The demonic eyes in the stone mask stopped me in my tracks. This was Chac, the Mayan rain god, the most important deity in a land where the only source of fresh water was infrequent rain. I could easily imagine its hawk-like beak flaying the flesh from my bones. The stone visage guarded a stairway leading to a doorway atop the Pyramid of the Magician in the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. Beyond the door, which Mayans believed to be the mouth of Chac, high priests ripped out the heart of human sacrifices with a flint knife, before throwing their bodies back down the steep steps.
Uxmal, one of the most important cities of the Maya empire, is located just an hour south of present-day Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Located away from regions of heavy rainfall and the jungles that smother the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, almost as perfect as the day it was deserted by its inhabitants. Perhaps because Uxmal is in better condition than many other Maya sites, very little archeological excavation and research has been done on the site, however archeologists estimate that up to 25,000 residents lived in Uxmal at the zenith of its development during the Late Classic Mayan Period, from 850 to 925 AD.
Archeologists also speculate that Uxmal may have been more of an arts community than a governmental center, which could in part account for its stunning architecture. The Pyramid of the Magician, soaring 117 feet high and built on an unique elliptical base, is actually five superimposed temples. It anchors one side of the Nunnery Quadrangle, so named by Spanish Conquistadores because its 74 small rooms reminded them of nuns’ quarters in a convent. The western building’s facade is decorated with entwined stone serpent images, ubiquitous in the Maya world, which symbolized birth, change, and crawling though time. Even the latticework designs are thought to represent the diamond pattern on the rattlesnake’s skin.
Deeper into the site is the Governor’s Palace, an impressive three-level building with a 320 foot long mosaic facade featuring 103 stone masks of Chac, and the Great Pyramid, which offers panoramic views of the entire site from the top. The latter contains some of the more mystifying carvings in the complex; although said to be birds, many of the stone sculptures more closely resemble beings from outer space.
Can’t view the above slide show of Uxmal Mayan ruins in Mexico? Click here.
In the end, all the deities, the human sacrifices, the religious carvings were for naught. By 1000 AD the city had been abandoned, leaving present day visitors to imagine what life must have been like during the apex of the Mayan empire. Uxmal ruins are open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and offer a Light and Sound show that begins each evening just after sunset. Though the audio portion of the show is in Spanish, it is worth the $10 price of admission just to see the light display. To reach Merida by car travel south on either Highway 261 or State Highway 18. Public buses also run to Uxmal, but to see the sound and light show, sign up for a guided tour in Merida.