Early morning on day 7 we hopped on our bus and traveled through the Puuc Hills to visit the ancient Mayan site of Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-Mahl), in the state of Yucatan, dating back to 600 AD. Many believe that its name means “thrice built city” as there is evidence that the Maya built temples over existing structures. Uxmal has some of the most authentic examples of regional Puuc-style architecture, matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty.
Estimates are that 25,000 Mayans inhabited the area between 600 – 900 AD, when it was abandoned for unknown reasons.
The Sorceror’s Pyramid (or Magician’s Pyramid) is an elliptical structure, unlike most others that are rectangular in shape. What one sees is the last of five pyramids, built on top of each other, each larger than the last. It stands 117 feet tall, which gives it a commanding presence at Uxmal. Mayan legend has it that this pyramid was built overnight by a dwarf, hatched from an egg and raised by a witch, so many refer to this building as the Pyramid of the Dwarf also.
This pyramid has 92 steps on one side and 120 steps on another. Legend has it that human sacrifices occurred at the highest portion of the temple. With the victim still alive, the priest would carve the heart out of his chest and throw the body down the steep steps.
Puuc architecture has many notable features, typically a plain lower section with a highly adorned top section. Carvings found on the top of the structure most often include latticework, serpents, and masks of the god Chac, the god of rain. A giant Chac mask marks the entrance to the Sorceror’s Pyramid , with the door being his mouth.
Chac was greatly revered by the Uxmal Mayans due to lack of natural water supplies in the city. Quite often the Maya used cenotes (sinkholes) to access underground water, as the Yucatan has few surface rivers. Uxmal had no cenotes so it was necessary to collect water in cisterns, built into the ground.
The Nunnery Quadrangle is a set of four buildings around a central courtyard. It was named Casa de las Monjas (The Nunnery) by the Spanish as the 74 small rooms within this complex reminded them of a Spanish convent. Ceremonies were most likely held in this large open area.
One of the buildings within this quadrangle depicted a plumed serpent on the top section, with feathers on his tail and his body woven around the latticework. A corner of another building was adorned with stacked faces of the rain god Chac.
The Palace of the Governor is regarded by many as one of the best examples of Puuc architecture in existence today. It was the final building constructed at Uxmal and was probably the administrative center within the city. It actually is comprised of three buildings, connected together. Its grand staircase consists of 52 steps, which is a significant number in Maya mythology. This structure was very difficult to build due to the platform on which it sits.
The House of the Turtles, next to the Palace of the Governor, was named for the molding of turtles carved around its cornice. The turtle was closely associated with water, which was sacred to the Maya.
Virtually all Mayan cities contained a ball court and Uxmal is no exception. Two vertical walls within the ball court, opposite to one another, each reflected a large stone ring in the middle of the wall. The object of the game was to propel a hard, very heavy, rubber ball through the ring. This game was played somewhat like soccer, in that one could not use their hands. The ball could not be kicked either, but must be moved by way of the forearms, waist, or legs. The game held deep religious significance for the Maya and was played with seven priests on each side. When the ball was projected through the hoop, the priest responsible for this was offered up to the rain god Chac.
Although we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Uxmal, it was a warm, humid day, so we were pleased to move on to a leisurely lunch on the grounds.
From here we headed to the beautiful city of Merida.