As Mayan ruins go – and there are many in Mexico, and I've visited more than…
Although only a few hours apart and constructed at around the same time, the ruins of Palenque are very different from those at Tikal. Both sites are awesome in their own way. Both are huge. Both boast of beautiful, mighty temples. Both are set in a lush jungle. But both served rather different functions. Whereas Tikal was one of the most important urban Mayan centres, Palenque was a massive cemetery, with most of the temples used as ceremonial burial chambers. Jose, the guide, escorted us through the main buildings including the:
Temple of the Skull: named after the stucco relief of a skull, thought to be a rabbit skull, on the front of it.
Temple XIII: where in 1994 the remains of the Reina Roja (Red Queen) were found. The bones are thought to have belonged to a 40-year-old woman, and had been preserved in red cinnabar. Although the bones have now been removed [booo], we were allowed to visit the sarcophagus in the inside the temple and could see the red pigment still in it.
Temple of the Inscriptions: a 26 meter high pyramid with 9 levels, so-named because of the inscriptions discovered inside its walls. In the 1950s a Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz Lhuiller, was exploring the deep bowels of the temple, removed a stone stab in the floor of a back room and discovered a big old tomb. It turned out to be that of King Pakal, one of the most important Mayan rulers. He ruled from 615AD- 683AD, and lived to the ripe old age of 80, which was positively ancient in those times when most people died by the age of 40.
Apparently he was really tall as well, unlike most Maya who are super tiny [exhibit A–all of the pyramids they constructed…have you seen those steps?]. Some historians debated whether he was actually Maya at all, or perhaps came from Europe or somewhere like that, although most now agree that he was probably just big because he got to eat all the best food. [It is good to be king]
He’s still in his mausoleum in the temple, although unfortunately tourists aren’t allowed to go inside the temple anymore as people have in the past taken it a bit too literally and graffiti-ed it. There is however a replica of the tomb in the site museum which we later visited, and were also shown a video with some footage of the sarcophagus as Lhuiller discovered it – all covered in centuries stalactites and stalagmites. Just seeing the pyramids from the outside is awesome, it must have been absolutely mind-blowing to find all that stuff inside.
Grand Palace: unlike the others, people weren’t buried in this one. Instead it was an administrative and residential block. It’s an intricate maze of courtyards and corridors leading into rooms with some old beds and some old Maya toilets. The tower on the top is thought to have been used for astronomy, although the very top part of it was reconstructed in 1930 according to how a French archaeologist thought it would have looked, but now they reckon it probably wouldn’t have looked like that after all, but just been flat. Oops. [those French]
Cross group: made up of the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross, a set of tall narrow temples with elaborate carvings. One has a cross on the top, although it’s not actually a cross, but supposed to represent the tree of creation. We also walked along a jungle trail where Jose pointed out various different types of tree (cedar, mahogany, sapodilla, avocado, mango and almond), we got to swing on vines Tarzan-style, and also saw several examples of un-excavated ruins. The city was so huge that they reckon only about 5% of the structures have actually been uncovered. Jose pointed out a huge mound behind the Cross group of temples that is in fact another temple, which must have dwarfed all the others. There are no plans to uncover it at the moment though as the jungle it is buried under is so rich in wildlife that a lot of poor spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas, jaguars, toucans, parrots and other birds would be made homeless if they cut it down. So we’ll just have to make do with the 5%, which is plenty impressive as it is.