Mys­tery & engima of Maya ar­chi­tec­ture

The Puuc Re­gion

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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