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Published: January 6th 2015
Although Uxmal isn’t as large a site as Chichén Itzá, it’s farther from Cancún, so it isn’t overrun with tourists. Before it was abandoned in the 10th
century AD it was a city of about 25,000. There were apparently no cenotes there, which may be why Uxmal was abandoned roughly at the time when Chichén Itzá, which did have cenotes, began to come into prominence. Today Uxmal is considered the crown jewel of Mayan archeology, with unusually elegant buildings considered to be “pure” in style without the later Toltec influences found elsewhere. They usually have plain walls surmounted by intricately-carved upper facades, which include countless images of the rain-god Chaac.
Four of the structures stand out for their beauty and originality. The first
is the pyramid dedicated to “The Magician” (also called The Sorcerer), unique in that its walls are elliptical rather than angular. It was actually built, then rebuilt four times, each temple incorporating the earlier ones inside it, but only the entrance to the fourth one near the summit is still visible. At over 100 feet (32 m) it may be the tallest of all Mayan buildings, and its stairs aren’t easy
Nearby is the second
important structure, a quadrangle which the Spaniards called the “Nunnery”, because its upper facades feature lattice-work carvings similar to those used in Spanish nunneries to keep the women hidden from view. It may have housed a school or a military academy. The third
structure of great importance is known as the Governor’s Palace, which appears to have been the administrative centre. It is about 300 feet (over 90 meters) long, and its facade is covered with geometric designs and stylized Chaac faces. Finally
, there’s a weird-looking building sometimes called the Pigeon House, with hollow sculptures of various shapes and sizes on top. Mayan farmers used the “slash and burn” technique to clear scrub brush and fertilize their fields. When doing so, it was essential not to be caught by flames if the wind changed direction or strength. It is believed that the strange hollow sculptures acted as horns, giving out loud and continuous sounds which would change according to the direction and strength of the wind. Those working in the fields would hear this and know when it was time to high-tail it out of there.
Uxmal is the centre of
a system of hand-built crushed limestone roads (sacbes) radiating out and connecting to all the other towns. We could make out the remains of one when we visited the smaller Kabah, about 10 miles (18 km) away. There, an enormous monumental Mayan arch stands at the terminus of a sacbe which goes straight through the woods to Uxmal, where there is a smaller arch. It’s hard to imagine, but all these “paved highways” were built by hand through brush, woods and jungles centuries ago! Kabah is slowly being restored. It has a fabulous Palace of Masks, with its façade covered by hundreds of masks of the rain god Chaac, and several other buildings also awaiting excavation.
On another day I visited the small town of Izamal, where they once had a healing vortex and a pyramid reputed to be the third largest in Mexico. In 1553 Bishop Landa had the top removed and a convent built with the stones. It has since become a miraculous Marian pilgrimage centre, with the largest courtyard in Latin America. Elsewhere I found an archaeologist painstakingly uncovering a small temple that the Spaniards had missed when they tried to destroy
everything Mayan. Who knows what it will eventually reveal?
Overall, I would recommend the Mayan sites around Mérida to anyone seeking a fascinating window into the world of the earlier, yet scientifically advanced, civilizations in the Americas. These are only three of the many that you may explore. If you wish to enlarge a photo, just click on it.
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