Palenque 101

March 1, 2019

Traveling on a Mexican highway through the state of Chiapas is an adventure. The bus is very modern and comfortable despite the rough and bumpy roads. This is another long ride as the more direct route to our destination is now deemed too dangerous for travel. The danger designation is because of the road’s condition and not a remnant of the Zapatista Revolution. The revolt against the Mexican government by the indigenous Mayans has been over for more than a decade. There are remnants of the rebellion with highway security checks and ample numbers of Federales or Mexican national police. The result is that we have another long bus ride, but that provides the opportunity to explain some of the archeology.

Most important is the realization that Mayan society was complex and varied. It was composed almost entirely of city states numbering as many as 24,000. Most are still hidden by jungle and being mapped with new radar and laser technologies. The sites we have visited are only partially cleared and excavated. As we wandered around, it was easy to point at little hills covered with foliage as a future dig.

Mayan civilization evolved over a two thousand year period from isolated groups of farmers to organized states with social stratification starting at the time of Christ or 0 BCE if you prefer. The Classic Mayan era lasted from roughly 300 AD to 1000AD. After 1000 the Mayans were strongly influenced by Mexican Toltecs and Aztecs until the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 1500’s. The Mayans remained but gradually abandoned their cities and monuments following what is described as the Mayan collapse in the 10th Century. The reasons for the collapse are debated but generally revolve around overpopulation and ecological disaster. These factors made the Maya susceptible to conquest by the more warlike cultures from Mexico.

There are arguments about the degree of warlike Mayan tendencies. The numerous city states had their rivalries and conflicts. The drive to establish an empire seems to limited and restricted to a few places like Tikal and Chichen Itza. Without too much oversimplification, it appears that warfare was much of a limited nature like that of the tribal nature known amongst the Indians of the future United States. Namely, the wars were more like raids to capture slaves and nobility for sacrifice. I like the idea that lower class captives were not considered worthy as tribute to the Gods. There are some ethnographer that argue against any Mayan human sacrifice but they are largely outvoted by the physical evidence. Nonetheless, the Mayans devoted a great deal of energy to the development of their knowledge base.

Translation of surviving Mayan glyphs is still incomplete with only some half century since the first unraveling of the stones. What we do know gives us a partial picture of their civilization. Palenque is one of the best understood examples. Our visit made the site come alive. Our guide was articulate and eager to explain the current academic understanding of the place.

The Palenque kingship was established in the 5th Century. The most famous ruler was Pacak the Great who cam to the throne at the age of 12 and ruled for 68 years. We went into the underground chamber where he fasted for nine days before emerging from the underground to receive his crown from his mother in the coronation courtyard. He resided in the palace that we wandered through while building his tomb in what is called the Temple of the Inscriptions. The entrance to his tomb was discovered in the 1930’s and finally reached in 1953 when his tomb was opened. We didn’t get in his now empty tomb but get into that of the Red Queen that is next door. All of the valuable artifacts are in Mexico City but numerous replicas are placed around including his sarcophagus lid across from out room at the hotel.

Unlike the other Mayan sites we have visited, pyramid tombs were built here. Paced and his son built a number of other pyramids and temples with plenty of stairs for us to climb. The three build around a square were a bit of exercise but the views were worth the climbs. We wandered out of the excavated complexes following part of the aqueduct system that led us by scenic waterfalls and ponds. We finally left the site and returned back to the hotel using local transport.

We enjoyed some rest in the afternoon before heading back into town for dinner. We ordered some kind of mixed plate that was far more than the two of could eat. Took a few pictures of lunch stop.

We are stuck in Tuxtla after a cab in front of us smacked another bus from our company. Those passengers are now boarding our bus. Not sure what is happening other than we are getting crowded.

it has been an interesting ride over a narrow two lane road full of double semi truck and trailers that we passed when barely passable. It must have been the same engineer who designed our neighborhood winding road. We had an interesting lunch at a rural rest stop. A number of vendors were selling tacos and sandwiches and local products including bananas and pineapples. I think I ate an iguana sandwich.

We are moving again with a very full bus. Thankfully we have seats.

finally arrived…..sunset from our room in San Cristóbal.

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