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Tue Jul 28, 2020, 02:36 AM

The Maya Ruins at Uxmal Still Have More Stories to Tell

The remains of a provinical capital on the Yucatan Peninsula attest to a people trying to fortify their place in the world

The Pyramid of the Magician stands over 100 feet tall and contains five different temples built in succession. (Elizabeth Landau)

By Elizabeth Landau

JUNE 17, 2020

As the sun sets over the Yucatan jungle, its fading light falls on the western staircase of the Pyramid of the Magician, just as it has for more than a millennium. In pre-Hispanic times, on Maya religious holidays, a priest or ruler might ascend these stairs to pass through the gateway to a holy temple—or, as historian Jeff Kowalski writes in Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya, “a cave portal to a sacred creation mountain.” Watching from the plaza below, the commoners may have seen a leader emerging from this ornate doorway as a manifestation of the planet Venus, or as the sun itself.

More than a four-hour drive from the spring break cliché of Cancun, the Maya ruins of Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mawl) preserve the grandeur of what was. The second-most visited archaeological park in Mexico (before the COVID-19 pandemic), Uxmal was a seat of power in the Puuc region, the low range of hills in the otherwise flat grasslands of the Yucatan. Its ruins contain ornate carvings, friezes and sculptures embedded in the architecture, but at some point in the 10th century, construction on this thriving city stopped, and before the Spanish came, the Maya left.

"At Uxmal the last buildings, such as the Nunnery Quadrangle, and House of the Governor, the House of the Turtles, and the later upper temples of the Pyramid of the Magician, all display a kind of superlative finished cut stonework that, I guess you would say, that is some of the finest architectural sculpture found in the ancient Maya world, particularly sculpture made from cut stone," Kowalski says.

The dates of Uxmal’s eventual abandonment are unknown and controversial, although the Maya likely stayed there longer than in their southern cities, which fell beginning in the 9th century. Kowalski thinks Uxmal was no longer an active political capital in the region by about 950 A.D., though some scholars say a centralized government continued deeper into the 10th century or later.


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