Pursuing Remote Mayan Ruins

By Ted Nusbaum
  |  Gorp.com
Page 2 of 4   |  

The ruins of Uxmal are among the most majestic and well-preserved of the Mayan world. When you enter the site, there is a hushed silence which lingers over the place. A few scattered trees scorch themselves in the Mexican sun, while short, stiff grass carpets much of the complex. Your first encounter with the past is the oval-shaped Pyramid of the Magician, which rises 117 feet into the air. The stairs rise sharply from the ground like a rock wall, narrow and steep enough that the government has blockaded visitors from scaling the temple to its summit.

According to local legend, Uxmal was built in a single night by a dwarf with magical powers. Hatched from an egg, the boy struck a forbidden gong which upset the ruler because a prophecy foretold that when the gong was sounded, a boy "not born of woman" would replace him. The lord condemned the boy to death but offered him a reprieve should he perform three superhuman feats of mathematics, sculpture, and architecture. One was to build the Pyramid of the Magician, which the boy did, but the ruler still tried to have him killed. Through a clever trick, the boy had the lord executed in his place, then assumed power over all of Uxmal.

Should the irrationality of the tale be too much for you, fear not: There is enough astronomy at Uxmal to satisfy the scientist within. The Palace of the Governor is an architectural masterpiece over 300 feet long with doorways that aligned precisely with the path of the planet Venus. A frieze on the upper portion is made from a latticework background composed of 20,000 identically carved stones depicting persons, gods, and animals. Modern archaeo-astronomers have discovered that at Venus's southern solstice, the planet aligned perfectly with the central doorway of the palace, the jaguar throne in the courtyard, and a temple on a hilltop five miles away. This precise design and reverence for the heavens permeated Mayan culture for hundreds of years, elevating Uxmal to sacred status.

At the far end of the temple complex stands The Grand Pyramid, yielding a breathtaking view over the entirety of Uxmal. A fully restored stone stairway leads skyward to a perch atop the pyramid with a panorama of the temples and palaces below. The Puuc Hills, brown and green, can be seen rolling out into the distance.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 1 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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