Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Yellow City of Hills, Izamal

Last September my partner and I traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula to see Maya architecture and art. We decided to risk traveling during hurricane season in order to escape the crowds which normally visit the ruins as sideshows to a beach vacation.  We prefer off-seasons as this gives us more exposure to the environment in an unhurried and relaxed manner.  It does help that one often gets good deals - but the weather, opening hours and service may not be up to most people's reqs!

We landed in Cancun and immediately drove out to Izamal - a small town about 45 minutes away from Chichén Itzá, just north of Highway 180. Called "The Yellow City", with virtually every building painted a mustard yellow, Izamal was founded between 600-800AD one of the last Mayan towns established before the Conquest.  Izamal is one of the largest and oldest cities of the Yucatan peninsula and has been continually occupied by the last chieftains of the local Maya through modern times.  Also called "The City of Hills", the remains of 80 pre-Hispanic structures exist within city limits - many of which are are covered pyramids (the 'Hills') - but more about these later.  With its royal Maya, Hispanic colonial and contemporary flavors, this is one of the few cities that brings elements of all three cultures together in a beautiful and relaxed milieu.

Road from Highway 180 to Izamal
Typical Street in Izamal

Upon Conquest, as narrated by Friar Diego de Landa in his "Relaciones de las Cosas de Yucatan", there were originally twelve pyramids in Izamal in the early 16th century. Only four remain today: Kinich Kak Mo, Itzamatul, Ppap Hol Chak and Hun Pik Tok.

Stairs of the Convento de San Antonio
The impressive convent of Izamal - the Convento de San Antonio de Padua - was built atop and with masonry from the immense Ppap Hol Chak pyramid under orders from De Landa.  De Landa is also famous for initially recording Mayan literature and then in a fit of rage ordering all extant texts to be burned. Construction of the convent began in 1533, and was completed in 1561.  It was one of the first convents built in the western hemisphere, and one can find evidence of maize patterns, Maya glyphs and square block-columns used in the original Maya temple. Even the unusual elevation of the courtyard/cloister of the monastery is an indication of the pyramid's platform on which it is built. The courtyard is accessed from the street by a wide stair-ramp on one side and a stair system on the other side (see image to the right). Probably due the size of the original Pyramid the Convent boasts an open air atrium second only in size to that at the Vatican.

A short walk to the north of the Convent / Ppap Hol Chak complex is the Kinich Kak Mo pyramid, largest in the state of Yucatán and third largest by volume in Mexico. It's base covers 2 acres with a 10 level pyramid on top. Built around 400–600 AD, the pyramid was dedicated to the sun god, or Fire Macaw. It was the principal structure of a massive plaza that extended over much of present-day Izamal. We arrived too late to enter the site, and while a local restaurant invited us to climb up through other access points on a side street, we declined as it was also getting dark.  We have some external shots (see image below) that hint at its magnificence.

Izamal is on the tentative list for the UNESCO Wold Heritage Nominations.  All photographs copyright (c) Stefanie Werner, Das Studio.

Convento de San Antonio Ramp to Courtyard
Convento de San Antonio Church
Convento de San Antonio Courtyard
Convento de San Antonio Courtyard
Convento de San Antonio Ramp

Kinich Kak Mo from the street. We arrived too late.The site was already closed
Maya Ruin in Izamal
Izamal Typical Architecture