In the previous edition of Lara’s Travels: Maya Ruins of Southern Mexico, we looked at the ruins of Chichén Itzá and Tulum, two of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most popular tourist destinations. This time, we will be focussing our attention on the cities of Calakmul and Dzibilchaltún.
Deep in the jungles of Campeche lie the ruins of one of the Maya’s largest and most powerful cities, Calakmul. Calakmul, capital of the enigmatic “Kingdom of the Snake”, was rediscovered by the botanist and pilot Cyrus Longworth Lundell during a flight over the Petén Basin in 1931 and reported to Carnegie Institute the following year. The name “Calakmul” was coined by Lundell himself and means “two adjacent pyramids” in the local Maya dialect, referring to the two pyramids (Structures 1 and 2) which form the core of the site.
During its heyday in the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD), the city of Calakmul was home to some 50,000 people and was the largest and most powerful city in the Maya lowlands. Nearly 7,000 ancient structures have been identified throughout the region, including paved causeways (sacbe), canals, temples, altars, astronomical complexes, and a ball court. The most impressive structure at the core site is Structure 2, a massive pyramid which is over 45 metres high and comprises three shrines, each with its own stairway, as well as a nine-room palace on its summit. Visitors to Calakmul will also come across dozens of carved limestone stelae and colourful murals, which are dotted around the site and depict market scenes as well as the lives of the royal elite.
A number of tombs have been discovered at Calakmul but the one that has captured the attention of local archaeologists is Tomb 4 in Structure 2B (one of the three shrines mentioned above). The tomb dates back to the 8th century and is thought to be the tomb of King Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (Jaguar Paw Smoke), the Divine Lord of the Snake Kingdom who ruled from 686 to 695 AD. The skeleton was found wrapped in cloth and jaguar pelts (Maya rulers were often associated with jaguars, which were considered sacred) and archaeologists have uncovered a number of grave goods, including a jadeite funeral mask, animal paws, obsidian blades, beads made of bone and shell, and polychrome ceramics.
If you fancy taking a virtual tour of the Calakmul archaeological site, you can find tours here (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), here (MayaRuins.Com) and here (Mesoweb).
The next stop on our virtual tour of the Maya world is Dzibilchaltún, an archaeological site to the north of Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán. At its height, the city was home to between 20,000 and 40,000 inhabitants and owed much of its wealth to the salt trade and its proximity to commercial ports such X’cambo. Excavations at the site have revealed that while Dzibilchaltún had been continuously inhabited from the Middle Preclassic Period (950-400 BC) through to the Late Postclassic (1200-1519 AD), the city went into decline once Chichén Itzá rose to prominence in the 10th century. The city’s name can be translated as “the place where there is writing on flat stones” and is a reference to the many memorial stelae that were found at the site.
Unlike most other Maya cities, there are no towering pyramids at Dzibilchaltún but the site is home to the beautiful Temple of the Seven Dolls (Spanish: Templo de las Siete Muñecas), named after the seven clay effigies that were found inside the structure. The temple is the only Maya temple discovered thus far that incorporates a tower and windows in its design and it played a central role in the population’s religious beliefs and rituals. If you visit the site at dawn on the Spring or Autumn equinox, you will see the sun shining through the eastern and western doorways, illuminating the monolithic stela that was erected in front of the temple and signalling the start of the maize planting and harvest seasons. Eight large stucco masks representing Chaac, the Maya rain god, adorn the top corners and doorways of the temple. The inhabitants of Dzibilchaltún undoubtedly dedicated prayers to this temperamental god, begging for rain and bountiful harvests.
Dzibilchaltún’s other key attraction is the large cenote, or sinkhole, near the site’s central plaza. Cenote Xlacah, whose name means “Old Town” in the local dialect, was the city’s main source of fresh water and may be the precise reason why the Maya chose to build a city in this part of the Yucatán Peninsula. The cenote is at least 44 metres deep but divers have yet to determine how far the cenote‘s underwater tunnel extends beneath the city ruins. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from the cenote over the years, including pottery shards, ceremonial bone and stone artefacts, ceramic figurines, and jewellery. A number of skeletons have also been found in this watery grave but archaeologists believe that these were not victims of ritual sacrifice. Nowadays, this crystal clear pool is immensely popular with local families and tourists alike and divers travel from all over the world to explore the ancient sinkhole.
You can take a virtual tour of Dzibilchaltún’s ruins and cenote by clicking here (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) and here (Google Maps).
Update: If you’re interested in the Maya, don’t miss my article “The Discovery of a Long-Lost Maya City in Campeche, Mexico”! Or, if languages are your thing, you might want to check out these 5 fantastic free online resources for learning Maya glyphs.
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