Monday, 30 September 2013

Preview: Palenque

In 1822, a catchily-titled volume was published. "Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City Discovered near Palenque in the Kingdom of Guatemala, in Spanish America" might be a name that publishers today would baulk at, but back in the 19th Century it was a big hit. Translated from Spanish and Italian sources, as the name succinctly suggests it contained reports on a ruined city in the then-Guatemalan (now modern-day Mexican) jungle. Significantly, it had pictures, depictions of the art and sculpture found there. Although investigations had been done into the site before - the Spanish had first chanced upon it fifty years earlier - this was the first time it had received popular attention. Initially, people thought it must be ancient Roman settlements, or the descendents of a lost tribe of Israel; they couldn't get their heads round that it was an entirely different, unknown, civilisation. But as interest continued, further investigation and exploration made, and more books published, it became apparent that this was very much part of a native civilisation - the Maya. And the city of Palenque was just one of many that had flourished about a thousand years earlier.


The name of Palenque, which soon became adopted by the site, comes from the nearby colonial town of Santo Domingo de Palenque. The word "palenque" itself means a stockade, that is a wall of poles marking off an area, like a fence. It's got nothing to do with the ancient Maya city, but in lieu of the real name - the vanished people never bothered to put up signposts - it would have to do. It was only in the later 20th Century, upon deciphering various texts, that the real name was discovered - Lakamha, which means "Great Water", a far more appropriate name given the numerous natural springs in the hillside. But just as we know Farroka Bulsara as Freddy Mercury, or Calvin Broadus Jr as Snoop Dogg (or, indeed, Snoop Lion), Lamakha is commonly known as Palenque, whether it likes it or not.

Unlike some other famous civilisations such as the Romans or Egyptian, the Maya civilisation was not one cohesive entity. Rather, it was a whole series of city-states spread over space and time, almost like a microcosm of Europe, or perhaps the many kingdoms and republics of pre-19th Century Germany or Italy is closer to the mark. From the vantage point of today it's apparent the similarities were more common than the differences - a shared religion, calendar, alphabet, and basic cultural identity and architectural styles. But no doubt, in the midst of 1st millennial Central America, it was the differences that were pronounced. Hence although there were alliances between states, there were also many frequent wars. And so although there was an overarching single Maya civilisation, it was one broken into many different pieces.

Palenque was never a superpower. It was never as large as rivals such Tikal and Calakmul, or later Maya powers such as Chichen Itza, but it nonetheless had influence. It's not remembered for being the biggest, but it is widely considered as being the most beautiful. Situated in a rainforest, at the foot of a chain of low hills, overlooking a vast forested plain, it has a spectacular setting. A ready supply of good quality limestone meant that the area had perfect material for large scale but intricately detailed architecture, and Palenque developed its own distinctive style within the Maya traditions. Unlike some Maya centres, it is fairly compact - the urban core measures only 0.8 square miles (a little smaller than Central Park in New York), but it was densely occupied, with around 1500 structures and over 30 major building complexes.






We see above a general view of the centre, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace, the ball court, and the Temple of the Sun. There's plenty more.

Palenque represents a major archaeological challenge to figure out exactly what went on there. Various texts, mostly on-site inscriptions, give us loads of details about mythology and royal reigns, and archaeology is now trying to figure out how true it all is. It's a bit like trying to figure out the history of Britain over the last century based only on assorted copies of the Daily Mail - you have to filter through a lot of crap to get the actual facts. Inscriptions are usually more focussed on glorifying each king and his reign, and making parallels with the gods. By and large, though, the texts and the archaeology roughly line up. Although the first settlers to the area were in around 500BC, it was only around 400AD that things began to get a little more developed. Recorded rule seems to have begun with a gentleman called K'uk' Balam in 431 and seems to have ended, with some vagueness, on or soon after 799. So, a kingdom that lasted around 400 years. However, the grand ruins we see now are mostly due to one man.

That was Palenque's greatest king, K'inich Janaab' Pakal, roughly meaning "Radiant/Sun Shield", who reigned 615 to 683. Under him, Palenque becamer a major local power, expanding its authority with numerous military successes. Significantly, the Palenque we know was built by him. The palace was done by him and his architects in just a decade to become the heart of the city, and most of the rest of Palenque's momumental buildings were either built under him, were extensions of existing structures, or kickstarted for his successors to complete. It is no exaggeration to say that Palenque is Pakal's city - without him, it would not be a notable addition to the Maya repertoire.


As a person, we know almost nothing about him, although we can assume he was ambitious, intelligent, and probably fairly tyrannical. But remarkably, in 1952, his body was discovered, in perhaps one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. In June of 1948, an archaeologist called Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was poking about the Temple of Inscriptions, the largest pyramid-temple in Palenque and so called due to the huge number of carved hieroglyphs on panels at the top. On the floor, he discovered that a stone slab moved. Underneath was a stairway. It took four archaeological seasons of work (that is, a period of four years) to clear the vast amount of rubble, and thus made the moment less dramatic for the move tie-in, but at the bottom, and below the ground, was a chamber with five human sacrifices. And behind a slab in that chamber was a great funerary crypt. The skeleton of a Maya king lay there, with a jade mask, and all kinds of riches, that all inscriptions indicate was Pakal himself. Probably the crypt and the pyramid-temple were built during his lifetime, and thus the Temple of the Inscriptions had the same function as the Egyptian pyramids: as a royal tomb.


Pakal ruled for almost 70 years, bringing glory to Palenque. It was the city's peak. After him, it was just a playing out of his legacy. Monumental construction stopped soon after Pakal's time. Decline set in, not just with Palenque but across the entire Maya world. The inscriptions don't record what went wrong - they preferred good news - but they soon stop recording anything at all. Research has had to figure it out instead, and there is no conclusive answer. Probably, it was a combination of factors, like being kicked in the stomach, punched in the face, and kneecapped at the same time. There are signs of environmental problems, possibly as a result of over-population: deforestation, soil erosion, reduced rain, and drought. This put a great strain on society, and there is evidence of burning and looting. Likely, it wasn't as dramatic as that, and there wasn't one great moment of apocalypse, but by the 9th Century society was plunging downhill, and the bonds of civilisation weren't strong enough to keep it together. Palenque became abandoned, and returned to the jungle.


These days, around 300,000 people visit Palenque each year - around 40 times its peak population in 750.
finish off. Over half the visitors are Mexican, and many are likely descendants of the people of Palenque.
It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and work continues there to uncover what the jungle has been hiding for centuries. The core, which is the focal point for visitors, has mostly been cleaned up and restored, but there's still a lot out there waiting to be discovered.

Palenque's obvious comparisons are the other Maya cities, two of which are on my list: Tikal and Chichen Itza. Without having visited them, it's difficult to guess which will impress me the most. Palenque may not have been the powerhouse that the other two were, but its architecture is distinct and attractive, and large, with what appears a breathtaking backdrop of jungle and hills. I reckon it's got a good shot at figuring pretty high up my list.

I'll be visiting Palenque some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

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