Published June 23, 2022

15 min read

Deep in the jungle of Mexico’s state of Chiapas stands the ruins of a Maya city known today as Palenque. Surrounded by a thick canopy of cedar and mahogany, some 1,500 individual structures make up the ancient complex, whose center is dominated by a palace and ringed by temples.

Although Palenque is relatively small compared to other Maya sites such as Chichén Itza or Tikal, the fine detail and elegance of its architecture has stunned visitors since its heyday. The slender walls of its of monuments were once coated with a layer of stucco and painted with brilliant reds and blues. Although these colors have long faded, Palenque’s ornate friezes and stonework endured. So too has its rich repository of inscriptions, most notably on the panels in the city’s largest stepped pyramid known as the Temple of the Inscriptions.  

As historians sift through Palenque’s visual treasures and decode the intricacies of its glyphs, they have learned how the city’s ruling dynasty, architecture, and faith were all bound together. They reflected the beliefs of the wider Maya world while also proclaiming Palenque’s own distinctive religious traditions and gods.

(Who was the ‘Red Queen’, a Mayan mystery woman buried in Palenque?)

City origins

“Maya” is a 20th-century term for the civilization that flourished across southern Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. It flourished during what scholars called its Classic period, from A.D. 250 to 900. Maya civilization was hegemonic and consisted of numerous, independent power centers unified by common languages, calendars, and a system of writing, as well as religious rituals and customs. Palenque belonged to this network. Despite these connections, these cities often were in conflict with each other. Palenque was no exception.

(In search of the lost empire of the Maya.)

The name Palenque comes from a Spanish word meaning “stockade.” The name was initially given by 16th-century Spanish settlers to a nearby town, which over time became associated with the ruins themselves. Today, some historians believe the people of Palenque may have known the city as Lakamha, a Maya word related to rivers, and reflecting the place’s abundant sources of water.

Palenque’s first inhabitants likely settled the site around the first century B.C. As the city grew, it prospered enough to later assert its influence over other peoples in the region. Palenque grew wealthy from trade as well as from tributes collected from subjugated cities.

Like other Maya cities, Palenque was ruled by an official known as an ajaw. The position has been compared to a king, but many scholars liken it more to that of a powerful governor or lord. The title seems to have been hereditary with power passing from fathers to sons.

The ajaw served as a link between the gods and the people. Glyphic inscriptions found at Palenque revealed that the people believed the gods controlled the weather. The city’s mysterious mist and storms could both disrupt and drive the agriculture on which the city depended. It was the ajaw’s role to intercede with the gods to help protect and feed his people.

Around A.D. 431, Palenque’s ruling dynasty was founded by a leader named K’uk’ B’alam I. Palenque would reach new heights a couple centuries later in the seventh century when its greatest ajaw—Pakal the Great—came to power. Known as K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (meaning “sun face shield”), he became ajaw when only a child, and his mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, ruled as regent until he came of age. He held power from 615 until his death in 683 at about 80 years of age. During his reign, Pakal transformed Palenque from relative obscurity into a city that rivaled other great Maya cities such as Tikal.

(Ancient Maya believed a rain god resided in caves and cenotes.)

Builders of Palenque

In 1832 Jean-Frédéric Waldeck sketched this relief from Palenque depicting a seated ruler adorned with jewelry on a jaguar throne.

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Royal seat

In 1832 Jean-Frédéric Waldeck sketched this relief from Palenque depicting a seated ruler adorned with jewelry on a jaguar throne.


Spain’s Charles III commissioned a survey of Palenque by Antonio del Río and artist Ricardo Almendáriz in 1784. At that time, the Spaniards could not conceive that indigenous peoples were capable of creating such marvels, and del Río misguidedly concluded that the Phoenicians or Romans “pursued their conquests even to this country, where they remained long enough to enable the Indian tribes to imitate their ideas.” In 1840 American J.L. Stephens and English artist Frederick Catherwood visited the site, and they concluded that the writings in the Temple of the Inscriptions matched those they had seen at Copán. Their theory that these and other sites formed part of an extensive, indigenous civilization helped pave the way for the Maya studies of the 20th century and the decipherment of Maya glyphs.

Palaces and temples

Pakal’s city was divided into two areas: a central public area—the Great Plaza, surrounded by monuments—and a separate residential zone. The sophisticated city had aqueducts, public squares, and recreational ball courts. Civil power was focused on the Great Palace. Other structures had stood on the same site in previous eras, but this soaring structure, dominated by its four-story tower, was built in Pakal’s time.

The impressive Temple of the Inscriptions was begun during Pakal’s reign. This remarkable stepped pyramid is a classic example of Maya architecture, featuring nine distinct levels crowned by a temple with an iconic Maya roof comb at the top. The building’s greatest treasures, perhaps, are the detailed glyphs and images inscribed on its walls. These markings record the history of Palenque and its people, providing valuable insight into the culture, beliefs, rituals, and the worldview of Palenque’s residents.

One account depicts a destructive invasion carried out before Pakal’s time. The forces of Calakmul (Kaan), a Maya city deep in the jungle of the Petén basin to the east, attacked the city. The accounts describe the onslaught in dramatic terms, recounting the widespread destruction that swept through the city.

The inscriptions recount how the Calakmul had “thrown down” the principal deities of the city, but Pakal restored the gods, returning them to their rightful places of worship. Pakal constructs a narrative that placed him at the center as a savior who restored divine order to the city and its people.

Death and rebirth

The sarcophagus lid features a rendering of the possible colors used when it was created in the seventh century for Pakal's tomb.

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The sarcophagus lid features a rendering of the possible colors used when it was created in the seventh century for Pakal’s tomb.

Illustration by Trasancos 3D

The 1952 discovery by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz of Pakal’s burial chamber below the Temple of the Inscriptions revolutionized historians’ understanding of Palenque and the Maya. Pakal’s sarcophagus lid is made from a single piece of limestone that weighs about seven tons. Decorated with an intricate relief, the lid is now considered one of the great treasures of universal art. There are several interpretations of the scene on the lid, but most scholars agree that the central figure depicts Pakal transformed into the god of maize, fertility, and abundance. Behind him is the Maya World Tree; some scholars believe Pakal is falling down the tree into the underworld, while others have posited that he is preparing to ascend it. Beneath Pakal is the Earth Monster, from which Pakal may be emerging as he is reborn. Around the edges of the lid are adornments representing the sky and celestial objects, as well as Pakal’s ancestors. Through this impressive lid, Pakal wanted to leave a record of the prosperity that his dynasty had brought to the city.

The deities that Pakal restored were three gods closely bound to Palenque’s identity. Known as the Palenque Triad, scholars have dubbed them GI, GII, and GIII. Their exact nature is complex, each with multiple functions and often interrelated to other Maya gods worshipped in other cities.

Three more structures in Palenque were erected to strengthen ties with the gods. Pakal’s son and heir, K’inich Kan B’alam (which means “shining snake jaguar”) began work on a new ritual landscape south of the palace and temple complex built by his father. Known collectively as the Cross Group, the complex was built in the eighth century. It consists of the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. The complex’s name comes from the resemblance of temple motifs to a cross. In fact, they are iterations of the Maya World Tree, a central connecting factor in Maya cosmology.

Each of the three temples is connected to a god in the Palenque triad: The Temple of the Cross is associated with GI, the Temple of the Foliated Cross with GII, and the Temple of the Sun with GIII. Of these gods, it is perhaps GII that is best understood by archaeologists thanks to inscriptions, images on censors discovered in the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and reliefs. His name is Unen K’awiil, the “infant,” associated with maize and rain. Inscriptions bind the “infant” GII to the idea of dynastic fertility, and to the legitimacy of Palenque’s rulers.

(Angkor Wat, the world’s biggest religious complex, is sacred to two faiths.)

Temples and tombs

The first Europeans to see these ruins gazed on them in the 1600s. They were amazed by their beauty; in the subsequent centuries, more visitors traveled to Palenque to observe these buildings and record their magnificent artworks.

The first modern archaeological studies began in the 20th century. The work of Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz was among the most important. Working in the 1950s, he made a significant find in the Temple of the Inscriptions 

He recorded that a chamber, located at the lowest part of the temple, “resembled an abandoned chapel. Across the walls stucco figures processed in relief. The floor . . . was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab.” The body under the slab, covered with a jade death mask wearing a penetrating gaze, was identified as Pakal, laid to rest there after his death in 683.

The magnificent sarcophagus lid, inscribed with Maya glyphs, and elaborate imagery centering on a crouched figure, became the source of widespread fascination. Mayanists assert the likely interpretation is that the figure is Pakal posed before the Maya World Tree. In the tomb, his body was surrounded by jade objects, whose green color symbolizes maize and water, the materials on which Maya civilization rested. Some of the tomb’s objects were dusted with cinnabar, an ore of oxidized mercury, whose red color represents blood, life, and the afterlife.

Stability continued into the reign of Pakal’s grandson and beyond, but by the mid-800s, Palenque’s influence in the region started to falter. By 900 Palenque would be empty, believed to be part of what scholars call the Maya collapse, an as yet unexplained abandonment of the great urban centers of the empire. Palenque’s buildings would stand strong as their vivid colors faded over time.

A broken malachite mask found in the tomb of the “Red Queen” is now believed to have belonged to Pakal’s consort.

Queen’s mask

A broken malachite mask found in the tomb of the “Red Queen” is now believed to have belonged to Pakal’s consort.


Uncovered centuries later, Palenque’s monuments continue to proclaim their people’s past glory. Archaeologists are continuing to explore these. In the 1990s a passageway hidden under the stairs of Temple XIII was found to lead to another tomb of a highborn woman, now known as the “Red Queen.” She is now believed to be Lady Tz’akbu Ajaw, Pakal’s queen consort.

A team of archaeologists, led by Arnoldo Gonzalez, in 2016 announced the discovery of a water tunnel under the Temple of the Inscriptions and Pakal’s tomb. They believe the tomb and pyramid were deliberately placed on top of a spring so that the water would provide Pakal’s spirit a way to travel to the underworld.

Temples of sea, earth, and sky

Looking over the lush expanses of Palenque, the Great Palace is distinguished by its sturdy watchtower on the left. The Temple of the Cross sits at the top of a long flight of steps.

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Up the hill

Looking over the lush expanses of Palenque, the Great Palace is distinguished by its sturdy watchtower on the left. The Temple of the Cross sits at the top of a long flight of steps. Its builders used the hilly terrain to give the structure a natural sense of height.

Macduff Everton/National Geographic

The temples of Palenque’s so-called Cross Group each represent a different tier of the Maya cosmos and one of the city’s three major deities. The Temple of the Cross is sacred to the triad member known as GI and to the realm of ocean. The Temple of the Foliated Cross was dedicated to GII, known as Unen K’awiil, associated with the earthly realm of rain, crops, and the rulers of Palenque. As its name suggests, the Temple of the Sun was linked with the heavens, and its GIII god is associated with the Sun Jaguar deity, and war.

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