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On the top of a massive stone temple in a lost city near southern Mexico’s densest rainforest, there is a small duct that leads from the floor to a chamber deep within the pyramid itself. According to some, the duct was used by Mayan priests to feed the blood of sacrificial victims to the body that lay in the dark chamber, entombed under tons of rock for centuries. The body was that of the mightiest Maya king: K’inich J’aanab Pakal, or Pacal the Great. Pacal’s descendents revered him as a god, and held elaborate ceremonies on top of his tomb to appease and commune with him. But Pacal did not protect his worshippers: the great city of Palenque would soon vanish under the trees, vines and flowers of the tropical jungle. For centuries this forgotten city would be home only to tribes of monkeys and flocks of parrots and toucans.


Palenque was once known as Lakam Ha, capital of the B’aakal city-state during the classical Maya era (roughly the fifth century to the ninth century A.D.) During the centuries of B’aakal rule at Palenque, the city became the most important center for culture and commerce in the western Maya area. Without use of the wheel, metal tools, or beasts of burden, they forged a great city from stone: the achievement still boggles the mind today. For almost a century (615-683), Palenque was ruled by Pacal the Great, who built the magnificent Temple of the Inscriptions which would later become his tomb.


By the tenth century, the various city-states of the Maya had crumbled beneath wars and natural disasters. Palenque itself was deserted around the ninth century, although local farmers knew of it, referring to it as Otolum, or “the land with strong houses.” Refusing to succumb to time or the elements, the massive stone city remained standing centuries after abandonment. When the Spanish first visited the city in 1567, they named it Palenque, or “fortress” due to its impressive stone walls and structures.


Unfortunately, these stalwart structures could not withstand the effects of Spanish-led expeditions, which resulted in a great deal of damage to the site—particularly to the palace—over the years. In an attempt to combat further damage, the Mexican government funded two different archaeological and preservation projects at the site from 1949-1952, and again in the 1970’s. Although digs have continued, archaeologists estimate that only five percent of the more than 500 structures of Palenque have been uncovered.


Today, Palenque is one of Southern Mexico’s most important traveller destinations. Highlights of the site include the imposing Temple of the Inscriptions, which contains Pacal’s tomb, and the palace—a maze of high walls and gardens that some believe once served as a royal dwelling. Pacal’s great city may have once been forgotten, but neither time nor jungle vines could obscure its undeniable supernatural beauty and mystery.

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