A Maya city with a very rich history

Palenque in Mexico is praised for its beautiful stonework, its Maya architecture and bas-relief carving. It’s also known for the most famous Maya king: K’inich Janaab Pakal or ‘Pacal the Great’. This Maya city, like many others, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The well-known Palenque is praised for its beautiful stonework, its Maya architecture and bas-relief carving. It’s also known for the most famous Maya king: K’inich Janaab Pakal or Pacal the Great. This Maya city, like many others, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Palenque isn’t particularly large compared to other Maya cities, mainly because it hasn’t been entirely excavated. Regardless, scientists are very impressed with its wealth of architecture, stonework and relief imagery. And of course there’s the possibility that it was home to Pacal the Great, who brought prosperity to the city.

The beautiful location

Palenque is a well-known Maya city, idyllically situated in the rainforest, which has grown over some of the buildings, some of which are practically barely standing. Considering only part of the city has been dug up, it seems much is still covered by the forest. Scientists believe there could be dozens of buildings under the soil and trees, wasting away. They estimate that the size of the city could be as large as 11 km2.

Many people visit Palenque to see the ruins, but they are also very impressed by their location. The city is in a higher area of the rainforest, offering amazing views from the temple. The surrounding jungle, with its sights and sounds, really helps its magnificence.

The beauty of Palenque.

History of Palenque

Palenque was one of the first Maya cities to be discovered. In 1746, Spanish priest Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada was traveling to the town of Santo Domingo de Chiapas in the south-east of Mexico. While he explored the area, he discovered some stone structures with strange architecture that he didn’t recognise.

He didn’t learn much from the local population. It’s not until 1780 that the city is first properly documented and mapped. This could be considered the first archaeological field research into the pre-Columbian era.
Palenque is likely to be derived from the local name of the site: Otolum, which means ‘land with re-enforced houses’, which was then translated into Spanish when they arrived: it means something along the lines of ‘fortification’.

When scientists managed to decipher the Maya script found at the site, it seems its real name was Lakamha, which means ‘Big Water’. This is a reference to the many natural springs and streams that occur in this area. The script also implied that Lakamha was the capital of the state of B’aakal in the Maya empire. In modern Maya language the city is known as Baak.

Pacal the Great

A famous relief in Palenque.

One of the mysteries at Palenque has to do with Pacal the Great. Was the city home to this most famous of Maya rulers? If so, it’s likely that he brought wealth and prosperity to the city, and that had the most beautiful buildings erected. Now that most of the Maya script is translated, we’re learning a lot from the so-called ‘stelae’: stone pillars or slabs with lots of relief inscriptions that are found at many Maya sites, as well as carvings on buildings.

Those in Palenque mention Pacal several times, and we’ve learn his full name ‘K’inich Janaab Pakal’, and that he lived from March 26th 603 to the 31st of August 683. Though it is not yet proven that he lived here, so scientist are still hunting for his grave. Especially the Temple of Inscriptions seems to be a good candidate for investigation, as it seems this was his burial site according to the hieroglyphs here, but there is still debate about whether the tomb found here is really his.

Some of the temples in Palenque.

Hidden corridor discovered

It was 1952 when French archaeologist Alberto Ruz L’Huillier, leading the research with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, found a hidden passageway under a large stone in the floor. The stone got his attention as it wasn’t cemented in, but had holes in it and he realised was lowered in place using ropes, sealing something off below. He then spent several years removing rubble from a stairway, that lead to a magnificent tomb. Because this was the first Maya pyramid with a tomb inside, scientist tried to find a link to the Egyptian pyramids, which all had tombs inside. But to this day they can’t find a firm connection.

So who’s tomb did L’Huillier find? Was it Pacal the Great? When the body was examined a discussion arose between those researchers and those who translated the scripts in the tomb: the teeth of the body indicated that the body was 40 years younger than the age the texts claimed Pacal the Great died at! Eventually in 1996 most researchers believe it was indeed Pacal who was in the tomb, and it could have been his lifestyle of luxurious food that had less impact on his teeth than most people of his era. Though there are still scientists who doubt the body really was that of Pacal the Great.

In 1994, researchers discover the body of a woman in a building they called Temple XIII, which is located next to Pacal’s tomb. She is dubbed ‘The Red Queen’ as her body is covered by a layer of red cinnabar. She was surrounded by jewellery, including a death mask made out of jade. They discovered two other bodies nearby, one of a woman and one of a child. But the big question is: who was this queenly lady? Perhaps she was Pacal’s wife, because DNA testing has concluded she was not his mother.

Best time for Palenque

The best time to go is in the dry season, which last from November to April, out of which December and January are the most pleasant months. The wettest months are June, July and August, so you will need to bring a rain jacket. But any month of the year the ‘rainforest’ will do its name justice, so don’t be surprised.

Be aware

Palenque is one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico, so they arrive here by the busload. We recommend heading there very early in the day, that way you’ll avoid the heat as well. There is also a museum about the history of the town, which you can then visit after you’ve seen the site.

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