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The Silk Route - World Travel: Kabah, Mexico
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Mexico: Kabah
May 2012

Kabah Palace of the Masks


Kabah is famous for the Palace of the Masks covered in stone carvings of the rain god Chaac, but there is much more to this Puuc-style city such as the unique king statues and low relief carved warrior panels.

mayan home
A typical Mayan home would have been made with wooden poles forming the framework and roofed with palm frond thatch - nowadays corrugated iron is common.

We left Campeche after breakfast with our new guide and driver, Sami, to visit Kabah and Uxmal en route to Merida.

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He slowed down at one village to point out typical Mayan-style homes of wood poles lashed with liana and roofed with palm frond thatch.

mayan home

Today the floors of these house are probably finished with cement plaster - the Mayans would have used lime plaster.1 Traditionally there would have been no windows and a centrally placed east-facing door.2

We were accompanied by millions of yellow butterflies for long stretches of the drive.

Kabah is predominantly a Puuc-style site. Puuc, meaning "mountain range" or "hills", refers to the low range of hills running along the north west region of the northern Yucatan peninsula and to the flowering of its particular Mayan architectural style between the 7th and 10th centuries.3

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This huge space is called the Lower Plaza and extends east from the entrance to steps up to the Palace Plaza and the Palace beyond.

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North end of the Lower Plaza with restored low-level buildings and, below, seen from the Palace Plaza.
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This very unusual sculpture of a figure with a snake draped around its shoulders now stands in a room near the entrance.

Though there was some kind of settlement at Kabah from as early as 800 B.C. a recognizable town did not exist until around 600 A.D. The city reached its peak between 800 and 1000 A.D. and was later conquered by the Itzas of Chichen Itza before it was abandoned.4 The valleys of the region are fertile and good for agriculture, though water is still a problem and water management systems were needed for both the people and crops.

We explored the main group of restored buildings which include the Palace and the Codz Poop with its famous masks. Again we were the only visitors and were free to wander at will.

There is a cylindrical altar in the Lower Plaza and a number of reconstructed rooms on the north side. These are almost mimicked in the higher level Palace Plaza in front of the Palace though here the altar still stands on a ceremonial platform.

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Palace Plaza
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North side of Palace Plaza
The reconstructed buildings have columns with capitals, lintels and partly curved or angled ceilings in the interiors.
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The ceremonial platform and altar in front of the Palace.

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The palace is adorned with a multitude of round columns used both as decorative and structural elements. They all have square capitals in one form or another, a classic Puuc design.

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A multitude of columns: all along the base of the building, within the walls and windows and in the decorative freeze on the upper floor. note also the corbelled vaults.
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A kind of bobbin stonework which is common in Puuc architecture.
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A passage beneath the Palace steps - a "flying staircase" - is a feature of architecture in this region
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Elite Residence with "flying staircase" and square capitals on round columns.



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Passage beneath the steps

 

On the south side of Palace Plaza is a part-restored building known as the Elite Residence.

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Detail of passage roof construction - this is not a true self-supporting arch but a corbel arch.

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The south west corner of Palace Plaza - behind is the Codz Poop - the Palace of the Masks, the undoubted star of the site.
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The Palace is on the left, Elite Residence the mound next to it, centre the Codz Poop - Palace of the Masks.
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East face of Codz Poop - the Palace of the Masks

We climbed up to the east side of the Codz Poop to view two remarkable statues set in the facade.

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Beautiful stone carving on Codz Poop
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Detail of stone carving; even on the edge of the paving with a particularly nice rope effect on the left.
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The beautiful criss-cross carving is set back beneath a jutting edge above which the statues stand on their pedestals with arms bent.

I really liked the geometric stone carving on this facade, and fascinating to see depictions of humans in a statue form - the closest we'd come previously were the almost-three dimensional figures on stele at Quirigua and Copan.

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A human face emerges from between the jaws of a turtle below the Chaac mask in the head-dress.
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Stubby fingers

The statues, thought to be of the ruler Kabal, wear a Chaac head-dress - Chaac was the god of rain, a very important deity in such an arid region. Below the Chaac mask a human head emerges from a turtle mouth, perhaps a symbol of birth. The statues have toes and knees and an attempt at hands with fingers but this was a detail too far for these sculptors working without metal tools. The way the arms are bent it's possible the statues were holding something in which case the finish of the hand would not be as important as the structural ability to bear weight.

One statue has recognisable breasts and both wear ornate kilts, necklaces and wristbands. Only one has a head and this has curly hair, a moustache, and a tattoo-like feature on its left side. There is another head in the mseum in Merida.

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Clearly delineated breasts

It's worth remembering that centuries prior to these Mayan civilisations the Greeks and Romans were creating exquisitely lifelike sculptures. These are much more primitive but fascinating and beautiful in their own way.

 

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Toes with nails; the figure is a true free-standing statue, rather than a high relief carving.
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Note the raised welt around the eye and to the mouth on the left of the face; curly hair, moustache and indentations for eyes perhaps of shell or obsidian.

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The king head in Merida museum.
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Side view of the head in Merida museum showing the hole through the nose.
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The doorway with carved panels can just be seen lower centre.

 

 

 

It is fair to assume, I think, that there would have been more of these statues on at least this left part of the building above a wide central doorway which has beautifully carved panels.

Each panel has two carvings, one above the other.

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The left hand panel with two scenes: upper has a carving of two men fighting, the lower subjugation of an enemy.
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The right hand panel also with two scenes very similar to the opposing panel.

The upper carving on both panels seem to show the same two men fighting. One has an animal head-dress and is possibly a king of Kabah,5 the other with a feather head-dress has similar facial tattooing to the king statue. Both carry bundles of spears and the legs are shown with one foot raised, knee bent, to signify movement.

The lower reliefs both show subjugation of a nude enemy by two warriors. No other known Puuc sculpture shows the elaborate background carved decoration.5

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The warrior on the left uses a spear launcher or atlatl which extends the range of a spear and would normally be used for long distances. He has a raised welt curving around his cheek and around the eye ( on the opposing panel it is also on the left side of the face), wears an elaborate feather head-dress, nose plug through a hole in the nasal septum, and a very decorative tabard.
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Detail showing spear held with a spear launcher or atlatl and raised welt on the face.

 

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Classic Puuc corbel arches on the north end of the Chaac mask facade.

 

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Great Pyramid

Looking north west from the raised platform a large pyramidal mound can be seen. This is the Great Pyramid, a ziggurat style with stepped platforms surmounted by a temple. Just west of here is a reconstructed free-standing arch which marks the beginning of the sacbe running 18 km north to Uxmal.

We made our way round the side of the Codz Poop to see, finally, the amazing west-facing facade. The image of Chaac is repeated over the whole length, once 260 masks in all, the number of days in the ceremonial calendar - see Quirigua for a brief description of the complex Mayan calendar.

 

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Codz Poop
In front is an altar and, to the right, a restored chultun.
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All the masks would once have had curved snouts like this. Codz Poop means "rolled mat" in local dialect and may refer to the curled snout of the mask.
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I found this display of masks fascinating, how they must have believed in the power of their gods.

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The curved snouts of the lowest masks rested on the ground...
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... and some acted as steps! Seems a bit disrespectful to a god!
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This mask still has the ear plugs in place.
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The masks each have eyes, decorated all around, a once-curving snout, and a mouth full of teeth - now jagged but originally curved like a wave. They share ears, once fitted with ornamental plugs.

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Fragments of carving including better preserved teeth from the masks.
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South of the court in front of the Codz Poop is an unrestored building. To the right, the Codz Poop altar and chultun.
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At first I thought this stone ring could be from a ball court but now I think it's much more likely to have been the cap/entrance of a chultun.
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The Codz Poop is set on a two level platform, steps lead up from the court where the altar and chultun are situated. This in turn is set on a three level platform reached by a broad set of steps in line with what was once the central entrance of the Codz Poop..

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In front of the broad set of steps is a cylindrical altar.


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The square Codz Poop altar was carved with glyphs on all four sides, sadly mostly destroyed. Next to it is the restored and fully operational Codz Poop chultun, one of many which would have collected as much rainwater as possible, the only source of water in this arid landscape. I'm not sure why it has a rim - in other sites the surrounding courtyard would slope gently to the entrance to maximise the amount of water collected. It was almost certainly of ritual significance given its location so maybe this has something to do with it. Chultuns were built with narrow entrances to minimise evaporation. Below ground these led to a much wider cavity. A fitting place to leave Kabah - a Mayan site more than any other dedicated to pleasing the great rain god Chaac.

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The rebuilt Codz Poop chultun.
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References

  1. http://www.csms.ca/hut.htm
  2. Mundo Maya : the traditional house
  3. Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of UXMAL, KABAH, SAYIL, and LABNÁ: The Puuc Region - this website was extremely helpful in helping with identification of various details of both Kabah and Uxmal.
  4. Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of UXMAL, KABAH, SAYIL, and LABNÁ: The Puuc Region: Kabah information board
  5. Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging of the Maya Cities of UXMAL, KABAH, SAYIL, and LABNÁ: The Puuc Region: Kabah