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Uxmal Ruins: Stunning Mayan Temples
The largest and most striking Mayan ruin site in the Puuc Hills of the Yucatan Penninsula is Uxmal. Only a small portion of Uxmal has been excavated and fixed up, but what is not covered in jungle and lush, green vegetation is beautiful!
The name Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mahl) is believed to be ancient Mayan for (very roughly) “Built Three Times,” but not all historical experts agree on that translation. The names of Uxmal’s various structures were given by the Spanish, and as you’ll soon realize, are often misleading!
Uxmal was connected to other nearby cities (now other nearby ruins) by raised roads known as sacbes. One of the best-kept ones connects Uxmal to the nearby Mayan ruin site of Kabah. These roads snaked through the jungle and were introduced to cities through vaulted archways (some of which have been reconstructed).
There are likely more than 200 ruins in the Puuc Hills, but among them, only Kabah and another small archaeological site known as Uaymil are being worked with at the moment.
Though it was founded around 500 CE. Uxmal’s glory days spanned between 875 and 900. It is thought to have been the capital of the Puuc region and had an estimated population of around 15,000 people. To give you some perspective, the population of San Francisco is around 900,000 and New York is home to nearly 19,550,000 souls.
According to Maya chronicles, Uxmal was established by the dashing Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu (what a mouthful!!). For some time, this city, ruled by the Xiu family, was the most powerful place in the Western Yucatan. While allied with Chichen Itza (located somewhat to the west), the two cities comprised one of the most dominant forces in the entire northern Maya area.
With time, Chichen Itza fell, the Xiu family relocated to Mani, and the population of Uxmal fell. Around that time (1000 CE), Toltec invaders took control of the city and may have messed with the buildings a bit, but construction generally stopped 100 years later.
When Spanish conquistadors took on the Yucatan, the Xiu family decided to ally with the Guys With Guns. At that time (around the 1550s), Uxmal was still inhabited, but no Spanish town was build there, and the city was, for the most part, abandoned soon thereafter (are you getting the idea that the history of the Mayan empire is vague? Well, it is. Deal with it).
Uxmal's Early VisitorsClick thumbnail to view full-size
More Recent Devlopments
The next notable historical point for the site came in 1838, when French antiquarian, explorer, and cartographer Jean Frederic Waldeck published a detailed account of the ruins.
In the 1840s, English artist and architect Frederick Catherwood and American explorer, writer, and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens made a couple of extended visits to Uxmal. Catherwood supposedly took a great number of plans and drawings of the ancient city hoping to someday reconstruct it, but most of them have since been lost.
In 1860, Uxmal enjoyed its first proper photo shoot courtesy of French traveller and archaeologist Desire Charnay.
In 1863, Empress Carlota of Mexico visited the site. One particularly hilarious detail of this event is that, in anticipation of this distinguished (and delicate, Victorian, feminine) guest, the local authorities had a bunch of statues and architectural features depicting phallic themes removed.
Queen Elizabeth Visits Uxmal
Uxmal got another royal visit in 1975 when Queen Elizabeth II stopped by to inaugurate a fancy sound and light show.
A funny detail about this visit is that, at the moment the sound system played a Mayan prayer to Chaac, the clouds ripped open and dumped a terrible downpour of rain (despite the fact that this event took place in the middle of the dry season), soaking all of the important visiting dignitaries (which included a descendant of the Xiu family).
That mischievous Chaac!
Architecture & Buildings
One of Uxmal’s distinguishing characteristics is its beautiful examples of Puuc-style architecture (named for the hills in which the city was located). In addition to being visually interesting, this architecture is a bit more sturdy than that of other areas, which means that Uxmal was in much better condition than some of its neighbors when people arrived to restore it. The benefit here is that, unlike with other sites, you can actually get a pretty accurate idea of what the buildings actually looked like in their original state.
The most striking ruin on the site is known (depending on who you ask) as the Pyramid of the Dwarf, the Pyramid of the Magician, and the Adivino. This pyramid is somewhat different from other large Mayan pyramids in that it is more oval in shape (whereas most are rectilinear). The western staircase of the Adivino is located in such a way that it lines up with the sunrise on Summer Solstice.
So why is the Adivino known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf / Magician? Ancient Maya folklore has it that the Drawf of Uxmal built the pyramid overnight during a series of challenges issued by Uxmal’s king. This challenge was just one of several in an ongoing struggle between the king’s strength and the power of magic, which was orchestrated by the dwarf’s witch mother. Out there? Absolutely. Cool? You betcha!
There are several quadrangles in Uxmal, the most famous of which is known as The Nunnery Quadrangle (it totally wasn’t a nunnery... those crazy Spanish!) which acted as a governmental palace. A long low building on the site, known as the Governor’s Palace, is famous for having one of the longest pre-Columbian facades in Mesiamerica.
Uxmal also houses a ballcourt, as well as impressive temples and monuments including the South Temple, North Long Building, Grand Pyramid, House of the Doves, House of the Birds, and House of the Turles (very creative, guys).
Uxmal is approximately 78 kilometers south of the city of Merida (about an hour and fifteen minute drive).
If you’re anywhere close to the ruin site, I highly recommend stopping by!