Set in the foothills of the Tumbalá mountains of Chiapas Mexico, Palenque is situated on a ledge overlooking the swampy plains that stretch northward all the way to the Gulf coast. Perhaps it is this positioning between two worlds, that gives Palenque a mystical charm that enchants scientist and tourist alike. The vista of the flat plains to the north, and the misty green of the lush mountain backdrop to the south, captures the imagination of modern visitors and most certainly inspired ancient artists and architects.
This ancient Maya site is located at the western frontier of the lowland Maya region. While the name Palenque comes from a nearby village, it is possible that the village was named after the ancient city or something similar sounding - bahlam kin - jaguar sun - the place where the sun descends into the underworld, the realm of the jaguar.
It was the flood plain of the Usumacinta to the north that most likely provided Palenque's inhabitants with the resources to construct their extraordinary city. Blessed with the highest average rainfall in Mexico, this fertile alluvial plain could have been successfully farmed with raised beds, and would have produced a harvest that not only could sustain a large workforce but would also have provided an abundance that could be traded along the great Usumacinta. It seems that the gods were as enchanted with Palenque as today's visitors.
The architecture of Palenque was truly inventive. They reduced the massive weight of the traditional corbel arch by reducing its span with a dividing wall and the use of tribolated hollows that minimized the stress on load bearing walls. This allowed the Palenque builders to construct buildings with multiple piers and doorways on the front to let air and light into the interior. Mansard roofs decorated with stucco carvings and horizontal moldings gave the Palenque structures a pleasing linear appearance.
The most notable structures of Palenque are the Palace (A) and the Temple of Inscriptions (B) both begun during the reign of Hanab Pacal and added to by his sons, Chan Bahlum and Kan Xul. Also built during Pacal's lifetime was the temple now called the "Temple of the Count" after the artist/adventurer, Count de Waldek who camped out in the temple in 1831 while creating fanciful illustrations of the site. A grouping of temples southeast of the Palace are known as The Cross Group. (C, D, E)
You can learn more about new finds that are still being uncovered by archaeologists in Palenque at http://www.mesoweb.com/palenque.
Off to the west of the main plaza is the first temple built by Pacal, known as the Temple Olvidado (H). Here one can see the first attempts at many of the architectural features seen in subsequent construction: the tribolated vaults and the double room interior with a thin supporting wall.
Other structures at Palenque include Temple XIII adjacent to the Temple of the Inscriptions. In 1994 a secret door was discovered that led to the interior of the pyramid and an underground temple with three rooms. In the middle room was a solid stone coffin with the remains of a woman who archaeologists have called the "Red Queen" because she was covered in cinnabar. There are no inscriptions to identify this apparently royal person. In June 1997 DNA tests were performed on the skeleton of Pacal to determine his relationship with this unknown woman. Results have yet to be published.
Also on the same mound is Temple XII, the first structure visitors see as they enter the site. It is also known as the temple of the Skull and the Temple of the Dead Moon. During 1992-94 over 500 objects were excavated from this Temple. Temple XIV is alongside the Temple of the Sun. The temple is in poor condition but a relief similar to the others in the cross group is on the rear wall.
The Northern Group
The Northern Group consists of four temples, aligned on an artificially leveled terrace. Most notable is the small structure with a pagoda-type roof which inspired some early explorers to connect the site with the Orient.
The Ball Court is just north of the Palace and remains unexcavated. There is a natural pool just below a waterfall on the Otulum river which is known as the Queen's Bath and it is still used as a bathing spot.