What is Palenque?

Brendan McGuigan

Palenque is a small Maya site in Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1987. Although much smaller than the sites at Copan or Tikal, the site features some of the most intricate carvings in the Mayan world, and has some truly astounding architecture, making it one of the most popular destinations in Mexico.

Palenque is a small Maya site in Mexico and a popular tourist destination in the country.
Palenque is a small Maya site in Mexico and a popular tourist destination in the country.

The history of Palenque is still somewhat obscured, as excavations have not yet been completed at the site. It was likely the location of early settlements far back in the Mayan civilization. The recorded history of the site goes back to the early part of the 5th century, when the city was ruled over by K’uk Balam, or Quetzal Jaguar, the history for the next century is a bit murky, with a number of dynastic kings ruling the city.

A great deal of the building history of the city began at the end of the 6th century. Around that time, Palenque was attacked a number of times by the nearby city-state of Calakmul and its allies, triggering a rash of new construction. The city was in a political crisis for the next few decades, in the wake of attacks and dynastic instability.

The great builder of the city came just after this period. His name was Ajaw K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or simply Pacal the Great. He oversaw many of the great building projects, and was responsible for the most impressive art at the site. When he died, a massive monument was erected to him, known now as the Temple of Inscriptions. The temple is the most famous attraction at Palenque, and one of the most famous in the Mayan world. A tall stone staircase leads up to the monument, which rests atop a grass-covered step pyramid. The temple has numerous long inscriptions nearly perfectly preserved on it, which makes it both a remarkably beautiful and remarkably important archeological find.

After Janaab’ Pakal’s rule, Palenque continued to flourish for another few decades. Construction and art continued to play a large role in the daily life in the city, and things continued well until Tonina invaded at the beginning of the 8th century, kidnapping and likely killing the king. A period of kinglessness followed, and although a king was eventually crowned a decade later, the kingdom never regained its former glory. The city was eventually abandoned in the mid-8th century, coinciding with the abandonment of many major Maya sites.

Palenque is relatively unexplored, and in fact the Pacal’s grave was only discovered in the 1950s. There are thought to be somewhere around 500 distinct building projects at the site, and few more than 30 have so far been uncovered. It is truly an archetypal lost city in the jungle, and its mysterious beauty is part of what gives it such a lasting appeal.

Getting to the site by air involves flying into the regional airport at Villahermosa, via Mexico City. By bus the site can be reached from Mexico City, San Cristobal de las Casas, Cancun, and Oaxaca, although most of these trips take half a day at least. Busses run from the town of Palenque to the site every ten minutes or so, and taxis are also readily available.

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