The temple-city of Palenque was once a major seat of power in the Mayan society which flourished more than 1,000 years ago. What lies within the Temple of Inscriptions? Who was Lord Pacal? Why did the Mayan astronomer priests manipulate their history?
Tall rain forest cloaks the beautiful ruins of Palenque that nestle on the edge of low hills in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The brilliant plumage of parrots and macaws brightens the dense green of the trees and only the curious shouts of howler monkeys disturb the serene setting of an ancient Mayan ceremonial centre.
In 1841, the American author and traveler John Lloyd Stephens published a book that brought Palenque and the whole of the vanished world of the Maya to the attention of the public. He wrote: "In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate and lost".
The Palace And The Temples
The labyrinth of the palace at Palenque lures the visitor into a series of galleries and rooms which lead eventually to the base of a four-storey tower. From the top of the tower, the Maya once studied the stars and watched over the green plain of the River Usumacinta that stretches 128km (80 mi) to the Gulf of Mexico.
From the tower, the visitor can survey the religious buildings of Palenque. Arranged around a plaza are three similar temples-pyramids: the Temples of the Sun, the Cross, and the Foliated Cross. Each temple is built on top of a stepped pyramid, has a mansard roof surmounted by a curious vertical "comb" structure, and has two vaulted rooms inside.
The innermost room of each temple had a sanctuary where a tablet of stone is beautifully carved with hieroglyphics and two Mayan men. Between the men is a ceremonial object. In the Temple of Sun, said by many to be the most perfect of all Mayan buildings, this object is the mask of the Jaguar God of the Underworld. In the other two temples, it is a tree in the form of a cross upon which sits a bird.
The most remarkable of all the buildings at Palenque is the Temple of Inscriptions. To reach it, the visitor must climb 19.9m (65ft) up the steep stairway at the front of the pyramid. On each of the four supporting pillars of the temple are life-size stucco figures, each holding either a baby or a small child.
The Crypt In The Pyramid's Heart
Little was known of the Temple of Inscriptions until 1949 when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuiller found a huge stone slab in the floor of the temple. He removed it to find the beginnings of a staircase blocked by a mass of rubble which took him and his workforce three years to clear. At the foot of the stairs, which was exactly at ground level, Lhuiller discovered an upright triangular slab of stone and the skeletons of six young people who were reportedly sacrificial victims.
When he removed the slab, Lhuiller opened a tomb that had remained untouched for more than 1,000 years. He described it as "an enormous room that happened to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planed in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites; like the dripping of a candle"
In this funerary crypt was a five-ton slab of richly carved stone lying on top of a sarcophagus; all around the walls were sculptured reliefs of the nine Mayan Lords of the Night. Within the sarcophagus, Lhullier found the remains of a tall man who had been about 40 years of age when he died. His body and face were covered with green jade jewellery that contrasted sharply with the cinnabar-red lining of his tomb. Most remarkable of all was the death mask of jade mosaic whose eyes were eerily inlaid with obsidian and shell.
The carvings on the lid of the sarcophagus are not, as Erich von Daniken claimed in his book Chariots of the Gods? depictions of an astronaut in a space capsule. Rather, they represent in rich symbolism the transition of one man's living soul to the realms of the dead. Moreover, they show the transformation of a particular Mayan leader into a God.
The Mayan Cult of Ancestors
In the 1970s, Mayan scholars, such as the Americans, Floyd Lounsbury, and Linda Schele, deciphered many of the inscriptions found on the walls of Palenque's temples. These revealed that the skeleton in the funerary crypt belonged to Lord Pacal, which means "Hand-shield". His mother, Lady Zac-Kuk, was ruler before him and may have acted as regent when Pacal ascended the throne at the tender age of 12.
The inscriptions relate that Pacal died when he was 80 years old, in the year AD 683, which is strange since the skeleton belongs to a man half this age. During his rule, the great Palace was built and Palenque reached the height of its power and dominated many of the Mayan settlements in the land. Lord Pacal turned Palenque into a ceremonial centre of great significance, where age-old rituals based on the seasonal cycle of agriculture were combined with an extraordinary ancestor cult.
Lord Pacal was the epitome of the élite class which ruled the Mayan people and was obsessed with the cult of honouring the dead. Pacal's ancestors are carved on the side of his sarcophagus and Pacal's successors all left inscriptions emphasizing their special relationship with him.
Mayan astronomer-priests were also instrumental in this ancestor cult, for it seems they played an intricate numbers game that matched the needs of religion and power with that of history and genealogy. The temple of Inscriptions is so-called because it contains a series of 620 hieroglyphs - the longest in Mayan culture. While not all of these have been decoded, some evidently refer to people and gods who played a part in a history stretching back thousands of years.
Lounsbury found from inscriptions that the Temple of the Cross was dedicated to Pacal's son on exactly the same day as an ancestral mother figure had been born 1,359,540 days (3,724 years) previously. The vast number of days is important because it can be divided by seven significant Mayan cycles, either planetary or calendar. This numerological coincidence, one of many, suggests that Mayan history was contrived to suit the activities of the ruling élite in linking themselves with their ancestors. The last deciphered date found at Palenque is AD 835. After that time, this sacred centre of the Maya was mysteriously abandoned. Only the inscriptions and undiscovered tombs can reveal more of its ceremonial lords. Cumae: An Ancient Cave Of Prophecy: Oracles, Roman Poets & The Entrance To The Underworld