Pakal the Great transformed this Maya city into a glorious centre of power

Stepped pyramids, colourful temples, and a grand palace proclaimed Palenque's brilliance, reflecting the favour of the gods and the strength of its seventh-century ruler.

By Editors of National Geographic
Published 23 Jun 2022, 13:20 BST
Pyramids in the jungle
The Great Palace, on the left, and the Temple of the Inscriptions stand surrounded by the mighty Lacandón Jungle in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The image shows one section of the remarkable city-state whose rise began under its greatest leader, the seventh-century ajaw Pakal the Great.
Photograph by Danny Lehman, Getty Images

Deep in the jungle of Mexico's state of Chiapas stands the ruins of a Maya city known today as Palenque. Surrounded by a thick canopy of cedar and mahogany, some 1,500 individual structures make up the ancient complex, whose centre is dominated by a palace and ringed by temples.

Although Palenque is relatively small compared to other Maya sites such as Chichén Itza or Tikal, the fine detail and elegance of its architecture has stunned visitors since its heyday. The slender walls of its of monuments were once coated with a layer of stucco and painted with brilliant reds and blues. Although these colours have long faded, Palenque’s ornate friezes and stonework endured. So too has its rich repository of inscriptions, most notably on the panels in the city’s largest stepped pyramid known as the Temple of the Inscriptions.  

Jade death mask of Pakal the Great from the seventh century, housed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City
Photograph by Click Alps, AWL Images

As historians sift through Palenque’s visual treasures and decode the intricacies of its glyphs, they have learned how the city’s ruling dynasty, architecture, and faith were all bound together. They reflected the beliefs of the wider Maya world while also proclaiming Palenque’s own distinctive religious traditions and gods.

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City origins

“Maya” is a 20th-century term for the civilisation that flourished across southern Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. It flourished during what scholars called its Classic period, from A.D. 250 to 900. Maya civilisation was hegemonic and consisted of numerous, independent power centres unified by common languages, calendars, and a system of writing, as well as religious rituals and customs. Palenque belonged to this network. Despite these connections, these cities often were in conflict with each other. Palenque was no exception.

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The name Palenque comes from a Spanish word meaning “stockade.” The name was initially given by 16th-century Spanish settlers to a nearby town, which over time became associated with the ruins themselves. Today, some historians believe the people of Palenque may have known the city as Lakamha, a Maya word related to rivers, and reflecting the place’s abundant sources of water.

Topped with its distinctive Maya-style roof comb, the Temple of the Inscriptions was built in the late seventh century. Its inscriptions, including the second longest Maya glyphic text ever found, provide historians with a source of rich information on Palenque.
Photograph by Cem Canbay, Age Fotostock
During his reign as ajaw, Pakal built the Great Palace at Palenque. His son, K’inich Kan B’alam, added its most distinctive feature, this four-story tower, in the early 700s.
Photograph by W. Skrypczak, Alamy, ACI

Palenque’s first inhabitants likely settled the site around the first century B.C. As the city grew, it prospered enough to later assert its influence over other peoples in the region. Palenque grew wealthy from trade as well as from tributes collected from subjugated cities.

Like other Maya cities, Palenque was ruled by an official known as an ajaw. The position has been compared to a king, but many scholars liken it more to that of a powerful governor or lord. The title seems to have been hereditary with power passing from fathers to sons.

The city was structured around the palace, a large central building, which was the seat of power of the ruling dynasty. Around it stood dynastic mausoleums and temples dedicated to the great deities.
Photograph by Illustration by Trasancos 3d
Temple of the Cross is imagined with its original bright paint.
Photograph by Illustration by Trasancos 3d

The ajaw served as a link between the gods and the people. Glyphic inscriptions found at Palenque revealed that the people believed the gods controlled the weather. The city’s mysterious mist and storms could both disrupt and drive the agriculture on which the city depended. It was the ajaw’s role to intercede with the gods to help protect and feed his people.

Around A.D. 431, Palenque’s ruling dynasty was founded by a leader named K’uk’ B’alam I. Palenque would reach new heights a couple centuries later in the seventh century when its greatest ajaw—Pakal the Great—came to power. Known as K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (meaning “sun face shield”), he became ajaw when only a child, and his mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, ruled as regent until he came of age. He held power from 615 until his death in 683 at about 80 years of age. During his reign, Pakal transformed Palenque from relative obscurity into a city that rivalled other great Maya cities such as Tikal.

(Exploring the temples and traditions of Chiapas, Mexico's Maya heartland.)

Palaces and temples

Pakal’s city was divided into two areas: a central public area—the Great Plaza, surrounded by monuments—and a separate residential zone. The sophisticated city had aqueducts, public squares, and recreational ball courts. Civil power was focused on the Great Palace. Other structures had stood on the same site in previous eras, but this soaring structure, dominated by its four-story tower, was built in Pakal’s time.

A ceramic censer featuring an effigy of an unknown dignitary from A.D. 600-900
Photograph by AKG, Album

The impressive Temple of the Inscriptions was begun during Pakal’s reign. This remarkable stepped pyramid is a classic example of Maya architecture, featuring nine distinct levels crowned by a temple with an iconic Maya roof comb at the top. The building’s greatest treasures, perhaps, are the detailed glyphs and images inscribed on its walls. These markings record the history of Palenque and its people, providing valuable insight into the culture, beliefs, rituals, and the worldview of Palenque’s residents.

One account depicts a destructive invasion carried out before Pakal’s time. The forces of Calakmul (Kaan), a Maya city deep in the jungle of the Petén basin to the east, attacked the city. The accounts describe the onslaught in dramatic terms, recounting the widespread destruction that swept through the city.

The inscriptions recount how the Calakmul had “thrown down” the principal deities of the city, but Pakal restored the gods, returning them to their rightful places of worship. Pakal constructs a narrative that placed him at the centre as a saviour who restored divine order to the city and its people.

The deities that Pakal restored were three gods closely bound to Palenque’s identity. Known as the Palenque Triad, scholars have dubbed them GI, GII, and GIII. Their exact nature is complex, each with multiple functions and often interrelated to other Maya gods worshipped in other cities.

Three more structures in Palenque were erected to strengthen ties with the gods. Pakal’s son and heir, K’inich Kan B’alam (which means “shining snake jaguar”) began work on a new ritual landscape south of the palace and temple complex built by his father. Known collectively as the Cross Group, the complex was built in the eighth century. It consists of the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. The complex’s name comes from the resemblance of temple motifs to a cross. In fact, they are iterations of the Maya World Tree, a central connecting factor in Maya cosmology.

The steps leading up to the Temple of the Cross can be seen in the foreground. The Grand Palace and its tower rise in the background.
Photograph by Diego Grandi, Alamy, ACI

Each of the three temples is connected to a god in the Palenque triad: The Temple of the Cross is associated with GI, the Temple of the Foliated Cross with GII, and the Temple of the Sun with GIII. Of these gods, it is perhaps GII that is best understood by archaeologists thanks to inscriptions, images on censors discovered in the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and reliefs. His name is Unen K’awiil, the “infant,” associated with maize and rain. Inscriptions bind the “infant” GII to the idea of dynastic fertility, and to the legitimacy of Palenque’s rulers.

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Temples and tombs

The first Europeans to see these ruins gazed on them in the 1600s. They were amazed by their beauty; in the subsequent centuries, more visitors traveled to Palenque to observe these buildings and record their magnificent artworks.

A vivid stucco relief from Temple XIX at Palenque depicts K’inich Janaab’ Pakal II (also known as Upakal K’inich), who ruled the city in the late eighth century.
Photograph by Travelpix, Alamu

The first modern archaeological studies began in the 20th century. The work of Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz was among the most important. Working in the 1950s, he made a significant find in the Temple of the Inscriptions 

He recorded that a chamber, located at the lowest part of the temple, “resembled an abandoned chapel. Across the walls stucco figures processed in relief. The floor . . . was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab.” The body under the slab, covered with a jade death mask wearing a penetrating gaze, was identified as Pakal, laid to rest there after his death in 683.

The magnificent sarcophagus lid, inscribed with Maya glyphs, and elaborate imagery centring on a crouched figure, became the source of widespread fascination. Mayanists assert the likely interpretation is that the figure is Pakal posed before the Maya World Tree. In the tomb, his body was surrounded by jade objects, whose green color symbolises maize and water, the materials on which Maya civilisation rested. Some of the tomb’s objects were dusted with cinnabar, an ore of oxidised mercury, whose red color represents blood, life, and the afterlife.

The elaborate stone sarcophagus lid of Pakal the Great depicts the ruler adorned in the garments of a god.

Stability continued into the reign of Pakal’s grandson and beyond, but by the mid-800s, Palenque’s influence in the region started to falter. By 900 Palenque would be empty, believed to be part of what scholars call the Maya collapse, an as yet unexplained abandonment of the great urban centres of the empire. Palenque’s buildings would stand strong as their vivid colours faded over time.

Uncovered centuries later, Palenque’s monuments continue to proclaim their people’s past glory. Archaeologists are continuing to explore these. In the 1990s a passageway hidden under the stairs of Temple XIII was found to lead to another tomb of a highborn woman, now known as the “Red Queen.” She is now believed to be Lady Tz’akbu Ajaw, Pakal’s queen consort.

A team of archaeologists, led by Arnoldo Gonzalez, in 2016 announced the discovery of a water tunnel under the Temple of the Inscriptions and Pakal’s tomb. They believe the tomb and pyramid were deliberately placed on top of a spring so that the water would provide Pakal’s spirit a way to travel to the underworld.

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