Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Stairways and Terraces of the West Acropolis

One of the greatest centers of Mayan civilization in Mexico, Yaxchilan is located on a large horseshoe bend in the Usumacinta river, about 75 miles south-east of Palenque, in the jungles of the Lacandon Rainforest right on the Guatemalan border. No roads lead to the site, and it is usually reached by boat from Frontera Corazal, about 20 miles upriver, or from Tenosique, about 50 miles downriver. There are many tour operators in Palenque, who do 1 or 2 day trips to Yaxchilan and Bonampak for about 50 to 60 dollars, depending on the exchange rate. There is also an airstrip that can accomodate small planes.

Yaxchilan was first inhabited around 200 A.D., but most of the structures at the site date from about 500 to 800 A.D. The city was dominated by the dynasty of the Jaguar cult, beginning with Yat-Balam, or Penis of the Jaguar, in 320 A.D., and reached it's peak during the reigns of Escudo-Balam, or Shield-Jaguar, and his son, Pajaro-Balam, or Bird-Jaguar, who ruled from 681 to 771 A.D., and erected many of the finest temples and most of the carved and hieroglyphic monuments at the site. Like most Classic Mayan sites, Yaxchilan was apparently abandoned shortly after 800 A.D.

The city consists of a series of long plazas and terraces, surrounded by numerous buildings situated on the shoreline above the horseshoe bend in the river, and a series of magnificent hilltop temple complexes set high above the Main Plaza. The site continues to the east, well beyond the Main Plaza, but this area has not been explored and is not open to the public. Numerous large carved and hieroglyphic Stelae have been recovered from the site, as well as some of the finest carved lintels in Mexico. There is also a hieroglyphic stairway, but unfortunately this is not very well preserved.

View of the Entry to the Site

The site is approached from the west, along the river. Then the path turns to the right, revealing a pyramid in the emerald jungle, and once this is reached, a left turn leads into an arcade and a long, dark covered passageway in the back of Structure 19. One emerges through the doorways of the structure on the other side, gaining access to the Main Plaza and the ceremonial precinct of the city. Watch out for flying bats in the passageway.

Facade of Structure 19 from the Plaza

Rising at the western edge of the Main Plaza, Structure 19 serves as the entry to the site today, and it exhibits the typical characteristics of the Yaxchilan style. The building is long and low, with 3 broad horizontal bands. Access to the interior is through multiple doorways, separated by stucco relief panels. Above this, the area of the vaults is articulated with an elaborate frieze, which was covered with carved and painted stucco reliefs. An open-work roof cresting, also finished with stucco, completed the composition at the top. The roofcombs are said to have whistled in the wind.

View of Main Plaza and Structure 6

This view is taken in the eastern end of the Main Plaza, looking north towards the river, and toward Structures 6 and 7 above the shoreline. These buildings appear to have experienced some significant settlement, because they are half covered with earth mounds, and their interior spaces are almost completely underground. The large fig tree in the foreground is probably at least several hundred years old.

View of fallen Monumental Stele 11

This Stele, which must have stood over 15 feet tall, lies in the north-eastern corner of the Main Plaza near the edge of the river. It depicts the celebration of a Flapstaff ritual in 746 A.D., where Bird-Jaguar, the son on the right, takes over the reigns of power from his father, Shield Jaguar on the left. The flapstaff, or double-headed serpent bar, was a symbol of rulership, akin to a scepter, and is depicted standing between the two figures. Strangely enough, Shield-Jaguar had already been dead for four years when this event occurred, and was apparently being expropriated by the son in order to legitimize his claim to the throne.
Hieroglyphic texts around the scene, and in the panel at the bottom, record the event and the figures, and their time and place in the calendar and the cosmos. On the upper left in the lower panel, the first glyph with the long cigar-like shape is the place name of the city of Yaxchilan. Due to the great wealth of hieroglyphic inscriptions on it's monuments, the site has been crucial in the discovery of historical information about the Maya, as well as the decipherment of their writing system.

View up the Stairway to Temple 33

Near the center of the Main Plaza the site rises sharply to the south, and here a stairway ascends through a series of terraces and past several buildings up to Temple 33, one of the largest and most magnificent structures in Yaxchilan. The perforated roofcomb of the temple can just be seen peeking out from between the trees at the top of the picture. Set into the center of the stairway is a small platform with a stele bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions relating to the temple above.
Temple 33 was built by Bird-Jaguar during the first half of his reign, and it contains important monuments relating to his accession to the throne and the legitimacy of his claim to rulership. The base on the north side of the building contains carved stone reliefs depicting both Shield-Jaguar and Bird-Jaguar playing the ritual Ballgame on the hieroglyphic steps. The lintels above the three doorways of the temple also hold magnificent carved reliefs showing scenes from Bird-Jaguar's reign.

Lintel 1 over Left Doorway of Temple 33

The lintels over the doorways of Mayan temples were made of large stone slabs, which carry the weight of the walls above the opening. The bottom of these slabs was often reserved for the finest and most important carved decorations on the temple, even though they could only be seen by the privileged few, standing in the doorways and looking straight up at the lintels. The act of passing through the doorway was symbolic of agreement with, or adherence to the narrative scenes and messages depicted.
Lintel 1 over the left doorway of Temple 33 represents the accession of Bird-Jaguar to the throne of Yaxchilan in 752 A.D. The king is shown wearing an elaborate headdress and holding a double-headed serpent bar across his chest, and the God K scepter in his right hand. God K is associated with bloodletting, kingship and the summoning of the ancestors. Behind the ruler, and smaller on the right, is Lady Great-Skull-Zero, his wife, holding a bundle of items for the Vision Serpent ritual.

North Facade of the West Acropolis

The West Acropolis, also called Small Acropolis, is located on a steep hill at the western end of the site, above the main entrance. It is a later complex built around two terraced courtyards at different levels, and contains several structures from Bird-Jaguar's reign. The main plaza at the top is trapezoidal and is surrounded by palace structures with broad stairways, and a complex series of steps and terraces on three sides. See also the header image at the top of this page which I think of as a symphony of steps and terraces.

Andreas Kultermann -
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