Mystery & engima of Maya architecture
The Puuc Region
In his second article on regional Maya architecture, explorer Jim O’Kon looks at the buildings of the Puuc style
It’s only a short drive from the colonial city of Merida, Mexico to the ancient Maya cities of the Puuc region. However, it is a travel experience that transforms a leisurely trip into a voyage extending deep into time and space. The ancient Maya ruins of the Puuc region extend back nearly 1500 years into history but they barely made a ripple in the tides of time weathered by the Maya civilization.
The Maya had the longest-lived civilization in history, extending over a period of 3500 years. They began their successful run in 2500 BCE when the Sumerians were writing text in cuneiform and they collapsed during the reign of Charlemagne in 900 CE. The Maya time line and the time lines of the old world were parallel, but they never crossed. The Europeans did not know that the Maya existed and the Maya had no knowledge of the Europeans. The Maya were the phantoms of history.
The Puuc hills extend along the southern border of the state of Yucatan. The term Puuc, meaning hill in Mayan, is also used to designate the architectural style of the ancient Maya cities located within the region.
The Maya used a technologically based building construction system. The grand buildings of the cities were constructed of cast-in-place concrete. The same construction techniques were used throughout the fifty Maya citystates. While the interior of the buildings were similar, the exterior appearances were totally different. The exterior art and architecture developed by regional styles had separate characteristics and otherworldly representations.
In Maya archaeology, the regional Puuc style is characterized by the elaborate ornamentation of the facades of ceremonial buildings. Ancient Maya architects used mosaic elements shaped from local limestone to create elaborate building façades, combining geometric repetition and symmetry with cosmic symbology. These symbols included serpents, masks of gods, supernatural beings and human figures.
The decorative Puuc style was popular for 350 years, from 600 to 950 CE, and adorns the buildings in the grand Maya cities located in a 41 kilometre network of roads known as the Puuc route. The route includes the ancient cities of Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, Sayil and Xlapak. Travellers can spend several days visiting all the sites along this route using the hotels at Uxmal as a base for exploring.
The ancient city of Uxmal is the first Maya site encountered along the Puuc route. It was originally detailed in an account of Uxmal published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843.
The monumental buildings of this city are noted for their size and ornate sculptural decoration. With its harmony, beauty and unique artistic style it is considered to be the finest achievement of Puuc architecture. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance and architectural representation of the Puuc style. The present name seems to derive from the Mayan word Oxmal, meaning "three times built". This refers to the site's antiquity and the times it had to be rebuilt.
The buildings of Uxmal are distinctive examples of Puuc architecture. The exterior façade surfaces are fashioned from a veneer mosaic of cut limestone attached to the core of the wall. The lower portions of the walls were often left plain, decorating only the upper wall level or cornice with carved mosaic elements. Puuc-style buildings create a uniquely dynamic impression due to varying amounts of repetition, symmetry, and symbolism on their façades. Puuc mosaic elements include T-shapes, serrated disks, stylized serpent heads, and stepped frets. The latter were used as protruding noses, resembling the curved nostrils of “Chaac” the Maya rain god.
Pyramid of the Dwarf: El Adivino is a stepped pyramid structure. It is unusual among Maya pyramid structures in that its outlines are curved or elliptical in shape, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. It was a common practice by the Maya to build new pyramids atop older ones, but at Uxmal a newer pyramid was built centred slightly to the east of the older pyramid creating a curved surface.
Legend has it that the pyramid was magically built in one night during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the ruler or king of Uxmal. The dwarf's mother, a bruja, or witch, arranged his trial of strength and magic to compete against the king.
The Governor's Palace: This is a long low building constructed atop a huge platform. The building features the longest façade in Maya archaeology and is replete with mosaic masks and multiple trapezoidal shaped entrances. A few buildings erected in the Puuc region, such as the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, rank among the world’s greatest architectural achievements.
The Nunnery Quadrangle: This was a government palace. The Nunnery is the finest of Uxmal's several quadrangles of long buildings. It has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside facades of the building. Fully sculptural heads and headdresses also occur as mosaics.
During the late classic period Kabah was as important as Uxmal in terms of population and extent of the city. Kabah means “strong hands” in Mayan. After Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest city of the
The Europeans did not know that the Maya existed and the Maya had no knowledge of the Europeans. The Maya were the phantoms of history
Puuc region. Evidence of its importance is the connection of an 18 kilometre long and 5 metre wide raised roadway (sacbe) extending from Uxmal to Kabah, with large monumental arches located at each end of the roadway.
Some of the most important buildings at Kabah include the monumental arch and the unique structure of the Codz Poop. Kabah also has one of the largest chultunes found in the region; these were underground reservoir structures for storing large quantities of rainwater.
Palace of the Masks: The most famous structure at Kabah is the "Palace of the Masks"; the façade is decorated with hundreds of limestone mosaics forming masks of the long-nosed Maya rain god Chaac. The building is also known as the Codz Poop, meaning "Rolled Matting", from the pattern of the stone mosaics. The continuous series of Chaac mask mosaics share round, interchangeable eyes. This massive repetition of a single set of elements is unusual in Maya art, and here it is used to unique and dramatic effect.
The Triumphant Arch: This imposing concrete and stone arch spans the roadway that extends from Kabah to the city of Uxmal. The arch has the longest span of any in Maya archaeology. The span across the roadway presents a dramatic statement of Maya technology.
Sayil means "Place of Ants" in Mayan. The site is laid out along a sacbe, or roadway, running from north to south. The Great Palace, Sayil’s most important building, stands at the northern end of the roadway. The grand Palace building has multiple decorations of the god Chaac on the typically Puuc decorated façade. The Great Palace has an 85 metre long facade and is built upon a two terraced platform, giving the impression of three stories.
Various rooms are arranged around the four sides of each terrace. The uppermost terrace supports a long structure with a single range of rooms.
The Palace: This is a major structure which has 9 rooms in three rows each. The architecture is typical of the Puuc style with highly decorated upper portions of the building walls that extend above the ceiling height. The façade of this building is well preserved and richly decorated with masks of the Maya rain god Chaac.
This archaeological site is under restoration, so you can find many rocks around the place that may appear to be a part of the land, but in reality are parts of ancient buildings. After all, Xlapak means "Old Walls" in Maya.
Its name means "Old House" and this place may be one of the oldest Maya sites discovered and the vast majority is still unexplored. The site is a comparatively small and compact one. The site is adjacent to a north south axis of a roadway (sacbe); the road extends from the palace to an elaborately decorated gateway arch ("El Arco").
The Grand Palace: The large two-story palace ("El Palacio") is one of the longest contiguous structures in the Puuc region. The building is approximately 120 metres (393.7 ft) in length. The Grand Palace, which had about 60 rooms, has a Puuc style facade decorated with mosaics of the mask of the god Chaac and snakeheads.
The Gateway Arch: From the palace, a ceremonial road (sacbe) extends to an elaborately decorated gateway arch ("El
Arco"). This Triumphal Arch is one of the most important buildings in Maya architecture and one of the most decorated Mayan arches that have been found in Maya archaeology.
This structure is 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide and 6 metres high, with well-carved basreliefs of Maya houses and mosaics of the god Chaac. The arch is not an entrance to the city, but rather is a passageway between public areas.
El Mirador: Adjacent to the gateway Arch stands "El Mirador". This is a pyramid-like structure surmounted by a temple. The temple has an impressive roof comb and bas-reliefs.
After observing the Puuc style, the viewer can recognize why Classic Puuc architecture is regarded by many authorities as the finest of all the ancient Maya architectural traditions. It shares the best aspects of the widespread Maya culture, but also reflects the character of Puuc society that departs from other regional cultural elements.
These elements, along with the lack of fortifications at the major centres, suggest a broad sharing of power in this region, and a society more aligned compared with other Maya areas. It seems reasonable to suggest that this placid philosophy might be connected with the most aesthetically refined, more carefully crafted, least militaristic architecture created by the Maya.
Kabah: close up of the facade of the Codz Poop
Labna: carved arch gate
Xlapak: Chaac masks on the facade
Uxmal: The nunnery quadrangle