The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán’s Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.
Sayil rose to prominence between AD 800 and 1000, toward the end of the florescence of Maya culture. The city was completely desolate by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, but recent excavations suggest that at one time up to 10,000 people lived here.
Before our move to the Yucatán, I had never given much thought to the complexities of the Maya. I suppose I had just considered them to be a single powerful kingdom that eventually collapsed. But this is so far from the case that it’s laughable. At best, the term “Maya” is extremely vague. It refers to a people who shared a counting system and certain cultural aspects, but were never unified. The Maya consisted of innumerable kingdoms, each with its own history and identity, and over twenty completely different languages. The biggest enemy of Copan was Kalakmul, for example; two totally distinct, warring empires we now refer to under the blanket term “Maya”.
I tried to keep this in mind while visiting Sayil. Here was a major city of the Terminal Classic era, which ascended only after the collapse of the grand civilizations of the southern highlands. The people who lived here traded with Uxmal, spoke Yucatec Mayan, and were as far away in time from the pre-Classic Maya of Guatemala, as we are today from Sayil.
The most imposing structure is found right at the entrance: the Great Palace, boasting three stories and nearly a hundred rooms. Unlike the compact site of Labná, Sayil is an expansive place, stretched out on a long, straight sacbé, or road, which leads into the woods. Eventually, we reached a flat structure called The Mirador and, farther down the path, we found a strange phallic statue.
Sayil was our third set of ruins in a single day and we were starting to feel a little fatigued by the time we finished here. But there was no opportunity for rest; the hour was growing late, and the nearby site of Kabah still remained on our list…