Palenque and its World

This is a summary of the 7-part series in PDF format.
This article was featured in Travel Thru History and Ancient Origins.

Hidden in the verdant hills of the Sierra Chapaneca in the beautiful State of Chiapas, southern Mexico, is the ancient capital of the B’aakal kingdom. The name of the city then was Lakam-ha’ in Maya-Yucatec language. The town is today called by its Spanish name, Palenque.

Remains of impressive Maya temple-pyramids and palaces abound all over Mesoamerica. Many archaeological sites overwhelm the visitor by their monumental architecture. Few are as remarkable as Palenque for its fine palaces, temples and architecture. The layout of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its location within a jungle clad mountain range, is replete with springs, streams and falls, overlooking the plains of Tabasco.

Central Palenque

Details on the history, arts, rituals and architecture of Palenque, are available in “Long-Form Articles”, but the large PDF files with numerous photos, require a longer than usual download. The reason for such large files is the number and size of photos that give readers a documented and referenced text-image interface, that helps in a better understanding of the subject matter. Hence the need of this summary.

The 1998-2000 PMP-Palenque Mapping Project under Mexican INAH-Instituto de Antropologia e Historia management, and FAMSI-Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (, led by Dr. Edwin L. Barnhart, recorded and mapped 1481 structures at Palenque. The PMP covered 0.850mi2 / 2.2km2 of the jungle shrouded plateau. The area referred to as “Central Palenque” open to visitors, account for less than a hundred buildings and structures. All others are still covered under a dense tropical rain forest. At its height during the Classic Period, the urban population may have reached 7500-8000 souls. Early morning, when nature awakes and the mist from the jungle slowly lifts, the welcoming calls of howler monkey greet visitors, together with shrieking tropical birds. Palenque’s ancient name probably came from the cluster of small rivers, that come out from the upper slopes of the mountain that overlook the site. The ancient name Lakam-ha’ translate as “Big Waters”, that cascade through numerous falls, ravines and over great natural stair-steps. The Yemal K’uk’ Lakam Wiz or “Great Mountain of the Descending Quetzal”, stands over the great city of Classic times (250-950) – (in Palenque.1)

A Great Maya Lord

A Great Maya Lord. Photo credit:

Shrouded in the mist of time one wonder, who lived here? At its height from the the 5th to mid-9th century, it was an important metropolis, and a major player in politics and trade in the region. Its greatest achievement however, was in architecture and the arts. The 7th century saw the birth and death of one of the greatest Mid-Classic Lord in Maya history, K’inich’ Janahab’ Pakal.II (603-683). By all accounts Pakal, also referred to in literature as “Pakal the Great”, was the greatest Lord of the B’aakal kingdom, as it was then called. His title, like lords before and after him, K’uhul B’aakal Ajaw translate as “Sacred Lord of the B’aakal Kingdom” and underline the commanding secular and religious functions of Maya lords. The word Ajaw translate as “he of the powerful voice”. His 68 years reign (615-683), was one of the longest in Maya history. Pakal inherited the kingdom at the young age of 12 but was sacred Lord at 23. During the interregnum, his mother Lady Sak K’uk’ Ajaw governed as regent, not as a Lord of the realm (in Palenque.1).

Pakal’s wife, Lady Ix Tzak B’u Ajaw was from Ux Te Kuh’, the northwest city where his family took refuge, when Palenque was burned by the K’an (serpent) kingdom proxies, twice, in 519 and 611. She is buried next to her husband mausoleum, the Temple of the Inscriptions. Her resting place is Temple XIII, referred to as the Temple of the Red Queen, for the large amount of hematite, a red pigment iron oxide, found in her sarcophagus – (in Palenque.3). Temple.XIII and Temple.XII, the last known by its enigmatic name, Temple of the Skull, are adjacent to each other on an east-west line, at the entrance to the site. They are separated by Temple.XIIA not yet fully excavated. The Temple of the Skull is named after the skull modeled in stucco at the base of its west pier. It shows the skull of a rabbit, whose shape is seen on the full moon. The rabbit representation on the moon is common in the New World and Asia. The skull on Temple.XII is that of Goddess.O, the Aged Goddess of the Falling Moon, to whom the temple was probably dedicated.

The Palace

The Palace, open to visitors, is built on a massive irregular quadrangle; it was a ceremonial and administrative building. Large stairways on four sides allowed access to the vaulted halls that ringed the quadrangle. The large north side stairway was ceremonial, while the south side was utilitarian. The complex is made of a complicated system of vaulted buildings, lengthy halls and three courtyards.

The Tower

The PMP project discovered a palace complex west of central Palenque, that is still under the jungle canopy, and is significantly larger than the Palace. Of note are the names assigned to buildings by archaeologists, that do not always reflect their true function at the time; “temple” and “palace” on the record are but terms of convenience. In the middle of the Palace complex, the Tower’s third floor holds an altar built of limestone mixed with a large quantity of seashells from the Pacific and/or the Caribbean. The altar may have been dedicated to ceremonies linked to the legendary Primordial Seas, a belief that may have been supported by numerous marine fossils found in the limestone of the mountain range.

On the Palace east side runs the Otolum River, its banks walled up as a canal, a key part of the important and elaborate, water management system of the city. Bathrooms were found below the Tower plaza level. The Palace was mainly used for administrative and ceremonial purposes for the ruler, members of the nobility with bureaucratic functions, scribes, high priests and formal state receptions of ambassadors or important visitors (in Palenque.1).

People did not reside permanently in the Palace; the tropical humidity and thick stone walls were not conducive to ventilation. They lived outside in fine traditional wattle and daub structures set on stone floors with a low vertical wall. Thanks to their semi-open construction, it allowed for ventilation to pass through, a plus for comfort in a tropical environment, especially during the rainy season. The residential area was located close by, east of the Palace, beyond the Otolum river-canal, behind the Group of the Cross complex.

The Rise and Fall of History

The history of the city is tumultuous with frequent wars, as well as great and not so great Ajaw at its head. At the death of her father, Lady Ix Yohl Ik’nal Ajaw
(reigned 583-604), was the only woman elevated to K’uhul B’aakal Ajaw or Sacred Lord of the B’aakal kingdom. Her reign was plagued by hostility from within and without. Regional antagonism was fueled by two enemies for different but complementary reasons. The first was Tortuguero, a city located in the northern plains of Tabasco. Leaders of that city claimed the title of K’uhul B’aakal Ajaw that Palenque rightly demanded as its historical right. A deep-seated enmity endured that fed their antagonism and armed conflicts for years.

The second is that of Calakmul, the powerful K’an (serpent) kingdom to the northeast in Yucatàn that fueled both cities’ antagonism for its own benefit: control of trade routes and that of the Usumacinta river, a major waterway.
Its other proxy Tonina was only 41Mi / 80Km distant from Palenque, in today’s Ocosingo valley. This enmity will remain a thorn in Palenque’s side through murderous wars, up to its collapse in 900-950.

There may have been another reason for this lasting enmity with the powerful K’an kingdom. Palenque traded and probably had political contacts, with the powerful metropolis of central Mexico, Teotihuacan. Calakmul then may have perceived Palenque as a Mexican proxy in the Maya heartland, which would explain such a long-lasting and violent antagonism.

In 659 Pakal got his revenge against the K’an kingdom, as shown in the west Court of the Palace. The carved limestone slabs show six sahals (state officials) of Santa Elena and Pomona, other proxies of the Great Jaguar militaristic totem, Calakmul. They are shown bound and ready for execution, facing the carved steps across the courtyard that recount Palenque’s defeats and burning in 599 and 611.

The antagonism with Tonina in particular, will last to the end of Palenque’s dynasties. K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, Pakal 66 years old second son was captured in battle in 711 and held prisoner for seven years by Tonina. Surprisingly, he was freed by his captors, but the reason for his release and the terms attached to his freedom, are still unknown. After his release, he remained Lord of Palenque for another ten years, before his death.

Temple of the Inscriptions

The Temple of the Inscriptions, is K’inich Janahab’ Pakal.II last resting place. It truly is the most important and remarkable sanctuary in the Americas. The temple name comes from the three large glyphs covered panels found on the walls of the temple-sanctuary, on top of the pyramid. In the past, it was known as the “Temple of the Laws” because of the three limestone panels. The engraved panels narrate Pakal achievements and his place in the context of eternity. The temple-pyramid also had an exceptional “roof comb”, now lost to time. The building, like all major others in the city, was covered with stucco and painted red, from its base to the roof. For visitors, it must have been an impressive sight to behold.

The 8-steps funerary pyramid, the B’olon Eht Naah as it was called then, was planned by Pakal. Its foundations were received the sarcophagus and its slab that were set at that time, about five years before Pakal’s death (683). The pyramid and temple were completed by his elder son and heir K’inich Kan Bahlam’ (635-702). The temple at the top of the pyramid complete the mythological nine levels of Xibalba, the underworld.

The Crypt

The Crypt

The magnificence of the crypt, 82 feet down from the temple at the top of the pyramid, with its 20 tons massive sarcophagus and 5 tons slab, both with remarkable engravings, are truly unique in the Americas. The crypt is located a mere six feet below the level of the main plaza.

On the sarcophagus’ four sides are engraved Pakal ancestors sprouting from fruiting trees, an acknowledgement to ancestor worship and right to rule from inheritance. The renowned finely carved sarcophagus’ slab relates Pakal mythical journey after death through the underworld – (in Palenque.2), and his rebirth as Hunal Ye’ the maize god – (in Palenque.5).

Nine life size figures modeled in stucco are set on the walls surrounding the sarcophagus; eight men and one woman, Lady Ol Nal. They are assumed to have been Pakal’s guardians, warding off malevolent forces when his body was carried down the steps of the pyramid, to his final resting place. The “Nine Lords of the Night”, as they are sometimes called, are now standing guard for eternity. The importance of ancestors in ancient and contemporary Maya rituals and traditions, cannot be overstated. Ceremonies and rituals take place up to this day in traditional towns and villages of Mesoamerica (in Palenque.4).

Five persons, the so called “companions”, were sacrificed to attend and serve the Lord in the afterlife, a custom practiced in ancient world cultures for high ranking individuals. They were identified as two males and a female in their late teens or early twenties (the two others could not be sexed, due to the remains deterioration). They were buried in a shallow stone cavity behind the now open massive limestone triangular door, that sealed the entrance to the crypt in 690 – (in Palenque.2).

The Cross Group, Palenque “Divine Triad”

The Cross Group, Palenque “Divine Triad”

The Cross Group complex is the heart of the ancient city, with its temple-pyramids: the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross and Temple of the Sun are accessible to visitors, but one cannot get into their sanctuaries. The view of central Palenque from atop the Temple of the Cross is spectacular. They are collectively referred to as Palenque’s Divine Triad and represent the tri-partite conception of the world space and royal power.

Each temple is the home of a god named by Henrich Berlin in 1963 as God.I, God.II and God.III. They were born in Matwill, the Maya mythic world, a few days apart; Berlin assumed that they may have been triplets. In each temple is a large finely carved limestone panel, that relate the story of Pakal’s eldest son and heir, K’inich’ Kan Bahlam’ accession to the throne in 684. He is shown with his father, in the act of transferring lordship powers to himself, together with dedications to the gods of the Divine Triad – (in Palenque.5).

At the entrance of the complex, but not a part of it, one may climb up the steps to Temple.XIV to see its remarkable limestone carved panel on the wall of the sanctuary. K’inich’ K’an Bahlam’ is shown receiving the K’awiil’ scepter of lordship (in Palenque.5 – Annex.2), from his mother Lady Tz’ak-b’u Ajaw, dressed as of the Moon Goddess.

Temple of the Count, the Ballcourt and The North Group

Temple of the Count

Standing by itself a few steps away from the North Group and the Ball Court, the Temple of the Count is named for an exceptional character, the French archeologist Jean-Frédérick de Waldeck. For two years in 1872, while researching and writing about Palenque, he camped in the temple on top of the pyramid. He recorded important carvings on stone and stucco now eroded or mostly unreadable. His drawings of carved panels and their interpretations may be questionable, but he did record the ancient art of the city that may otherwise have been lost forever.

The North Group, so called because it is located north of the Palace, is of interest for Palenque’s interaction with Teotihuacan. Evidence found at the base of Temple.V of a stucco frieze in the sub-structure shows the figure of a man whose dress and adornment leave no doubt as to an Early Period contact with the great metropolis of central Mexico. The goggled eye warrior, armed with a spear thrower or atlatl in his left hand, is clearly Mexican and relates to Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain, thunder and war.

Between the North Group and the Palace ceremonial stairway, is the ballcourt the only one known so far in this great city, even though another or more may be found in the future under the dense jungle canopy. The ballcourt is where the game of life and death took place. Its function is closely related to spiritual communication with gods and deities of the underworld, as well as with ancestors, intercessors with the hidden world (in Palenque.6).

The Queen’s Baths

The Queen’s Baths

The numerous streams and falls that cascade from the Great Mountain of the Descending Quetzal, create numerous quiet pools. The widest are the ones near the lower slopes of the mountain, called the Queen’s Baths. In Palenque.7, the last introduction to the great city series, the central theme will be on drinkable and black water management, the extensive infrastructure and engineering required to meet heavy rain falls and flooding during the rainy season.

The tropical environment provided an abundance of water and forest products, from fruit trees to soft and hard wood. Wild life from wild turkeys, jaguars, forest deer and howler monkeys to scarlet macaws, was a bounty. This exceptionally luxurious environment, enhanced by the elegance of multiple falls and pools, is a beautiful experience at the end of a day’s visit to this great ancient Maya metropolis.


These link to large, in-depth PDF articles – please ensure that you have adequate bandwidth to download them. Not recommended for mobile devices.

The Ancient City

Part 1 of a 7-part series on Palenque, by George FeryPart 1 of 7