To the delight of modern tourists, Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mal) is an outstanding example.
These mysterious ruins contain an exceptional collection of buildings with a variety of architectural types. And thanks to their good state of preservation, our visit there answered one of our biggie questions:
What did a Maya capital actually look like in ancient times?
With its carefully-restored Pyramid of the Magician, Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor’s Palace, Great Pyramid, and Ball Court, the city’s design, layout, and ornamentation make it a one-stop introduction to Maya art and architecture. Truthfully, if you can see only one site, this is the one to see.
At its peak, Uxmal was one of the largest cities in the Yucatán. It flourished around 850-920 CE, which was also when most of its main temples and buildings were constructed. The richly detailed ceremonial structures scattered around the ancient city are the tourist magnet, but when it comes to the mysterious collapse of the culture, scholars suggest that the rulers’ obsession with building was on the laundry list of factors that led to the fall. Given the resources needed for construction, and being faced with drought, overpopulation, starvation, and warfare, we have to wonder what the kings were thinking.
In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond cuts them zero slack:
“Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.“
But despite these grim lessons from history, Uxmal is a marvelous, must-see city for every traveler to the area. It’s the most complete Maya cityscape that we saw, and it gave us a better understanding of all the other ruins we visited.
If this overview piqued your interest, walk around the ancient city with us in our next post.
James & Terri