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The Ancient Ruins at Palenque Offer Visitors a Glimpse Into the Mysterious Life of the Maya

January 21, 1990|CLAIRE ROBEY | Robey is a free-lance writer who lives in Oxnard.

PALENQUE, Mexico — The landscape was seductive. Steamy. A green sea of Yucatan rain forest. Under an immense umbrella of quiet, pierced only by the occasional scream of a howler monkey, bougainvillea spread in unexpected shades of amethyst and coral.

The road cut through dense foliage. A skinny, brown-skinned boy, eyes dark as obsidian, stood barefoot by the side of the road clutching an iguana as long as his arm.

Farther on, two vaqueros appeared like an apparition, riding horseback, tanned chests naked above loose, white cotton pants. They rode slowly in the direction of the morning sun.

A parking lot suddenly intruded. There, vintage buses, like dusty prehistoric pachyderms, vied for space under the trees.

We left our rental car and the heat enveloped us. Breathing was difficult.

The air was thick and heavy and the humidity palpable as we picked our way along a gravel path through the jungle. Without warning, the trees parted and we were in a vast clearing hacked by archeologists.

Against an exuberant backdrop of towering glossy-green trees and cascading vines, stone temples, pyramids and shrines rose on heaving mounds of earth. We came at last to the lost city ensconced in some primordial garden of forgotten deities.

This was Palenque and its Mayan ruins are considered the most beautiful in Mexico.

Although Chichen Itza and Uxmal are more renowned, Palenque is centuries older and pure Mayan. It isn't overrun with tourists, and the site boasts the only pyramid tomb to be found in Mexico.

In a large grassy-floored plaza sunk in a dip of undulating jungle, we sat on a stone bench to get our bearings.

A spreading, broad-leafed tree sheltered us from the tropical sun. All around loomed crusty stone shrines with sloping mansard roofs like Chinese temples and intricate fretwork roof combs.

Orange trees have been planted in the plaza, and a Mediterranean scent is borne on the still air to collide with the strangely Oriental aspect.

Our guide, Charlie introduced us to enigmatic Palenque.

More than 1,000 years before Columbus came to this continent, he said, the Maya inhabited the area. Without the aid of the wheel or metal tools or beasts of burden, they constructed this city of stone and decorated it with painting, sculpture and hieroglyphics.

The Maya of Palenque evolved a system of mathematics, calculated the movement of the sun and moon and developed a written language and an accurate, but complex, calendar.

Although the city covered about 20 square miles, the area visitors see is only a little more than 30 acres and must constantly be cleared of growth or the aggressive jungle would consume it in a month.

Until 1952, archeologists believed Mayan pyramids were ceremonial. That was the year they discovered the tomb of a king in the bowels of the Temple of the Inscriptions, an imposing pillared facility on top of a terraced pyramid.

It is a challenging climb of 69 steep and narrow steps to the top, which is 75 feet above the plaza.

Charlie showed us how to ascend at a 45-degree angle, side to side, then scrambled on ahead.

At the top, breathless and chagrined, we stopped to rest, leaning irreverently against a temple pillar.

Bas-reliefs of priests holding up offerings to the sun and the god of maize decorate the pillars. The priest figures are drawn in perspective, a skill the ancient Egyptians never mastered.

Inside the portico, three huge, carved, stone panels contain the hieroglyphics for which the temple is named. Only partially translated, they record the ancestry and accession to the throne to the lord interred within.

After an eerie descent into the pyramid, about 80 feet down narrow and slippery steps, we were rewarded by the sight of the five-tone sarcophagus lid, completely covered with symbolic carvings depicting Lord Pacal, the king of Palenque.

When archeologists raised the lid, they discovered the remains of Lord Pacal was bejeweled with about 1,000 pieces of jade. On his face was a mask made entirely of jade mosaic--one of the most superb works of art from ancient Mexico.

The king is portrayed with a sloped forehead, an attractive characteristic by ancient Mayan standards. "Parents deformed the skulls of their children by tying boards against their foreheads," Charlie explained.

Those who believe in ancient visitors from outer space have speculated that the semi reclining figure of the king represents an alien astronaut blasting off in a rocketship.

The temple itself is constructed so that the sun of winter solstice sets behind it and appears to follow the first stairway into Lord Pacal's tomb--one of 12 known astronomical constructions in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The sprawling palace complex is kinder to amateur ruin-scramblers. The visual center of the city, punctuated by a strange, pagoda-topped tower, is one of the most unusual structures ever built by the Maya.

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