Palenqueย  also anciently known as Lakamha “Big Water” , was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date from ca. 226 BC to ca. 799 AD.ย  After its decline, it was overgrown by the jungle of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees, but has since been excavated and restored with an onsite museum. It is located near the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas resides at 150 meters (490 ft) above sea level.

Mayan temple ruins at Palenque in Mexico

Palenque is a medium-sized site, smaller than Tikalย  but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb andย  relief carvings that the Mayas produced. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments; historians now have a long sequence of the ruling dynasty of Palenque in the 5th century and extensive knowledge of the city-state’s rivalry with other states such as Calakmul and Toninรก. The most famous ruler of Palenque was K’inich Janaab Pakal, or Pacal the Great, whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions. On the lid, as in his tomb, Pakal is positioned in an intermediary space, between the heavensโ€”symbolized by the world tree and bird above himโ€”and Xibalba, the Maya underworld. In addition to the remains of Pakal, precious materials such as jade, shells, pearls, and obsidians were discovered inside the sarcophagus.

It is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.

The first published account of this lost city was in 1567, from aย  Friarย  of the Dominican Order Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada. Lorenzo came upon its stone temples, terraces, plazas and architecture, originally decorated with blue- and red-painted stucco but by then long abandoned by the Maya who built it. Lorenzo gave the grand structure the name Palenque, a Spanish word meaning “fortification.” ย  As drought and warfare tore apart the social and political fabric of the Maya ย  the Spanish conquistadors began claiming Maya land for plantations and subjugating Maya people to work on them, many residents of storied stone cities such as Yaxchilan and Palenque fled to the countryside in search of a better life. Ultimately they founded a host of new Maya cultures. Some people, known as the Lacandon Maya, established themselves in the forests around Lake Mensabak in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Their descendants still live in this region today. They are the Hach Winik, โ€œthe true peopleโ€ in Yucatec Mayan.

The rulers of Palenque were called the “Holy Lord of Toktahn” or “Holy Lord of Baakal”, and among the king list are several legendary leaders, including Snake Spine and Ch’a Ruler I. ย  The very first named ruler of Palenque is GI, the First Father, said to have been born 3122 BCE, and the Ancestral Goddess said to have been born 3121 BCE.

The dynastic rulers of Palenque begin with Bahlum-Kuk or K’uk Balahm, the Quetzal Jaguar, who took the throne of Palenque in 431 AD.

Lengthy Mayan texts, which researchers have used to translate Maya script.

16th century

The quest to decipher Maya hieroglyphs began with the very Spanish invaders whoseย  rule did so much to wipe out the ancient Maya script. Among them was the conquistador Hernando Cortes, who led massacres in Mexico but who also, some scholars believe, had the famous Dresden Codexโ€”one of just four Maya illustrated books surviving todayโ€”shipped back to Spain. Another was Diego de Landa, a friar bent on replacing indigenous with Christian beliefs. In what amounts to a crime against the cultural heritage of humanity, Landa orchestrated the burning in 1562 of hundreds if not thousands of Maya bark-paper books, which he deemed heretical. Yet four years later, Landa wrote a manuscript about the Maya world called “Relation of the Things of Yucatan” (left). Together, this manuscript and the Dresden Codex proved essential in the later decoding of the Maya’s calendar system and their advanced understanding of astronomy and mathematics


Actual decipherment began with an eccentric European genius named Constantine Rafinesque, who boasted of having dabbled in more than a dozen professions, from archeology to zoology. His insatiable thirst for knowledge had led Rafinesque to a reproduction of just five pages of the Dresden Codex, from which he was able to crack the Maya’s system of counting. In 1832, Rafinesque declared in his newsletter, the Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, that the dots and bars seen in Maya glyphs (like these at left, from the Dresden Codex) represented simple numbersโ€”a dot equaled one and a bar five. Later findings proved him right and also revealed that the Maya even had a symbol for zero, which appeared on Mesoamerican carvings as early as 36 B.C. (Zero didn’t appear in Western Europe until the 12th century.)

Photo documentation

Britain’s Alfred Maudslay was a respected diplomat, but he would be best remembered for his work as an amateur Mayanist. Fascinated by scholars’ writings on the Maya and by new advancements in photography, Maudslay set out to create as complete a record as possible of the civilization’s architecture and art. Using a large-format, glass-plate camera, he captured highly detailed images of Maya sites, including clear close-ups of the glyphs (left). He also prepared papier-mรขchรฉ casts of several carvings from which accurate drawings were later made. Maudslay had effectively given Maya studies its first systematic corpus, or body, of inscriptions. This helped make further decipherments possible, in part by bringing glyphs to scholars who had limited access to the few surviving Maya texts.

The sounds of the glyphs

While glyph studies languished in the West, a Russian linguist in Moscow was making his own groundbreaking discoveries. In 1952, Yuri Knorosov (left) postulated that the individual symbols in Maya glyphs stood for phonetic sounds, much like English letters do. Knorosov knew that Maya had too many glyphs to be a true alphabet but too few for each glyph to symbolize an entire word. (Maya’s 800-plus glyphs compare to the several thousand characters of Chinese, for example.) He determined that written Maya, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, contained a combination of these elements. Because “west,” in spoken Maya, is “chik’in,” and “k’in” is the word for sun, the hand represents the syllable “chi,” as Knorosov concluded. Fortunately, American scholars Michael and Sophie Coe began publishing Knorosov’s papers in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Otherwise, his important (though incomplete) findings might have been inaccessible to Western scholars until the end of the Cold War.


Scientific debt is owned to the famed Mexican archaeologist Albertoย  Lhuillier, who in 1952 removed a stone inside the Temple of Inscriptions and found the burial tomb of Pakal the Great. This has since become one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas.

500 years later this site is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico with close to 1M visitors x year. Archeological researchers have uncovered some of the most detailed information about Maya culture

How to get there

Leave your vessel at Marina Chiapas on the Pacific coast ( entry and exit in Puerto Maderoย  South Western Mexico) and drive to this site with a shared guided tour – or if you are adventurous drive yourself though Zapatista territory. Although the EZLN is still active and maintains a few strongholds in Chiapas, things are relatively peaceful and there is no threat to tourists. Travelers are advised to respect any roadblocks they may come across in rural areas which may require payment of an unofficial road tax. Get to the site early int he day before most day tourist show up and head to the Museum at mid day to avoid the crowds and chachki vendors inside the park which amass around 11 AM.