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The Temple of the Inscriptions, Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico (Enlarge)

Vast, mysterious and enchanting, the ruined city of Palenque is considered to be the most beautifully conceived of the Mayan city-states and one of the loveliest archaeological sites in the world. Its geographic setting is splendid beyond words. Nestled amidst steep and thickly forested hills, the ruins are frequently shrouded in thick mists. A cool stream meanders through the city center and from the temple summits there are stupendous views over an immense coastal plain. Here and there, piercing the dark green forests, soar great pyramids, towers and sprawling temple complexes. In its period of cultural florescence Palenque was even more beautiful, for then its limestone buildings were coated with white plaster and painted in a rainbow of pastel hues. Hidden deep in the jungle, the ruin's existence was unknown until 1773. Even then, Palenque was rediscovered and lost several times until 1841 when the explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, with their evocative writings and drawings, introduced this jewel of Mayan architecture to the world.

Scattered pottery shards show that the site was occupied from as early as 300 BC, but most of the buildings were constructed between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. Then, mysteriously, the great city was abandoned and reclaimed by the inexorable claws of the jungle. Even the Mayan name of the city was lost, and the ruins received their current name from the nearby village of Santo Domingo de Palenque. While the ruins have received some of the most extensive excavation and reconstruction efforts of any of the Mayan sites, only 34 structures have been opened of an estimated 500 that are scattered around the area. As one wanders through the ruins or gazes from atop the tall buildings, small hills are seen everywhere about the site. These are not hills, however, but Mayan structures long overgrown with jungle.

The photograph shows an extensive building complex that has been given the name 'the Palace' by archaeologists. Portions of the building may have indeed been used as residences for the high priests and the aristocracy, but it is also believed that the complex served as an administrative center for the once bustling city. Rising four stories above the palace is an astronomical observatory, its structural type unique in the Mayan world. From the tower, on the day of the winter solstice, an observer will see the sun set directly over the Temple of the Inscriptions. Originally this tower did not have a roof. Early archaeologists reconstructing the site, ignorant of the Mayans sophisticated astronomical knowledge, did not understand the purpose of a roofless platform (for viewing the stars) and thus capped it with a roof of their own design.

Pyramid temple of Pacal Votan, Palenque, Mexico (Enlarge)

The 'Palace' and the astronomical observatory at Palenque ruins, Mexico (Enlarge)

Detail of Temple of Pacal Votan, Palenque (Enlarge)

Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico (Enlarge)

Skull carving at Palenque ruins, Mexico (Enlarge)