The Mayan priest stood within the relative darkness of the temple, his mind preparing for what was to come. Through the door before him, the brightness of day shone the only light into his dark alcove, revealing the bright red and yellow garment he wore, festooned with the carved jade stones that indicated his office as high priest. Atop his head was an even more ornate helmet with a huge jaguar mouth open in a grimace and a huge train of bright feathers trailed off the back. Outside, the priest could hear the murmuring of the large crowd that had gathered at the foot of the pyramid. Gripping his obsidian dagger, he scowls and steps into the light, the crowd roaring its approval as he strides forth with arms raised.
Standing at the base of the Pyramid of the Magician at the Uxmal ancient Mayan site, it isn’t hard to imagine a scene like this one. The whole place feels alive even though it was abandoned by the Maya some 1000 years ago. Its structures are in such good shape and the closeness of the buildings give it a lived-in city feel.
Uxmal – Ancient Maya City
Uxmal (pronounced oosh mall) means “three times built” and was at its height from 600-1000 AD. It is one of the best preserved ancient archaeological site of all Maya culture and an easy top-10 for best sites in the whole of Mesoamerica. The excellent state of the architecture and its famous facades is due to the excellent building materials used. It is remarkable how much is still in good shape 1000 years after the site was largely abandoned.
Pyramid of the Magician
When you walk into the site, the first thing you are greeted with is the wondrous Pyramid of the Magician. Unlike other Maya sites, where the pyramids are rectangular and stepped, the Pyramid of the Magician more closely resembles the original inspiration of all the Maya temples – a mountain. Its elliptical base is over 200 feet wide with rounded sides rising upward steeply, eventually reaching a height of 131 feet. From two sides, steep steps rising at a challenging 60° degrees. It is the the most unique pyramid in all of the Yucatan. On the side facing the courtyard the steps lead to an impressive temple structure featuring well preserved lattice ornamentation. The stairs leading up this side are flanked by numerous images of the long nosed Chaac – the Maya god of rain.
Uxmal Nunnery Quadrangle
Immediately behind the Pyramid of the Magician is the remainder of the ceremonial center. Columned buildings line the courtyard with distinctive “A” shaped roofs. A building with stone tiles features well preserved carvings of tropical birds arranged as if they had landed on the roof. Their feathery details are still clearly visible and would have originally been painted in representative bright colors. It is easy to stand in this well preserved area and imagine the bustle of activity that must have existed when the city was at its height with an estimated 20,000 inhabitants.
Beyond lays an impressive courtyard in an area called the nunnery. No, there were no nuns there in antiquity, but it was so named due to the abundance of rooms in a neat row. An ornate façade sits above the structure, with well-preserved images of Chaac on either corner and over the center doorway. Walking through the doorways, the temperature cools considerably and the inside reveals simple stone walls with steep rooflines.
Chaac and Kukulcan
Images of Chaac look similar everywhere he is seen. His face is often seen one atop another in the facades. With a
face only a mother could love, he has a wide mouth with crooked teeth and glaring eyes under prominent eyebrows. The most visible trait, however, is his large, sloping and curled nose. Responsible for bringing the rain, he was one of the most important gods of the Maya, along with Kukulcan, whose feathered snake image is visible in places in the architecture as well.
Standing atop the stairs of the Nunnery, you can look over much of the complex. The Pyramid of the Magician towers to your left, and through the ‘A’ shaped arch directly in front of you can be seen the prominent Governor’s Palace. All the nearby buildings are amazingly well preserved – the facades showing wonderful detail with ornate images and patterns. What you do not see is a lot of tourists. Compared with the huge crowds that descend on Chichen Itza every day, you’ll feel like you have Uxmal almost to yourself (there were a few dozen people there while we were visiting).
Passing through a long, ‘A’ shaped tunnel leads to a more grassy area with a dirt path that leads to a modest ball court. Compared to the massive one at Chichen Itza, this one is small and compact. It still retains the distinctive shape with a goal still mounted to one wall. Sitting in a prominent location, it was clear that the Mayan of Uxmal loved their sports. The inscription there has been translated – the ball court was dedicated in 901 AD by the ruler Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw. But rising up in front of you is a structure that demands your attention.
Built on steps above a huge platform, the Governor’s Palace covers nearly 13,000 sq ft and features the longest
façade yet discovered in ancient Mesoamerica. The façade mostly has geometric shapes intermixed with animal images and images of Chaac and contains more than 20,000 stones. The building has many doors (24 rooms) similar to the Nunnery and was likely a government building of some kind. One opening looks like a spear point oriented upwards. On the same platform next to the Governor’s Palace is the House of the Turtles, which features turtle carvings along its edge.
Connected to the platform of the Governor’s Palace is the Great Pyramid, a nice symmetrical pyramid more in keeping with the pyramids you are likely to see at other Maya sites, this one is nice in that you can climb it and get a nice view of much of the rest of Uxmal. To the right is an un-excavated temple likely as tall as this one. It is amazing that the majority of ancient Maya ruins are still un-excavated. Restoration is expensive but it is easy to wonder at what is still waiting to be discovered. I hope they continue to clear and restore more of this marvelous architecture.
I Can’t wait to return
We went back toward the entrance of Uxmal over by the Pyrmaid of the Magician and enjoyed it one more time. I
I have some tips on seeing this yourself here.
A gallery of pictures of Uxmal is here.
You can see a list of the best Maya ruin sites I have visited here.