Umxal Temple of the Magician

Uxmal was a regional capital during the Mayan Late Classic period. It is located about an hour's drive south from the colonial city of Merida, within Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. At its peak around 800-900 C.E., it's estimated that over 20,000 people lived in and around this metropolis.

Mayan legend claims that a dwarf magician, born from a egg, built the city of Uxmal in a single night. In reality, archaeological excavations reveal that the Pyramid of the Magician (above) itself was erected in a series of five successive builds upon existing, lesser pyramids. This was a common Mayan building practice, thought to capture and amplify the power of the underlying structure.

Mesoamerican pyramids primarily functioned as places of ceremony and worship rather than as tombs as in ancient Egypt, although there are some early exceptions, such as in Palenque, that also hold the remains of rulers. Each Mayan pyramid held a sanctuary chamber at it's apex from where rituals were performed. The imposing stature of these pyramids, with intricate depictions of their deities, helped to establish the rulers' status as intermediaries to the gods. Hieroglyphs commonly engraved upon these monuments told tales of a ruler's reign, depicting significant events such as their birth, marriages, conquests and sacrifices. Ritualistic practices, often in the form of blood-letting and human sacrifice, were performed as offerings to the gods to ensure their future success with harvests and in warfare. Captured enemies and slaves were often dismembered alive atop altars, often through the form of decapitation or extraction of the heart.

Large Mayan urban centers such as Uxmal demonstrate a complex understanding of city planning. Hills were constructed to raise prominent buildings, such as the palaces of dignitaries and ceremonial structures. This is evident with the Palace of the Governor, shown behind the ball-court in the picture below. Stone palaces such as this were reserved for dignitaries and priests, while the general population lived in small grass huts.

Uxmal Mayan Ballcourt

One central aspect of Mayan life was the ball game, filling both a recreational and a political role. Mesoamericans have participated in this sport for three thousand years, making the longest lasting sport in human history. Today the rules of this game are largely unknown, but it's believed that the objective was to use one's stomach and hips to score goals by bouncing a rubber ball through a vertical hoop located at the opposite side of the ball-court (above). At the end of the Classic Period, sacrifice also became a brutal aspect of the game, with the losing team members faced with the prospect of decapitation.

Uxmal Palace Complex Corner Detail
Yucatan Uxmal Pyramid and Palace
Uxmal Palace False Arch
Nunnery Quadrangle

Corner detail of the Nunnery Quadrangle building complex features repeated mosaics of the rain god Chaac.

Pyramid of the Magician

The Pyramid is an example of the Chenes architectual style, where the entrance of the sanctuary is encircled by the mouth of their creator god Itzamna.

Vaulted Arch

This vaulted arch at the Governors Palace shows the typical interior shape of Mayan architecture.