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Mark Cartwright
published on 07 October 2014
Available in other languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish
Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque (by Jan Harenburg, CC BY)
Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Jan Harenburg (CC BY)

Located in the foothills of the Chiapas altiplano of modern Mexico, Palenque was an important Maya city which flourished between c. 600 and 750 CE. The name Palenque derives from the Spanish, meaning 'fortified place', but the original Maya name, we now know, was Lakamha. Situated where the highland and coastal plains join, the site prospered as an inland trade centre which allowed Palenque to control a large territory and form beneficial alliances with other powerful cities such as Tikal, PomonĂ¡, and Tortuguero. Palenque is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The list of Palenque kings begins with K'uk' Bahlam I, who reigned from 431 to 435 CE, but the most famous monarch is Kinich Janaab Pacal I (meaning great sunflower shield), also known as Pakal the Great, who reigned from 615 CE until his death in 683 CE, aged 80. Pakal created a dynasty which, over four generations, saw the city reach its greatest period of prosperity. Pakal's sons, K'an Bahlam II (r. 684-702 CE and otherwise known as Chan Bahlum) and K'an Joy Chitam II (r. 702 - c. 720 CE), and grandson K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb III (r. 721 - c. 736 CE ) continued Pakal's work and transformed Palenque into one of the greatest of all Maya cities. However, sometime in the mid 8th century CE hostilities broke out with ToninĂ¡ and Palenque, as other contemporary Classic Maya cities, was abandoned c. 800 CE.

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The investigation inside the great pyramid of Palenque led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Mesoamerica.

Layout & Architecture

The city may be divided into three separate periods: Early, Middle, and Late Classic. Most of the larger buildings at Palenque date to the middle period, whilst the Late Classic saw the construction of terraced fortifications for defence against central Gulf Coast peoples. Built on three different levels, the city follows the contours of the local terrain, and many of the limestone temple structures are built on natural hills. Palenque, with over 1,000 different structures, was one of the most densely populated of all Maya cities. Eight small rivers running down from the surrounding mountains wind their way through the city. The most important such stream was called Otulum which was re-directed to bring water directly to the royal palace, and, in places, made to follow an underground aqueduct which supported platforms and walkways.

Architecture at Palenque was innovative. For the first time in Mesoamerica, corbeled roofs were constructed, often in parallel, which brought greater interior space and, via the central supporting wall, improved structural stability. On top of the sloping upper portion of many buildings, a latticed roof-comb was added. Palenque architecture is also distinct due to the use of thin walls and wide doorways. Buildings used the local soft limestone with lintels in wood, and bright colours of red, blue, green, yellow, and white were used to decorate them on the outside and murals inside. Palenque is also famous for its decorative stucco sculpture and low-relief carvings which present some of the most naturalistic portraits in Maya art. Also of note are the many palaces with wide courtyards, ornamental fountains, and artificial pools dotted around the city.

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Palace, Palenque
Palace, Palenque
Alfred Diem (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Palenque Palace

Uniquely for Maya cities, at Palenque a royal residence and not a temple is the central focus of the city. The palace, likely first begun by Pakal and with major additions such as the tower c. 721 CE, is one of the most complex architectural structures at any Maya site. The building, set on a 10-metre high platform, is largely composed of rooms arranged around internal courtyards and galleries with vaulted ceilings, the whole measuring 91 x 73 metres. Perhaps the palace's most striking feature is the square four-storey tower, another feature unique in Mesoamerican sites. The 25-metre tower was climbed via a staircase winding around the interior walls. The building was used as a royal residence and court but also as accommodation for nobles, servants, and military personnel. Other features of note are a steam bath, two lavatories constructed over an underground stream, and various reliefs showing captives. The palace was also richly decorated with stucco painted in bright colours which depict scenes of Maya kings and nobility.

The Temple of the Inscriptions

Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room's most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.

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Jade Death Mask of Kinich Janaab Pakal
Jade Death Mask of Kinich Janaab Pakal
Gary Todd (Public Domain)

Other interesting features of the tomb include inscriptions on the walls which relate episodes from Pakal's reign (hence the temple's modern name), a narrow stone airway (psychoduct) which runs right through the pyramid to connect the tomb to the outside world, and exactly 13 corbel roof sections connecting the tomb to the upper chamber, corresponding to the Maya 13 levels of the heavens. So then, just as depicted on the sarcophagus slab, the entire pyramid was a metaphor for Pakal's descent through the nine levels of the underworld and subsequent ascent up the World Tree and the 13 levels of heaven to finally reach divine status. The tomb is also interesting architecturally as it has unique stone crossbeams, no doubt, because the architect felt the usual wood beams would not be strong enough to support the great mass of masonry above. Finally, the temple is also notable as the only known example of a Maya pyramid being built before the death of the occupant.

Temple of the Sun, Palenque
Temple of the Sun, Palenque
Alejandro Linares Garcia (CC BY-SA)

The Group of the Cross

This is a collection of three temples - the Temple of the Sun, the Cross, and Foliated Cross - built in the late 7th century CE and arranged on three sides of a plaza. Each temple is built on a raised platform accessed by a frontal flight of monumental steps, and each contains parallel galleries with a corbeled passage set at right-angles, so creating a large chamber. All three also have large roof-comb structures. Inscriptions within the shrines of each of the structures reveal that they were built in honour of three Palenque gods (known only as GI, GII, and GIII) by King K'an Bahlam, (Snake Jaguar) and dedicated in 692 CE. The king's accession is recorded in tablets in all three temples, and he is himself depicted aged six and again when made king, aged 49.

The three temples are rich in Maya imagery and symbolism. The inner shrine of the Temple of the Sun had a mask of the sun in his night aspect, the Jaguar God of the Underworld. The shrines in the Temple of the Cross and Foliated Cross contained a World Tree above which was a quetzal bird. The Maya called these buildings sweat baths or pibnal, places of ceremonial importance, especially before and after childbirth. Perhaps, then, they are symbolic of the gods' birth, and taken as a group they may represent the Maya Creation. The sculptures and reliefs as a whole emphasise the king's role as a guardian of fertility, maize, and rain, and they also present a clear ancestral link between the Pakal dynasty and the gods.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2014, October 07). Palenque. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Palenque." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified October 07, 2014.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Palenque." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 07 Oct 2014. Web. 23 Jul 2024.