I was excited to visit Palenque. Though not as big as Tikal, Calakmul or Copan, Palenque was a major Mayan city, with huge temples, a palace and extensive artifacts - it is estimated that only about 10% of the original site has been excavated. Because of its importance, Palenque was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
Although the area of Palenque was occupied as far back as 900 B.C., the classic area of Palenque didn't begin until the rule of Quetzal Jaguar in 431 A.D. For the next 450 years, Palenque flourished, until around 800 A.D. when it collapsed, along with all the other Mayan cities, possibly due to severe drought.
The Mayan glyph for this city translates as "B'aak" or bone. The name Palenque is Spanish for fortification, but the city has no walls or defensive forts, though it is built on a hill. None of the sites we visited on this trip had any sort of defensive structures, but this does not mean the Mayans were peaceful! (Early archaeologists speculated that the Mayans were a civilization of peaceful astronomer/philosopher kings, but we now know that the Mayan were as warlike and aggressive as any other successful society. At least once in Palenque's history, the army of Calakmul successfully invaded and sacked the city and made it a vassal state.)
It is pretty neat to walk through Palenque and see its ruins. How did the Mayans build such big structures without the use of metal tools, without the wheel, and without livestock? The only domesticated animals that the Mayans had were turkeys and dogs, no oxen, horses or cattle to help drag the huge stones. Everything was built using stone tools and human power. Yet the Mayan civilization at its peak was more magnificent than anything in Europe at that time, the Mayan classical era corresponds to the time when Europe was struggling through the dark ages.
Unfortunately, due to the large number of tourists, visitors to Palenque are no longer allowed to mount the steps of the Temple of Inscriptions and climb down the secret passage to the burial chamber of Pakal the Great. Also, because excavations were ongoing, we were unable to see the recently uncovered Temples XIX, XX and XXI. But there is still much else to see, all the other temples can be climbed.
After our walk around Palenque, we had lunch, and then visited the Palenque Museum. Some really nice artifacts were on display there, including a jade mask, carved stelas and monuments. I especially liked the reconstructed incense burners that were found smashed on the steps of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Since all four sides of that temple have yet to be excavated, there could still be more artifacts waiting to be found.
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