Friday, 19 September 2014

64. Wonder: Palenque

(For the Palenque preview, please click here.)

From the modern day Mexican town of Palenque to the ancient Maya ruins of the same name, it costs 20 Mexican pesos (about £1) to hop onto a shared minibus, or colectivo. I'm almost certain that the locals get it for 10 pesos, but I have neither the will nor the haggling skills to get this price. The sporadically bumpy journey takes around ten or fifteen minutes, passing a mixed bag of roadside hotels on the way, and finishes with a few sharp uphill twists. A woman sits enclosed in a wooden ticket booth, with just a small low hatch on the counter open for communication; a bargain 57 pesos later, ticket in hand, and I'm in, into the 1300-year-old-plus archaeological site of Palenque. This is the first thing I see.

This is the first thing most people arriving at Palenque will see, and they never realise its significance. I didn't either, upon first arrival. This is Temple XI and it represents up to a whopping 98% of Palenque. In the thick surrounding forest, amidst the gangs of howler monkeys and darting lizards, there are countless overgrown mounds and countless secrets, patiently waiting to be revealed. Unexcavated, unexplored, sure we might have a rough idea at what's there, but until we've given it a thorough archaeological poke, it remains a mystery. These aren't merely collections of old, small dwellings, some of them look to be big. And for over a thousand years after they were abandoned, the jungle has grown over and within them, covering them and pulling them apart.

But that's 98%. That means 2% has been uncovered. And it's looking pretty good.

That's the first thing you see upon walking around to the right of Temple XI - three large funerary temples lined up side by side. They are, in order from closest to furthest away: the Temple of the Skull, the Tomb of the Red Queen, and the Temple of the Inscriptions. Pretty cool names - they were coined in modern times, however. We'll come back to them in a little, but walk on a bit, because something bigger is just beyond.

This is what is called the Palace. It is widely thought to be a royal residence, and it is a unique style of construction in the Maya world. But let's not get too excited yet, we're almost finished our rapid fire tour of Palenque. Just look up.

And go up this little path.

And take a closer look at what is called the Temple of the Cross group, featuring the Temples of the Sun, the Cross, and the Foliated Cross.

This isn't all of Palenque, and this isn't even all of the excavated 2%. But this is what makes the big impression. This what makes the ruins of Palenque stand out among the myriad other Maya ruins in the region. This is what draws the crowds to Palenque. Stand on top of the Temple of the Cross and you can see why.

Ok, so a bunch of ruined temples and buildings in the jungle. Let's get a little background story: what's it all about?

Mostly, it's all about a guy called K'inich Janab Pakal. He lived from 603 to 683 AD and was the greatest of all the kings of Palenque. In some ways, he's kind of the father and architect of the Palenque. He didn't build or start it, but he or his sons are behind most of the grand statements we see today: all of Palenque's majesty may be from a single century of inspiration that began with him. The city and kingdom was around long before though. The first people in the area settled there around 500 BC, but things didn't get organised until much later. As a kingdom, its founder appears to have been a chap called K'uk' Balam, born in 397 AD and inaugurated in 431 AD, according to inscriptions. He ruled for four years, and his successor an impressive 52 years, but after that Palenque's history gets a bit murky. Some good times, some bad times, some wars went well and some didn't, but we really don't have much to go on. Just patches of evidence and a sketched out royal lineage. Tantalisingly there is evidence that Teotihuacan may have had an influence, and some people guess that the Maya might have aspired to Teotihuacan in the way Renaissance Europe aspired to Rome. There also appears to have been a female ruler in the 6th Century, though there are no more details as to how this came about. Nothing is terribly clear.

It all snaps back into focus by the very end of the 6th Century. Palenque had been having a slow-burning war with a rival city state called Calakmul, who were fellow Maya. Although the Maya were a civilisation, they were never a united one; rather, they were fragmented into many pieces, invariably at war or making alliances with each other. Calakmul had gained the upper hand against Palenque, forcing Palenque to bow down to it, and it was against this background that K'inich Janab Pakal was born.

Pakal assumed the throne in 615 AD, aged just 12. Just the year before, Calakmul had dealt another big defeat upon Palenque, and it is thought this may have been the cause of the youthful Pakal's unexpected coronation. Pakal's father wasn't a king, and so one theory goes that Calakmul wiped out all of Palenque's royal family, and Pakal was the next best thing. Another suggests that Calakmul installed him as a puppet king. If so, it was a disastrous appointment. Because this puppet king had a very influential mother, who helped bring power and prestige back to Palenque. Pakal watched and learned from his mother, and continued in her wake. Whether he admired his mother or regarded her as an overbearing pain in the ass, we'll never know - nothing personal about the people of Palenque is known. We only have the official records. And those make it clear that Palenque during Pakal's 68 year reign became a force again, becoming more glorious than ever before. In this manner, Pakal reminds me of the more famous example of Tuthmosis III, one of ancient Egypt's greatest pharaohs, whose early reign was considerably aided by his mother (and who then petulantly tried to erase her name from everything to get all the glory for himself). Never underestimate the power of a determined mother.

Under Pakal's rule, Palenque went back to war, with whoever was around, and generally won. Pakal was not hesitant to record these glorious victories. The city's influence expanded. It became wealthy. Almost all Palenque's greatest structures were built during his reign, or immediately following. He was a late starter though - his first temple didn't appear until he was 44.

The construction of the palace followed, and was his most significant work. It existed in some form before, but he enlarged it. A lot. The version we see today measures about 91 metres long by 73 metres wide, and is set atop a 10-metre platform. This itself is set on land that had to be deforested and levelled, to create a large terrace that neighbouring temples were later built upon. It appears to have taken around a decade, and is the heart of Palenque, and the beginning of the city we celebrate today.



The Palace is a complicated series of rooms and galleries, roughly arranged around what appear to be four courtyards, and with a square four-storey tower just off-centre. The tower is a curious one as it's not at all typical in the Maya repertoire. Although it would have been decorated, it's unlikely to have been merely decorative, but the function can only be guessed at. Generally, it's considered to have been either an observatory or a watch-tower. Once, it would have been covered in plaster and painted, but this layer is long gone. Likewise, with the rest of the palace. Centuries of being exposed to the hot and humid atmosphere of southern Mexico has wiped away the bright colours and stucco sculpture that would have adorned the walls. Even in its day, it would have been a full time job maintaining it. Instead, we have an intriguing network of ruins, stripped back to the limestone building blocks, which are rather fun to explore, and include dark indoor chambers and corridors, with a few flustered bats. Occasionally, remnants of sculpture or smudges of colour attempt to remind you that the Palace, and Palenque as a whole, would have been a riot of details and images.

Roughly perpendicular to the Palace is the trio of funerary temples that are the evocatively-named Temple of the Skull, the Tomb of the Red Queen, and the Temple of the Inscriptions. Names like these would have no trouble slipping into an Indiana Jones film, and I thoroughly encourage archaeologists to follow their example. The Temple of the Skull, also called the Temple of the Rabbit Skull or, more prosaically, Temple XII, isn't anything fancy by Palenque standards, it's just a good old terraced pyramid with steps and a stone structure on top. It was built over an earlier, smaller  temple, and dates from a little after Pakal's time, possibly by his successor and son, K'inich Kan B'alam II, who continued his father's enthusiasm for construction. No actual tomb has been found, and the temple's name derives from the carved stucco rabbit skull that has somehow survived the ages and can be seen near the top. It's a little creepy.

Next to that is Temple XIII, commonly called the Tomb of the Red Queen. It's not a notable structure in itself, but has gained its cool name because in 1994 a tomb was discovered, containing the bones of a lady in her 40s, all covered in a bright red powder. The "queen's" identity is uncertain, but either Pakal's mother or his wife would seem to be a sensible guess.

The Tomb of the Red Queen is sandwiched between the Temple of the Skull and Palenque's most famous construction, the Temple of the Inscriptions. The three are physically connected, a continuous stone terrace. The Tomb of the Red Queen was for Pakal's wife or mother, but only possibly. The Temple of the Skull was for his son, but again, only possibly. The Temple of the Inscriptions, however, was for Pakal himself, and this is certain. We know this because we've found his body.

The Temple of Inscriptions is Palenque's defining structure. Just over 27 metres high, and 60 metres wide, construction was started at the very end of Pakal's life and reign. Unusually for such temples, it wasn't built over an existing one, it was built in a single stage, fairly quickly. That was because it had a specific function - Pakal's burial temple. Pakal died aged 80, and his body was placed inside a large stone sarcophagus, which was placed inside a tomb. Five people were sacrificed, to follow him into the underworld. The temple was then built around it all, right next to the Palace.

The name comes from the huge number of inscriptions found on three large stone tablets on the interior walls of the temple structure at the top of the terraced pyramid. These are in good condition, and provide a wealth of detail about Pakal, Palenque's royal lineage, and all kinds of symbolism that must have seemed important at the time. They were all completed during Pakal's lifetime, except for the final parts, which mention his son succeeding him and being a kind of caretaker for the temple's inauguration (some years after Pakal's death). Initially, for explorers and archaeologists, that's all the Temple of Inscriptions was - an interesting temple with some good quality inscriptions up top, but in 1952, a Mexican archaeologist called Albert Ruz Lhullier discovered a little more. Shifting a stone slab from the temple floor, he discovered a stairway leading down. It led to Pakal's tomb, with his intricately-carved sarcophagus, and filled with jewels, shells, and other offerings. It has been called the greatest archaeological discovery ever in the Americas - the intact tomb of the greatest leader of Palenque. Since 2004, the real thing has been closed to visitors, forever, as the constant stream of tourists and the outside humidity brought in with them was damaging the tomb; however, an exact replica of the sarcophagus can be visited in the site museum.

The discovery of Pakal and his tomb demonstrated that the Temple of the Inscriptions shared a similar function to the likes of the Egyptian pyramids, as a funerary temple. Palenque's pyramids weren't just platforms, some of them at least were tombs. This is something the 1994 discovery of the Red Queen corroborates, as well as other discoveries. And in a final twist, the body of Albert Ruz Lhullier, who died in 1979, was also bured in Palenque, being given special permission by authorities to join the ranks of the Palenque nobility he'd helped discover..

Although Pakal kickstarted the whole big-time Palenque mania for construction, it's fair to say his son continued it with aplomb. Aside from completing the Temple of the Inscriptions, K'inich Kan B'alam II was responsible for the construction of some other of Palenque's most significant buildings: the Temple of the Cross Group. His fingerprints are all over them, and given that in images he is portrayed has having six fingers on one hand, as well as six toes on a foot, these are pretty distinct fingerprints. Occasionally, the Temple of the Cross group seems a little overlooked by the greater fame of the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions, but I think they add immeasurably to the appeal of the whole site. Positioned on a plateau just behind and above the Palace, the complex comprises of a main trio of temples based around a small plaza (plus a couple of smaller temples standing by the side, trying not to get in the way). They are the Temple of the Cross, the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. The first two of these are misnomers, based on the tablets found in each that seemed to depict a cross and a foliated (i.e. kind of leafy) cross; in fact, they depict the Maya Tree of Life, a symbolic tree with the roots connecting the underworld to the main trunk of the real world to the upper branches of paradise. The Temple of the Sun appears to have a more accurate name, seemingly being dedicated to the Maya sun god.

The temples do not appear to be tombs; instead, they seem to be for worship. Their combined function was a mix of saying how great K'inich Kan B'alam II was, with the various inscriptions connecting his lineage to the gods, and a bunch of actual and mythological history is thrown in too. They also honoured the three patron gods of the city, called G1, G2, and G3. Well, that's what we call them now, we're not terribly sure of their actual names. The three temples were dedicated on the same day, on the 10th January, 692 AD. Each of them have their own special symbolism, but visiting today the bigger impression is made by their  position, nestled in a clearing on the slope above the Palace, surrounded by trees. The Temple of the Cross - dedicated to G1, the most important god - is the mightiest of the three temples, rivalling the Temple of the Inscriptions for size, and offering wonderful views, of Palenque and of the countryside, stretching out for miles beyond.

In contrast, the Temple of the Foliated Cross reminds me of a little hillside cottage. We actually know the real name and supposed birth date of G2, its patron god: Unen K’awiil, and 8th November, 2360 BC. 


There is the occasional alien-idiot nonsense spouted about Pakal's sarcophagus having an image of a spaceship, with all the wild theories associated. You can guess my view on all this. However, for fans of Out-of-place artefacts, look no further than the Temple of the Sun, dedicated to G3. Very clearly, on the exterior right of the upper temple structure, is a caving of a subway train carriage. It couldn't be clearer! This proves me to me that Palenque had a sophisticated metro system, possibly even interlinking all the other Maya sites around Central America. If I can get the correct funding in place, I would be happy to spend years searching for this, making some appearances on the History Channel if they fancy.

There is a definite style to Palenque: squat, wide, terraced pyramids built from local light-grey limestone, with stone hut-like temple structures on top and a steep stairway leading up to them. Sure, this theme is repeated through the Maya world, but Palenque has its own particular look. Its position perched on the hillside is an attractive one, a scattering of ancient, giant structures amidst the thick tangle of trees, overlooking a vast forested plain. On both days that I visited, most of my attention was focussed on what's been described above, but there's a lot more out there. Many more terraced temples, small Maya ball courts, tombs, and residential buildings. Palenque was a successful and thriving Maya city-state; it was never the biggest, with a population no more than 7500 people in an area smaller than New York' Central Park, but it was developed. Pakal and his sons made their town into something incredible.

I could easily double the size of this review just by describing the remainder of the easily-visited structures, most very close to the core, but I think we get the idea. Or do we? Because look at this map (click on it to get it loads bigger).

The black area to the right is the Palace, with the various temples I've described immediately next to it, also in black. Some of the other notable temples are close by too. Still, that's only covering the very right side of that map. Everything else? That's some of the 98% Loads of other buildings, that have been roughly mapped, but not at all excavated. There are something like 1500 structures in the forest, densely packed, but almost invisible within the vegetation. It's huge. Visiting Palenque these days might take up a leisurely couple of hours, climbing up a few temples and wandering along the charming little forest paths. It's hot and humid as hell, so even this effort gets you pretty sweaty. But there's a lot more sweating to go: decades and beyond of work for archaeologists to get on with. That's if they had the funding, which they don't. Just take the Temple of the Inscriptions. Look at this photo again.

The trees you see behind it? They wouldn't have been there. Instead, there are a series of stone terraces, leading up the hillside to a smaller temple, called simply Temple XXVI. Once, without the trees, the entire hillside would have been a massive temple complex, of which the Temple of the Inscriptions would have been just a small part. From the above map:

And so goes the rest of Palenque. An extraordinary landscaped, limestone-built city with a monumental ceremonial centre, now mostly lost within the forest.

Of course, my Wonder mission isn't judging what once was, or what might be, it's an assessment of what is there today. Palenque, with its palace and its scattered pyramid-temples, is still something special. A Wonder? Well, the most obvious comparison for a lost city in the jungle is way over in a different continent, in Asia, in the form of Angkor. Angkor is several hundred years newer than Palenque, has a very different style, is a lot more spread out, and its sculpture is in considerably better condition, but the sense of amazement and discovery are similar. Huge, ancient ruins by a lost civilisation that reward exploration. These are very special places, and feel even more special when away from the crowds. On the second day, I took a little wander to the set of structures called Group C. Technically, I wasn't really supposed to, because the way was blocked with string, but with no formal notice saying "Do not enter", I took that to be as good as a welcome sign. I wandered along a quiet forest path - modern-day Palenque is full of such paths, and is a pleasure to walk along - and found myself in Group C. Nobody else was around, the birds and the howler monkeys had given up on their morning chirps and groans. Protected by the trees, the air was cooler. Group C was a residential complex, and these days is just a series of broken-down walls, covered in moss and trees. Burials have been found there, as well as the usual bits of pottery, but there's nothing to indicate it was anything special. The ruins don't look particularly special. But away from the vendors and tourists, suddenly I was lost in the forest, and it seemed magical.

A lot changes in a thousand years. Paying 20 pesos for a shared bus to Palenque... the entire concept would have been utterly alien to a Maya citizen, who would have had no concept of money, paved roads, or even the wheel, with the combustion engine being the realm of distant science-fiction (although that wasn't a concept either). Nothing is forever, and the handsome, colourful city of 7th Century Palenque is now a series of ruins, mostly covered by trees; the crowds of tourists clambering over everything removing any element of the sacred. By the 8th Century, a slow decline had set in. This appears to mirror much of Maya civilisation in the region, and was very possibly due to environmental factors. However, with Palenque, it was greatly exacerbated by an ongoing war with another neighbour, called Tonina. Tonina might not have had the fancy temples, but it was better at fighting, and began to inflict a series of defeats upon Palenque. Palenque's influence declined, and the last record we have of Palenque as any kind of force dates from 799 AD, from a pottery vessel. The rest of the Maya from this era - termed the Classic period - followed suit the next century. Tonina, Calakmul, Tikal, and many others, were abandoned. The forest took over. It took over a thousand years for the buildings to be rediscovered.

It's true that there are rather a lot of ancient ruins out there around the world, and so the very best need to have something special in order to stand out. Does Palenque have something special? The terraced temples are striking and attractive, with the Temple of the Cross group appealing to me the most. The Palace isn't so pretty, but is like a visual puzzle, with its courtyards, its tower, its underground passages, and irregular format. Palenque's centre is a grand one. It was intended to impress 1300 years ago, and it continues to do so today. Lest I make it sound as though the Palace and the surrounding temples are the only impressive feature of Palenque, it has many other excavated and restored pyramid temples in the vicinity, and surely many others still hidden. The rest - the ruined residential compounds, the mounds in the forests, the jumbles of rubble that were once coherent structures - add together to give Palenque an extra depth and dimension for the visitor. Palenque is an ensemble Wonder, made great not by one building but by many. It doesn't quite have the shock and awe of the world's largest, most imposing structures, but it very much has the sense of exploration and mystery that the world's great lost cities and civilisations possess.Yes, it has something special.

But, as my mission demands, is it among the very greatest? No, not quite. Not yet. It might sound odd to say, writing in 2014, but too much remains lost. Palenque is great today but promises a lot more, still hidden. I look forward to returning decades from now to reassess.

Some criteria then.

Size: The Palace is the closest to being considered massive, at about 91 metres by 73 metres, with the Temple of Inscriptions being the tallest, at 27 metres, which is big but hardly gigantic. But Palenque isn't about a single dominant building, it's a small city's worth of buildings, with the ceremonial centre being jam-packed full of hefty temples.
Engineering: These are mostly solid, limestone structures, with the exception of the Palace built in a fairly traditional Maya style. Not pioneering, but impressive feats of manpower in a world without the wheel and fairly basic technology.
Artistry: All the delicate touches have been long destroyed by time and nature, but the temples remain handsome edifices.
Age: 1300 years old, mostly. While Europe was doing nothing at all, the Maya were building complex cities.
Fame/Iconicity: It's definitely one of the premier Maya attractions, though in terms of fame Palenque is far behind the world class attraxtion of Chichen Itza. 
Context: On the slope of a hill, amidst the trees, overlooking a vast forested plain, Palenque is gorgeously situated, and an archteypical lost city.
Back Story: As a lost city, Palenque has the fortune of two back stories: its actual history, and its rediscovery. Both tie in nicely, as continued archaeology - including the occasional big moment like uncovering Pakal's tomb - reveals more and more about the fortunes of the city-state and its rulers.
Originality/Distinctiveness: It's distinctly Maya. A bit like old Roman cities - full of similar styles of buildings and motifs, but hardly clones. The Palace is unique to Palenque. 
Wow Factor: It's a grand introduction walking around the mound that is Temple XI to see the trio of funerary temples and the Palace, but for me the wow moment is really reserved for climbing up the Temple of the Cross and getting the view across central Palenque amidst the forest, with the landscape stretching below and far beyond.

I love an ancient city, and it's no surprise they often figure high up on my list. Vast, empty, and oozing with mystery, they are compelling statements about the many different ways humanity is able to organise itself. Around the world, throughout history, the huge efforts that go into constructing religious monuments and tombs is spectacular. It would be a jaded figure indeed not to be impressed with Palenque's efforts. As a Wonder, it's easiest to compare it to other ruined cities and civilisations, and no, it doesn't have the sensational grandeur of the mightiest, such as Machu Picchu or Teotihuacan. Looking down the list, Angkor Wat and Bagan also have a little more to them, overall. Still, that places it comfortably in my Other Wonders category, as Palenque is an astonishing Maya statement. With Tikal and Chichen Itza still to view, will it be the most impressive? We'll see. For now, Palenque, the first Maya ruins I've visited, fits snugly between the strange beauty of Borobudur and above the more regular majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Teotihuacan
6. Mont Saint-Michel
7. The Colosseum
Other Wonders
The Eiffel Tower
Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Thiepval Memorial (I'm still troubling over this one)
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom


  1. "And for over a thousand years after they were abandoned, the jungle has grown over and within them, covering them and pulling them apart."

    I really think they should deforest the area (it's not like we humans aren't good at cutting down swathes of forest, sadly). They needn't jump the gun and rush into archaeological digs throughout the rest of the 98%, but getting rid of the trees would prevent the slow ongoing damage to whatever masonry is still there.

    "the temple's name derives from the carved stucco rabbit skull "

    I find that very bizarre. Representations of human skulls are very common throughout many human civilisations, as are representations of (live) animals; but animal skulls? An (admittedly cursory) search on the internet doesn't yield much info other than a "defleshed rabbit" is the symbol of Palenque, but nothing as to why. Obviously the fact that it's a rabbit skull and not a rabbit head is of significance, but why?

    "This proves me to me that Palenque had a sophisticated metro system"

    It is my theory that this is what led to the decline of their civilisation. They obviously spent a fortune on building a metro system, only for it to be a dismal failure when they realised at the end of it that they had yet to invent the wheel. You can see from the carving that they had a decent stab at it, but elongated ovals are not the best shape for wheels (so I am told by a friend of mine who is an engineer specialised in wheel technology, paticularly in reference to their optimum shape).

    1. That's a wonderfully controversial, yet kind of sensible, view. As there's some kind of forestry commission at Palenque (you need to pay them about a pound to enter the forest area), plus loads of animals living there, I can't imagine they'd ever do such a thing. Very slowly, mound by mound, is the way they'll go. It would utterly transform the vision of Palenque without the trees, I can barely wrap my mind around it.

      I would suggest claiming there was oil there, but that would probably get rid of the ruins as well as the trees in extra fast time.

      With regards to the rabbit skull, what I've learned about people from the past is that they were usually pretty mental and it's best not to question their thinking. Also, there are apparently lots of magic mushrooms growing in the area, so they'd have been off their faces most of the time.

      In Cappadocia in Turkey, there are a lot of mysterious underground cities and tunnels. Now, I'm not saying they are necessarily linked to Palenque and an ancient global metro system - but I'm yet to see anybody prove otherwise.


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