The overnight bus journey from Oaxaca was not as bad as I had feared, mostly because they stopped showing films from 10.30pm and other than a few stops en route, the bus was dark and quiet most of the way. Luckily I had the sense to carry my fleece as the air conditioning was set to icy. I’ve not mentioned the on-bus films before but they are a ubiquitous feature of the better intercity coaches. A few companies hand out headphones but the rest inflict the (dubbed) sound track on the entire bus. I rely on my MP3 player to keep me sane and block it out. I do glance at the screen from time to time and now know what I always suspected: most Hollywood films are so flimsy that you can follow the story with occasional glances and without the benefit of the dialogue. So far I’ve ‘seen’ Shrek 4 three times, Prince of Persia twice, too many basketball films, a christian romance, some episodes of CSI and much, much more. I can also tell you that in Julie & Julia poor Meryl Streep seems to have been dubbed by an hysterical female impersonator.
Palenque is a small town with a large Mayan site just down the road. Shunning the barrage of men trying to sell me guided tours I got there on one of the local minibuse routes, which I caught in the standard Mexican fashion: identify which direction the bus you want is likely to be going and stand on a street corner until one goes by with the right sign in the front window (in this case ‘ruinas’) and flag it down.
The Mayan city at Palenque was at its height between 500 and 700AD although occupation began around three centuries earlier. The visitable areas, which are the centre of the city, are quite extensive but much more lies under the surrounding jungle. Indeed there are parts signposted off the main route which very few visitors reach(certainly none of the coach parties) and where you can have a little Indiana Jones moment by yourself.
Most of the main edifices are temples on top of pyramids (some with burial chambers within them). One group has three pyramids of different heights, representing the heavens, earth and the underworld, in descending order. The large stone frameworks on the roofs were originally covered with stucco making them appear solid.
Whilst not the tallest, the most visually dominant building on the site is the central Palacio; this was both the ruler’s residence and the centre of administrative power. It has a tower quite unlike anything else on site that it is speculated was used for astronomical observation.
All the buildings have roofs built using the ‘false’ or corbelled arch: essentially an upside down V shape with the tip sliced off. They are formed by edging the walls on each side closer together by slightly overhanging each layer of masonry and then bridging the gap with a lintel when it gets narrow enough. None of the Mesoamerican cultures developed the ‘true’ arch with a keystone that we are familiar with.
On many of the structures, you can just make out the remains of paintings and moulded stucco work, the latter including portraits of rulers, gods and captives. The hot and humid atmostphere is not doing them any good though and I wonder that they have survived so long.
There are also a lot of glyphs in both stone and stucco. I find this written language utterly fascinating because each symbol is at once both incredibly complicated to carve or write (far more so than Chinese characters say) and also so hard to make out as respresentative (unlike Egyptian heiroglyphics) despite appearing to be on first sight. There’s a Wikipedia article on this script that’s mostly understandable to the layperson, should you be interested in learning more.
The city was situated on a sloping site and the visitor route takes you downhill from entrance to exit. Towards the end it gets much steeper and the two streams that traverse the area become a series of rather beautiful waterfalls.
For the Lego model I’ve chosen the Temple of the Sun, the lowest of the group of three mentioned earlier.
The underworld is represented by the sun god because it was believed that the sun traversed it each night before rising again.