Uxmal of the Puuc Hills: In the Yucatan

It's a magnificent site to see by day or night, nestled into the dense Yucatan countryside and surrounded by the sounds of the wild . It is an ancient city of legend and mystery, a Maya stronghold where life once flourished in a sea of green, where Kings consulted the stars for divine guidance and proud warriors fought for prominence in a land full of challenge and pitfall.


Uxmal was the greatest religious center in the Puuc hills of Yucatan during the late Classical period, flourishing between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D., a center of influence in the Yucatan, and a city of mystery.


Uxmal roughly translated means 'thrice built', and careful examination of the site reveals a number of building styles that developed over the course of her history. A few archaeologists suspect Uxmal may have been built on a site more ancient than the classic-period city, a remnant of of an earlier form of Maya civilization that slowly and methodical grew to prominence over several centuries.

UXMAL: Once a religeous and spiritual center of the Yucatec Maya

The city was abandoned in the 10th century after apparently coming under Toltec influence, the conquering tribe that claimed nearby Chichen Itza as their central home in the Yucatan. But legend has it that the city was largely expanded and became a more notable Maya site because of a twisted turn of unexpected events.


Central to the ruin site is the great Pyramid of the Magician, an interesting structure that carries with it a more interesting tale. Legend has it that a new king would come to rule the city when a magical "gong" was sounded in the nearby jungle. One day such a sound was heard in the surrounding hills and a dwarf magician-god named Itzamna appeared in the central city. The City-King, not ready to give up the realm to a stranger, ordered the young "God" executed, but unrest among the villagers (nearly 25,000 of them) forced the king to issue the dwarf-boy a challenge. The king agreed the boy could live and become king if he could construct a grand pyramid overnight.


Confident he had saved his rulership and kingdom, the Maya lord slept soundly through the night, only to rise the next morning to witness the appearance of a huge pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, which the boy apparently had built with magic in a single night.


The boy became the king of the city-state, and legend has it that a period of great prosperity followed. An expansive building campaign furthered the size and status of the city, and Uxmal quickly gained a place in Maya history as one of its more magnificent cities.


Visiting Uxmal today can be a bit confusing for the student of Maya history. For one, the names of the structures are anything but Mayan in origin. The names currently used for many of the structures were coined by the conquering Spanish and are neither indigenous nor do they indicate the actual functions of the buildings.


An example is the Nunnery so named for its similarity to the convents of the Spaniards. This structure was actually used as a school for the training of healers, astronomers, mathematicians, shamans and priests.


The Pyramid of the Magician, at 100 feet the tallest structure in Uxmal, is more accurately named. From archaeological excavation however, we know that the pyramid was actually constructed in five superimposed phases.


The legendary association of the pyramid with a magician may be understood as an indication that the structure, and indeed the entire sacred part of the Uxmal complex, had ancient and ongoing use as a mystery school and ceremonial center. It is also interesting to note that the entire city is aligned with reference to the position of the planets then known, with Venus predominating, and that the pyramid of the magician is oriented so that its stairway on the west faces the setting sun at the time of summer solstice.


Such celestial orientations are not uncommon in the Mayan world. Most of the great cities are laid out in similar fashion. The constructions of Uxmal are highly decorated with exquisite geometrical mosaics of cut stone that form very ornate patterns. Some very finely carved stelae have also been discovered.


Uxmal was an important city, probably build around 700AD, although inhabitants are thought to have lived in the area as far back as 800 BC - nearly 1,000 years before the city was built. It is a mystery as to why a settlement was ever made here: there are no rivers or local sources of water, and no evidence that they once existed. One of the features of Uxmal are the Mayan chultunes - or cisterns - which held water for the population. Chaac, the rain god, features prominently in much of the architecture's carvings - no doubt an important source of water for these people.


Within a 10 mile radius of Uxmal are four other smaller ancient 'towns,' Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna. Together with Uxmal, these places make up the Ruta Puuc - (Puuc Route) named after the hills in which these ruins lie nestled.


Early scholars once thought that Uxmal, and other peaceful Maya cities in the Puuk region, were destroyed by the inhabitants of Chichén Itzá. Many archeologists question this history now that they have additional evidence supported by the books of the Chilam Balam as well as radiocarbon dating. It is now believed that Uxmal co-existed with these other cities and that they were not warring with each other.


According to these descriptions, the migrations of the Itzá and the Tutul Xiw, (a clan who were the rulers of Uxmal), to northern Yucatan began in the k'atun 8 Ahaw (672-692 AD). A group of the Tutul Xiw led by Ah-Kuy-Tok'-Tutul-Xiw established themselves at Uxmal and reigned from k'atun 2 Ahaw (751 AD) through k'atun 10 Ahaw (928 AD) or for a total or 177 years. Ah-Kuy-Tok' means "He of the Owl Flint". Ah-Kuy also means warrior in to the Telchaquillo dialect of the Yucatan so apparently he was a warrior as well as perhaps a conqueror. Forty years later in k'atun 11 Ahaw (790 AD) the Itzá organized a founding assembly at Ichkantiho, the Classic period name for Tz'ibilchaltun. Among this group were the lords of Mutul (Tikal), Chichén Itzá, Itzamal, a place called Chable and and several other places as yet unidentified.


The chronicle in unclear but states "The Xiw might have been there also". The hieroglyphic step from the Chanchimez group at Uxmal refers to the famous K'ak'upakal of Chichén Itzá, although the context is unclear, the name of a contemporary ruler of Chichén Itzá does appear at Uxmal which, when combined with their apparent membership in a counsel along side Chichén Itzá, does seem to indicate that they were, in fact, allies.


Getting There

Uxmal is about 70 miles south of Merida on highway 261 . Head south out of Merida heading for Umán and from there head south on 261 for about an hour and you will reach the city. There are numerous stops along the way for gas and water and the site is large so it is well marked by signs along the way. The nearest city to Uxmal is Ticul, a good place to stay if you are planning to visit the many other sites located in the same area. Ticul is beautiful and, though rustic, has enough modern charms and reasonable hotels to make for a comfortable stay.

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