engage. Clearly there were some serious hallucinogenics involved when communicating with that spirit world!
I guess it is my “left brain,” the same reason I can’t get into Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, because I am a realist, and not much into mysticism or mythology. But at the same time, I have to wonder what the Mayans would have thought about my own religious upbringing, which began with an apple-tempting serpent, man eating whales, and multiplying loaves and fishes while people turn to pillars of salt. So who am I to judge?
Palenque, dating from 226 BC to AD 799 is considered to be one the most significant Mayan sites containing some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings the Mayas produced. How could I pass that up simply because it’s not something I understand? I could either choose to do a “been there, done that” walk through, or I could delve a little deeper in trying to understand one of the most sophisticated societies known for its complex writing system, its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar system, and astronomical studies.
I decided to start small. I would focus on the architecture, something tangible and not of the supernatural that I could see, touch, and appreciate. Consider that most of the original buildings were constructed around the time of the birth of the Christ was taking place, yet their structures are still intact enough for tourists to crawl all over them taking selfies every day. Their hieroglyphs are still visible enough to be sketched and translated, and their stone calendars were considered valid enough to cause some angst until the passing of Dec 12, 2012 for fear the end of the Mayan calendar also meant the end of the world. This speaks volumes about their masonry skills, let alone architectural design.
But Palenque has another claim to fame – it contains the first tomb found in any Mayan pyramid, the most famous ancient royal burial in the Americas, equivalent to King Tuts tomb. The Mayan culture was ruled by royalty, with the most famous ruler of Palenque being K’inich Janaab Pakal, or “Pakal” for short, also know as “Pacal the Great,” who ruled from 615 to 683 BC.
In the late 40’s, Mexican archeologist lberto Ruz Lhuillier was working in the Temple of the Inscriptions when he noticed one of the slabs on the floor of the upper monument was loose. He lifted up the slab and found two steps. It would take him four years to excavate another 70 steps to reach the bottom of the tomb where he discovered a perfectly preserved sarcophagus, not seen by another human for 1,000 years. It was covered by an intricately carved stone slab weighing 5,000 tons. At the time of excavation, it was the richest and best preserved of any burial known from the ancient Americas.
Pakal was estimated to be 80 years old when he died, having begun his reign at 12 years old and ruled for almost 70 years. Inside the sarcophagus, they found his skeleton covered in cinnabar, adorned with over 1,000 pieces of jade, and his skull covered by a jade funerary mask with eyes made of obsidian.
By 250 AD, the Mayan city of Palenque was at its height of power, but by 900 AD, the entire civilization had begun to decline. There are many theories as to why; drought, disease, nonproductive crops, overuse of resources (something I worry about in modern times.) But just like our own Ancestral Pueblans, no one really knows for sure the reason a lost city becomes “lost.”
I have to say, after spending almost the entire day at Palenque, I left with a greater appreciation and curiosity than I have ever had when visiting Mayan sites in the past. Not only did I marvel at their ability to construct these gigantic pyramids with perfect precision, using the sun and solstice as their compass and chisels to hand carve the stones, but I also learned more about their intelligence level whereby they created syllabic vocabulary, a numbering system, art, and a calendar that lasted almost two thousand years. I left wanting to know more….