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What is Uxmal?

Uxmel is a ruined city in Mexico that was built by the pre-Columbian Maya.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
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  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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Uxmal is a large ruined city in the Yucatan region of Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1996. Uxmal was a city built and inhabited by the pre-Columbian Maya.

The city appears to have been founded sometime around the year 500 by the ruler Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. Uxmal was allied for some time with the large and powerful city of Chichen Itza, and together they ruled a massive swath of territory within the Mayan civilization. The majority of building took place in the 8th to 12th centuries, nearing the end of the Maya period.

The specific history of Uxmal is not entirely known, as not a great deal of excavation and scholarly research has been done on the site. It is thought to have had a population of somewhere around 25,000 people at its peak, and its occupation seems to have continued through the Spanish period. A single family, the Xiu, ruled over Uxmal for most its history, dominating the Mayan political landscape.

Uxmal was a major power center in the Maya world, and with its allies at Chichen Itza they were one of the largest kingdoms in the region. At their largest, they ruled over the entire northlands. When Chichen Itza fell in the early-13th century, Uxmal also appears to have diminished in power, with no new construction taking place, and the population apparently dropping somewhat.

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Nonetheless, it seems as though unlike most other Maya sites, Uxmal was never entirely abandoned. When the Spanish arrived in the region in the 16th century, the Xiu were still in power, and in fact joined the Spanish in the subjugation of the Yucatan. Following Spanish contact, however, the site was eventually abandoned and the ruling dynasty appears to have vanished.

Uxmal is well-respected as one of the most impressive Maya sites. Although not as large as many other sites, like Palenque the skill of its craftsmanship has led to excellently preserved buildings that offer a great deal to visitors. The site today appears largely the same as it would have during the height of the Mayan occupancy, giving a unique glimpse into life centuries ago in the heart of the Yucatan.

The Pyramid of the Magician is probably the most famous site at Uxmal. This step pyramid is fairly unique for its use of roughly oval shaped steps, rather than the normal rectangular steps. The pyramid was also built slightly offset of an older pyramid, allowing parts of the older pyramid to still peek through on the west side.

Other sites at Uxmal include: the Great Pyramid, a classic example of a Mayan step pyramid; the Nunnery Quadrangle, which features intricate carvings both inside and out; a traditional ball court, built for the ritualistic Mesoamerican ballgame; the Governor’s Palace; the House of the Birds; the House of the Turtles; and the House of the Doves.

Uxmal is roughly 50 miles from Merida, and can be reached by bus or taxi. The site is accessible by foot, and there is a small museum at the entrance to get a bit of background on the various structures throughout. Like Chichen Itza, Uxmal also offers a light and sound show once the sun goes down, which gives a fascinating and unique view of the ruins.

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