How can a large city -- famed for its art, scholarship, and bold leadership -- shut up shop one day? And be reclaimed by the jungle?
That is a question that has bedeviled historians and archaeologists for almost two centuries. We are no closer to understanding why it happened than when the question was first raised.
What we do know is that the Maya city-states were very successful centers of human endeavor and success. And one of the best places to see that success is the Maya city of Palenque -- once a regional capital.
Now it is a ruin. But a magnificent ruin. And the epitome of what an archaeological site should be. Mysterious. Carefully restored. Solemn. In a jungle setting that would do Indiana Jones proud.
As always, we need a bit of history to get ourselves oriented. Palenque was one of the regional capitals of the classical period of the Maya. That period ran from 100 BC to 800 AD over an area covering the Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
But Palenque's golden days were far more concentrated. From 600 to 800 AD. And its history centers primarily around one ruler. Pakal.
No other building on the site sums up Palenque's regard for Pakal as does the Temple of Inscriptions. It was built during Pakal's reign -- 615 to 683 AD -- for his tomb. A tomb that was left undiscovered until 1952.
The building looms over every other restored building -- even though there is an unrestored pyramid in the jungle that is taller.
And, in that, there is a tale. Only 5 percent of Palenque's buildings have been explored and restored. There are over 1000 structures that are still claimed by the jungle. What we know of Palenque from the current record is only part of its story.
But, based on that limited record, Pakal is regarded as one of the great men of Maya history. And Palenque is all about Pakal.
From his palace with its astronomy tower, living quarters, and school.
To the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and Temple of the Sun -- all of which celebrate Pakal's authority and his passing of power to his son.
Archaeologists recently discovered another tomb -- next to the Temple of Inscriptions. This one included the body of a woman painted red and decorated with a jade mask and jade jewelry. No one knows who she was. But she was undoubtedly related to Pakal.
His mother. His sister. His wife. No one knows. However, due to the red paint on her body, archaeologists have dubbed her, with Carrollian tongue in cheek: The Red Queen.
I have a preference for archaeologist sites that allow me to meet the inhabitants on a human level. And Palenque excels in that regard.
Maya art is very accessible. All of the buildings were covered inside and out with stucco. The stucco was then painted in bright symbolic colors. After 1400 years some of the color remains. Such as in this mural.
Or in this panel that shows Pakal deriving his creation power from the life-giving corn plant and pasing it along to his son.
Even the bas-relief statues show a people we can recognize as individuals -- even when they are portrayed symbolically as warriors. But, after all, what great society does not honor its war heroes?
The Maya were one of the few American people who left a written record behind. An odd form combining both hieroglyphics and an alphabet. A language whose code was broken only in the middle of the twentieth century. Only half of the writings have been translated with any confidence.
But it is the small details of the city that give it its real life. Such as the aqueduct designed to bring fresh mountain water into the city.
Or the slab of rock that served as a sleeping platform.
Or the handy toilet in the palace.
The palace was a place for the elite to learn about and to enjoy life. Even though the building was made of stone, the builders took care to add windows that allow both light and wind to enter the structure. All in the shape of the symbol for the wind god.
This particular window served another purpose. It is located in the astronomy tower. On the winter solstice (21 December), when the sun is reborn each year, its light shines directly through this window.
All of this came to an abrupt end. For 200 years, Palenque was at the top of its form. In another hundred years, the people simply wandered away from the city.
No one knows why. There are plenty of theories. Incest amongst the ruling class. Droughts. Environmental depravation. And a list of other possibilities. Maybe they all combined together to cause the Maya to lose their reliance on the elite of urban society.
Whatever the reasons, the people left and the jungle reclaimed its territory.
Our guide offered to take us on a jungle tour to see a portion of the unreconstructed structures. And to possibly see howler moneys and toucans.
We heard the monkeys and the toucans, but we never saw them. What we did see were hill after hill of jungle-covered structures.
And there was some wildlife. A parrot.
A rather angry baby garter snake that struck at anything potentially aggressive. Like my sandaled toe.
An iguana looking as if its image was being sculpted in stone for posterity. But they always look a bit regal -- and dim-witted.
A lizard. Lots of fast-moving slithery creatures.
A bit of colorful lichen eating away at the Palace's facade.
And this delightful little world in miniature.
Without doubt, Palenque was the highlight of the trip for me. I could have stayed there for at least five days. Often simply to meditate on the steps of its temples. And I very well may do that in the future.
For this trip, though, I will pack Pakal away and head back to Melaque for one day.
And then I am off to Oregon.