The Mayan ruins of Palenque, home to the tomb of Pakal the Great (Pacal the Great), sitting in the jungles of southern Mexico’s Chiapas state are a fantastic destination. These ruins on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula have been luring explorers, tomb raiders and archaeologists since the 1770’s.
In the late 1800’s Alfred Maudsley made several trips to Mexico and Guatemala to do archaeological work at a number of Mayan sites. I have posted 3 photos that were taken on his expedition in 1890 and matched them with photos I have taken in the last year from similar viewpoints.
The first known report of Palenque’s discovery was by the Spanish explorer Ramon de Ordonez y Aguilar in 1773. It wasn’t until 1952 that a Mexican archaeologist named Alberto Ruz Lhulllier realized why there were holes in floor of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Up until that point no one had figured out that the holes were actually a way to access a door that had remained secret for almost 1500 years.
This door led to a tunnel and stairway that descended into the bottom of the temple. It ended at a chamber where the sarcophagus of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Pacal) was resting. Known as Pakal II, his tomb was undisturbed. He had ruled Palenque for 68 years and died in the year 683 AD. Inside his sarcophagus he was found with a jade death mask and jade jewelry. He was holding a cube in one hand and a sphere in the other. The reason why he was holding a cube and sphere fascinates me. The best explanation I have heard is that when those 2 forms are combined they help create the Divine Proportion or Golden Ratio. A ratio which is found in nature and used not only in Mayan, Greek and Roman architecture, but also in Davinci’s art.
Many of the largest Mayan temples are made up of a number of temples built one on top of the other over hundreds of years. The lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus weighs 7 tons. The dimensions of the stairway and passage in the Temple of the Inscriptions indicate that it could not have fit through. This makes the temple of the Inscriptions quite unique, it means the temple was built around the sarcophagus, specifically as the final resting place of Lord Pakal.
The Palenque archaeological park is large with a variety of temple complexes in various stages of excavation and repair. You can easily see it and the parks museum all in one day if you start early. Two days if you like to look, sit, ponder and take your time. Much of the site is still under active excavation or conservation and is off limits to visitors. In its day, Palenque was a huge metropolis extending out in many directions and built over centuries.
I found an interesting chart showing how Mayan linguistics had evolved over the last 3000 years. The Chol Maya group lives in the area around Palenque now and apparently did 1500 years ago. Based on the chart, the language spoken at Palenque in its heyday was also Chol. For some reason I think it’s cool that the people who lived there in Pakal’s time would be able to speak to their descendants who are still living there today. Indigenous languages are disappearing around the world, I love that so many Mayan dialects are still in use and existence, though they are all under stress from an ever homogenizing world.
At the entrance to the site there are a large variety of vendors selling everything from straw hats to traditional tamales. If you don’t already carry a water bottle with you, you should get one before going into the park. I think allowing local vendors to sell their wares at the parks entrance is a very good thing. Spreading the tourist dollars into the local communities is important. I was saddened to see they allow vendors to sell their wares inside the site. Instead of being able to take in the amazing ancient ruins in relative peace, my wonder was disturbed repeatedly by people selling the same junk available from every vendor between Mexico City and Lake Atitlan. Tacky tourist junk and sacred Mayan temples do not mix well in my book. No, I do not want a coconut carved to resemble Pakal’s head!
The museum at Palenque is a very good one, don’t visit the ruins without stopping to check it out. Inside the museum they have one air conditioned room, it holds the sarcophagus from Pacal’s tomb, well actually just a reproduction of it.
When we were there they would open the room every half hour or so and allow only a small number of people inside, as if it was some big special deal. Most of the people with us believed that it was actually Pakal’s sarcophagus, which the staff did nothing to discourage. The real one is still safely at the bottom of the Temple of the Inscriptions.
Up until about 2004 it was possible to descend the stairs and see Pakal’s tomb, but due to deterioration caused by too many visitors, it has been closed to the public. I never got to see the real thing. If they ever open back up to the public I will be as close to first in line as possible. If anyone out there reading this has any kind of special access to anything at Palenque (or any archaeological site), I will gladly donate my photographic skills in exchange for accompanying you.
When visiting Palenque there is more to do than just visiting the ruins, there are waterfalls and day hikes worth checking out as well, but those are for another post.