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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.
Modern archaeologists still study the site’s exquisite ruins, including the storied pyramid, the grand House of the Governor, and others to figure out how the Maya adapted to changing threats from enemies and the natural environment. Uxmal continues to surprise and to offer new hints about what life was like there more than a millennium ago.
The Jewel of the Puuc
Since around 1000 B.C., people speaking variants or dialects of Mayan languages have been living in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The Maya created a distinctive system of hieroglyphic writing. Attuned to astronomy, they used the movements of the moon, sun and planets in the development of a calendar system based on cycles. (This included the famous Long Count cycle that concluded on December 21, 2012, and gave rise to the modern rumor that the world would end on that day. It did not.)
No one knows when the Maya first settled in Uxmal. A legend tells of a magician-dwarf who built the Pyramid of the Magician overnight, but hard evidence from the earliest temple suggests construction began around the 6th century A.D. and continued expanding the city thereafter. The city would become the center of life for the Maya of the Puuc.
Maya thrived in Uxmal for centuries because of favorable environmental conditions. In its heyday, the city enjoyed more rainfall and richer soil than in the rest of the northern Yucatan. It prospered in agriculture, allowing the people here to cultivate the raw materials for its signature buildings.
“That also explains to us the presence of a very beautiful architecture,” says José Huchim, director of the Archaeological Zone of Uxmal and the Puuc Route. “It is a very rich region. That led to control, confrontation and also the construction of a wall that would protect it from the enemy.”
That enemy came from the northeast.
Defending the City
Uxmal probably reached the height of its power in the 8th and 9th centuries under a ruler researchers call Lord Chac, known also as Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw (his name reflects that of the Maya rain god, Chac). Ruling at the turn of the 10th century, Lord Chac appears to have commissioned construction on Uxmal buildings such as the House of the Governor, a titanic endeavor that would have required 1,200 workers laboring for 33 years to construct the palace and its large supporting platform. It has a two-headed jaguar throne on a platform in front, a carved lattice pattern symbolizing rulership and representations of Lord Chac’s rain god namesake. A sculpture of Lord Chac himself, surrounded by two-headed serpents, stands above the central doorway.
In 2019, Huchim and archaeologist Lourdes Toscano, who together direct the Uxmal Project, focused on excavating the area under the large platform that supports the palace. In December 2019, they announced their team had found two arches, one about 21 feet high and another about 24 feet, demarcating an 82-foot-long passageway under the top part of the building. Austere and characterized by fine cuts in limestone, these arches could pre-date the grander palace structures by as much as 200 years.
Their findings indicate the palace, likely used for residential or administrative purposes, or both, was originally built as three separate buildings. Later, the Maya built vaulted passageways to unite them at the basement level. The passageway united the three foundations now covered by a platform, with stairs on all four sides providing access to the upper part of the building. The Uxmal elite closed off the three staircases in the basement and the main stairway as a means of protection, giving invaders fewer access points. (The excavators are also restoring the city’s defensive wall built around this time.)
Why go to this trouble? The team’s working hypothesis is that as the 9th century came to a close, so did mounting political pressure from Chichen Itzá, a Maya city known today for its photogenic step pyramid. The similarity in iconography and architecture found in some buildings at both sites suggest at least a brief alliance between the two kingdoms in the later ninth to early 10th century. But some historians believe the construction of buildings like the grand palaces stopped because Uxmal was conquered by the rulers of Chichen Itzá in the 10th century.
Other Maya sites such as nearby Kabah show signs of rituals that involve “taking the soul out of the buildings” that will not be used anymore by destroying parts of them, Toscano notes. In Uxmal, the Maya may have similarly deliberately cut the heads off of sculptures when they were leaving, which may explain why Lord Chac’s head in a sculpture found at the House of the Governor is missing.
The Maya Are Still Here
Water powered Uxmal’s rise, but lack of water caused its fall.
With no natural bodies of water to tap, people of the Uxmal region made or modified basins called aguadas for collecting fresh rainwater to prepare for dry seasons, sometimes increasing their water capacity by digging bell-shaped pits under them called buktes, which were with stone. They also made bottle-shaped storage tanks called chultunes, allowing them to stock up with 2 to 5 million cubic meters of water from falling rain. Thanks in part to this aquatic prowess, Kowalski estimates that at its peak Uxmal may have had 15,000 to 18,000 inhabitants, but other sources put it as high as 25,000 people; Huchim says even up to 35,000. Smaller Mayan sites whose ruins have been discovered, like Kabah, Sayil and Labna, were under Uxmal’s control at its peak.
However, most historians agree that drought ultimately prompted the Maya to leave Uxmal and other Puuc centers for good. Shortages of rain would have strained the drinking water supply for the people of Uxmal and made it difficult to grow crops like beans, corn and squash. Deforestation may have also played a role. The Maya felled trees to make crop fields and produce the lime for building materials, Huchim says, and they also modified the soil for use in construction. While the fall of Maya civilization has been a longstanding mystery, factors including climate changes and the transformation of their environment seem to have been important drivers of decline.
Even so, the spirit of Uxmal runs deep in Huchim. His grandfather Nicolas was in charge of keeping the Uxmal site clean and helping archaeologists restore the monuments from 1940 to 1970. His father grew up at the site and also became its official guardian. As a child, Huchim watched the restoration of the Pyramid of the Magician every morning from 1969 to 1970. Since 1992, Huchim has been in charge of studying, maintaining and operating the archaeological site. He saved the pyramid after Hurricane Gilbert structurally damaged it in 1997.
Although Uxmal is now closed to tourists and researchers because of COVID-19, Huchim is still there, keeping watch.
He treasures being one of few people experiencing the revival of Uxmal’s “ancestral” flora and fauna. Huchim wrote recently in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada Maya that in the absence of tourists, a variety of indigenous animals have reclaimed their place at the archaeological site. He hears "a great concert" of birds singing and sees groups of dozens of iguanas congregating. Turkeys and deer, which his father had told him were once common, now populate the site and he can hear the sound of an anteater at nightfall. “One can perceive floating in the environment the spirit of the Mayan culture,” Huchim wrote.
He’s been looking out for damage from a recent fire, carrying out maintenance and cleaning endeavors, and working on a report about the archaeological project. The civilization that built these structures is long gone, but Huchim is one of 7 million people of Maya descent living in places like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
“The Maya do not die, they do not end. We are alive. What’s more, we have a large population,” says Huchim, “I am Mayan, but we don’t build pyramids today.”