Uxmal: Thrice-Built Home of the Dwarf King
An expansive city with soaring buildings that have somehow retained much of their detail, Uxmal is among the most important Maya archaeological sites. It’s about an hour south of Mérida in the Puuc Valley, and we showed up early in the morning after spending the night in nearby Santa Elena.
Uxmal means “Built Three Times”, and was at its most powerful between 875 and 900 AD. When the Spanish arrived, the Maya still living among the ruins shared the story of their city’s creation. Of course, just because it came from the mouths of the Maya, doesn’t necessarily make it historically accurate…
According to legend, Uxmal was ruled by a magic dwarf from born in nearby Kabah. The dwarf’s mother was a witch who managed to goad the king of Uxmal into a contest against her son. The king challenged the dwarf to complete a series of tasks, the final one being to build a structure in Uxmal which was taller than all the rest. And he only gave the dwarf a single day and night in which to do it.
When the king awoke the next morning and found a towering pyramid outside his door, he was honor-bound to abdicate, and the magical dwarf ruled the city for the rest of his days. Today, the stunning Pyramid of the Magician is the first structure you see when entering the site. This amazing five-story temple is notable for its steep incline and elliptical base.
Just past the pyramid is a set of buildings arranged around a spacious courtyard. This is the Nunnery Quadrangle: the central gathering place in the ancient city. Surrounded by buildings boasting exquisite sculpted motifs of snakes, Maya thatch-roofed houses and the Rain Gods of both the Mayan people (Chac) and Aztecs (Tlaloc), the plaza is gorgeous. Its current name was provided by the Spanish, who thought it resembled a monastery.
Other highlights include the reconstructed ball court, where the sacred Maya game would be played before rituals or sacrifices. The House of the Turtles, a pleasingly simple little house with a frieze full of turtles. The House of the Doves. The Great Pyramid. The House of the Witch. And of course, the Palace of the Governer, set atop a hill, with an intricately detailed facade which is the longest anywhere in Maya architecture.
Our strategy to arrive as early as possible at the gates of Uxmal paid off handsomely. Just an hour south of Mérida, it’s a popular site with tour groups, but these tend to arrive around 11am. So it wasn’t until the end of our three-hour visit that the site was swarming with other tourists, and by then we didn’t mind. We were on top of the Great Pyramid, and were able to look down on Uxmal as though we were the ancient Mayan lords, and the tiny ant-like people below were our subjects. Just for fun, I picked one out for sacrifice; a strapping lad of twenty, with a strong and healthy heart, ripe for the gods…
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January 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm