Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan/Chapter 41

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In the meantime I returned for one more view of the ruins. Mr. Waldeck's work on these ruins had appeared before we left the United States. It was brought out in Paris in a large folio edition, with illustrations fancifully and beautifully coloured, and contains the result of a year's residence at Merida and eight days at Uxmal. At the time of his visit the ruins were overgrown with trees, which within the last year had been cleared away, and the whole was laid bare and exposed to view. In attempting a description of these ruins, so vast a work rises up before me that I am at a loss where to begin. Arrested on the very threshold of our labours, I am unable to give any general plan; but, fortunately, the whole field was level, clear of trees, and in full sight at once. The first view stamped it indelibly upon my mind, and Mr. Catherwood's single day was well employed.

The first object that arrests the eye on emerging from the forest is the building represented on the right hand of the engraving, No. 78, Drawn off by mounds of ruins and piles of gigantic buildings, the eye returns and again fastens upon this lofty structure. It was the first building I entered. From its front doorway I counted sixteen elevations, with broken walls and mounds of stones, and vast, magnificent edifices, which at that distance seemed untouched by time and defying ruin. I stood in the doorway when the sun went down, throwing from the buildings a prodigious breadth of shadow, darkening the terraces on which they stood, and presenting a scene strange enough for a work of enchantment.

This building is 68 feet long. The elevation on which it stands is built up solid from the plain, entirely artificial. Its form is not pyramidal, but oblong and rounding, being 240 feet long at the base, and 120 broad, and it is protected all around, to the very top, by a wall of square stones. Perhaps the high ruined structures at Palenque, which we have called pyramidal, and which were so ruined that we could not make them out exactly, were originally of the same shape. On the east side of the structure is a broad range of stone steps, between 8 and 9 inches high, and so steep that great care is necessary in ascending and descending; of these we counted 101 in their places. Nine were wanting at the top, and perhaps 20 were covered with
Uxmal - House of the Nuns and House of the Dwarf.jpg
rubbish at the bottom. At the summit of the steps is a stone platform 4½ feet wide, running along the rear of the building. There is no doorway in the centre, but at each end a doorway opens into an apartment 18 feet long and 9 wide, and between the two is a third apartment of the same width, and 34 feet long. The whole building is of stone; inside, the walls are of polished smoothness; outside, up to the height of the door, the stones are plain and square; above this line there is a rich cornice or moulding, and from this to the top of the building all the sides are covered with rich and elaborate sculptured ornaments, forming a sort of arabesque. The style and character of these ornaments were entirely different from those of any we had ever seen before, either in that country or any other; they bore no resemblance whatever to those of Copan or Palenque, and were quite as unique and peculiar. The designs were strange and incomprehensible, very elaborate, sometimes grotesque, but often simple, tasteful, and beautiful. Among the intelligible subjects are squares and diamonds, with busts of human beings, heads of leopards, and compositions of leaves and flowers, and the ornaments known everywhere as grecques. The ornaments, which succeed each other, are all different; the whole form an extraordinary mass of richness and complexity, and the effect is both grand and curious. And the construction of these ornaments is not less peculiar and striking than the general effect. There were no tablets or single stones, each representing separately and by itself an entire subject; but every ornament or combination is made up of separate stones, on each of which part of the subject was carved, and which was then set in its place in the wall. Each stone, by itself, was an unmeaning fractional part; but, placed by the side of others, helped to make a whole, which without it would be incomplete. Perhaps it may, with propriety, be called a species of sculptured mosaic.

From the front door of this extraordinary building a pavement of hard cement, 22 feet long by 15 broad, leads to the roof of another building, seated lower down on the artificial structure, as shown in the engraving. There is no staircase or other visible communication between the two; but, descending by a pile of rubbish along the side of the lower one, and groping around the corner, we entered a doorway in front 4 feet wide, and found inside a chamber 12 feet high, with corridors running the whole breadth, of which the front one was 7 feet 3 inches deep, and the other 3 feet 9 inches. The inner walls were of smooth and polished square stones, and there was no inner door or means of communication with any other place. Outside the doorway was loaded with ornaments, and the whole exterior was the same as that of the building described above. The steps leading from the doorway to the foot of the structure were entirely destroyed. The Indians regard these ruins with superstitious reverence. They will not go near them at night, and they have the old story that immense treasure is hidden among them. Each of the buildings has its name given to it by the Indians. This is called the Casa del Enano, or House of the Dwarf, and it is consecrated by a wild legend, which, as I sat in the doorway, I received from the lips of an Indian, as follows:—

There was an old woman who lived in a hut on the very spot now occupied by the structure on which this building is perched, and opposite the Casa del Gobernador (which will be mentioned hereafter), who went mourning that she had no children. In her distress she one day took an egg, covered it with a cloth, and laid it away carefully in one corner of the hut. Every day she went to look at it, until one morning she found the egg hatched, and a criatura, or creature, or baby, born. The old woman was delighted, and called it her son, provided it with a nurse, took good care of it, so that in one year it walked and talked like a man; and then it stopped growing. The old woman was more delighted than ever, and said he would be a great lord or king. One day she told him to go to the house of the gobernador and challenge him to a trial of strength. The dwarf tried to beg off, but the old woman insisted, and he went. The guard admitted him, and he flung his challenge at the gobernador. The latter smiled, and told him to lift a stone of three arrobas, or seventy-five pounds, at which the little fellow cried, and returned to his mother, who sent him back to say that if the gobernador lifted it first, he would afterwards. The gobernador lifted it, and the dwarf immediately did the same. The gobernador then tried him with other feats of strength, and the dwarf regularly did whatever was done by the gobernador. At length, indignant at being matched by a dwarf, the gobernador told him that, unless he made a house in one night higher than any in the place, he would kill him. The poor dwarf again returned crying to his mother, who bade him not to be disheartened, and the next morning he awoke and found himself in this lofty building. The gobernador, seeing it from the door of his palace, was astonished, and sent for the dwarf and told him to collect two bundles of cogoiol, a wood of a very hard species, with one of which he, the gobernador, would beat the dwarf over the head, and afterwards the dwarf should beat him with the other. The dwarf again returned crying to his mother; but the latter told him not to be afraid, and put on the crown of his head a tortillita de trigo, a small thin cake of wheat flour. The trial was made in the presence of all the great men in the city. The gobernador broke the whole of his bundle over the dwarfs head without hurting the little fellow in the least. He then tried to avoid the trial on his own head, but he had given his word in the presence of his officers, and was obliged to submit. The second blow of the dwarf broke his skull in pieces, and all the spectators hailed the victor as their new gobernador. The old woman then died; but at the Indian village of Mani, seventeen leagues distant, there is a deep well, from which opens a cave that leads under ground an immense distance to Merida. In this cave, on the bank of a stream, under the shade of a large tree, sits an old woman with a serpent by her side, who sells water in small quantities, not for money, but only for a criatura or baby to give the serpent to eat; and this old woman is the mother of the dwarf. Such is the fanciful legend connected with this edifice; but it hardly seemed more strange than the structure to which it referred.

The other building indicated in the plate is called by a name which may originally have had some reference to the vestals who, in Mexico, were employed to keep burning the sacred fire; but I believe in the mouths of the Indians of Uxmal it has no reference whatever to history, tradition, or legend, but is derived entirely from Spanish associations. It is called Casa de las Monjas, or House of the Nuns, or the Convent. It is situated on an artificial elevation about fifteen feet high. Its form is quadrangular, and one side, according to my measurement, is ninety-five paces in length. It was not possible to pace all around it, from the masses of fallen stones which encumber it in some places, but it may be safely stated at 250 feet square. Like the house of the dwarf, it is built entirely of cut stone, and the whole exterior is filled with the same rich, elaborate, and incomprehensible sculptured ornaments.

The principal entrance is by a large doorway into a beautiful patio or courtyard, grass-grown, but clear of trees, and the whole of the inner façade is ornamented more richly and elaborately than the out-side, and in a more perfect state of preservation. On one side the combination was in the form of diamonds, simple, chaste, and tasteful; and at the head of the courtyard two gigantic serpents, with their heads broken and fallen, were winding down opposite directions along the whole façade.

In front, and on a line with the door of the convent, is another building, on a lower foundation, of the same general character, called Casa de Tortugas, from sculptured turtles over the doorway. This building had in several places huge cracks, as if it had been shaken by an earthquake. It stands nearly in the centre of the ruins, and the top commands a view all round of singular but wrecked magnificence.

Beyond this, a little to the right, approached by passing over mounds of ruins, was another building, which at a great distance attracted our attention by its conspicuous ornaments. We reached it by ascending two high terraces. The main building was similar to the others, and along the top ran a high ornamented wall in this form, from which it was called Casa de Palomos, or House of Pigeons, and at a distance it looked more like a row of pigeon-houses than anything else.

Pyramidal Structure -djvu 443.jpg

In front was a broad avenue, with a line of ruins on each side, leading beyond the wall of the convent to a great mound of ruins, which probably had once been a building with which it was connected; and beyond this is a lofty building in the rear, to which this seemed but a vestibule or porter’s lodge. Between the two was a large patio or courtyard, with corridors on each side, and the ground of the courtyard sounded hollow. In one place the surface was broken, and I descended into a large excavation, cemented, which had probably been intended as a granary. At the back of the courtyard, on a high, broken terrace, which it was difficult to climb, was another edifice more ruined than the others, but which, from the style of its remains and its commanding position, overlooking every other building except the house of the dwarf, and apparently having been connected with the distant mass of ruins in front, must have been one of the most important in the city, perhaps the principal temple. The Indians called it the quartel or guard-house. It commanded a view of other ruins not contained in the enumeration of those seen from the house of the dwarf; and the whole presented a scene of barbaric magnificence, utterly confounding all previous notions in regard to the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and calling up emotions which had not been wakened to the same extent by anything we had yet seen.

There was one strange circumstance connected with these ruins. No water had ever been discovered; and there was not a single stream, fountain, or well, known to the Indians, nearer than the hacienda, a mile and a half distant. The sources which supplied this element of life had disappeared; the cisterns were broken, or the streams dried up. This, as we afterward learned from Don Simon, was an object of great interest to him, and made him particularly anxious for a thorough exploration of the ruins. He supposed that the face of the country had not changed, and that somewhere under ground must exist great wells, cisterns, or reservoirs, which supplied the former inhabitants of the city with water. The discovery of these wells or reservoirs would, in that region, be like finding a fountain in the desert, or, more poetically, like finding money. The supply of water would be boundless. Luneros without number might draw from it, and the old city be repeopled without any new expense for wells or tanks.

While I was making the circuit of these ruins, Mr. Catherwood proceeded to the Casa del Gobernador, which title, according to the naming of the Indians, indicates the principal building of the old city, the residence of the governor, or royal house. It is the grandest in position, the most stately in architecture and proportions, and the most perfect in preservation of all the structures remaining at Uxmal.

The plate, No. 79, represents the ground-plan, with the three ranges of terraces on which it stands. The first terrace is 600 feet long and five feet high. It is walled with cut stone, and on the top is a platform 20 feet broad, from which rises another terrace 15 feet high. At the corners this terrace is supported by cut stones, having the faces rounded so as to give a better finish than with sharp angles. The great platform above is flat and clear of trees, but abounding in green stumps of the forest but lately cleared away, and now planted, or, rather, from its irregularity, sown with corn, which as yet rose barely a foot from the ground. At the south-east corner of this platform is a row of round pillars 18 inches in diameter and 3 or 4 feet high, extending about 100 feet along the platform; and these were the nearest approach to pillars or columns that we saw in all our exploration of the ruins of that country. In the middle of the terrace, along an avenue leading to a range of steps, was a broken, round, pillar, inclined and falling, with trees growing around it. It was part of our purpose to make an excavation in this platform, from the impression that underneath would be found a vault, forming part of the immense reservoirs for supplying the city with water.

In the centre of the platform, at a distance of 205 feet from the border in front, is a range of stone steps more than 100 feet broad, and 35 in number, and ascending to a third terrace, 15 feet above the last, and 35 feet from the ground, and which, being elevated on a naked plain, formed a most commanding position. The erection of these terraces alone was an immense work. On this third terrace, with its principal doorway facing the range of steps, stands the noble structure of the Casa del Gobernador. The façade measures 320 feet. Away from the region of dreadful rains, and the rank growth of forest which smothers the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, and almost as perfect as when deserted by its inhabitants. The whole building is of stone, plain up to the moulding that runs along the tops of the doorway, and above filled with the same rich, strange, and elaborate sculpture, among which is particularly conspicuous the ornament before referred to as la grecque. There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary,
Plate 522-Plan of building at Uxmal at Yucatan-606djvu.jpg

Plan of building at Uxmal on Yucatan

the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life. If it stood at this day on its grand artificial terrace in Hyde Park or the Garden of the Tuileries, it would form a new order, I do not say equalling, but not unworthy to stand side by side with the remains of Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman art.

But there was one thing which seemed in strange want of conformity with all the rest. It was the first object that had arrested my attention in the house of the dwarf, and which I had marked in every other building. I have mentioned that at Ocosingo we saw a wooden beam, and at Palenque the fragment of a wooden pole; at this place all the lintels had been of wood, and throughout the ruins most of them were still in their places over the doors. These lintels were heavy beams, 8 or 9 feet long, 18 or 20 inches wide, and 12 or 14 thick. The wood, like that at Ocosingo, was very hard, and rang under the blow of the machete. As our guide told us, it was of a species not found in the neighbourhood, but came from the distant forests near the lake of Peten. Why wood was used in the construction of buildings otherwise of solid stone seemed unaccountable; but if our guide was correct in regard to the place of its growth, each beam must have been carried on the shoulders of eight Indians, with the necessary relief carriers, a distance of 300 miles; consequently, it was rare, costly, and curious, and for that reason may have been considered ornamental. The position of these lintels was most trying, as they were obliged to support a solid mass of stone wall 14 or 16 feet high, and 3 or 4 in thickness. Once, perhaps, they were strong as stone, but they showed that they were not as durable, and contained within them the seeds of destruction. Most, it is true, were in their places, sound, and harder than lignum vitæ; but others were perforated by worm-holes; some were cracked in the middle, and the walls, settling upon them, were fast overcoming their remaining strength; and others had fallen down altogether. In effect, except in the House of the Nuns, the greatest destruction was from the decay and breaking of these wooden beams. If the lintels had been of stone, the principal buildings of this desolate city would at this day be almost entire; or, if the edifices had been still occupied under a master's eye, a decaying beam would have been replaced, and the buildings saved from ruin. In the moment of greatness and power, the builders never contemplated that the time would come when their city would be a desolation. The Casa del Gobernador stands with its front to the east. In the centre, and opposite the range of steps leading up to the terrace, are three principal doorways. The middle one is 8 feet 6 inches wide, and 8 feet 10 inches high; the others are of the same height, but two feet less in width. The centre doorway opens into an apartment 60 feet long and 27 feet deep, which is divided into two corridors by a wall 3½ feet thick, with a doorway of communication between, of the same size with the doorway of entrance. The plan is the same as that of the corridor in front of the palace at Palenque, except that here the corridor does not run the whole length of the building, and the back corridor has no doorway of egress. The floors are of smooth square stone, the walls of square blocks nicely laid and smoothly polished. The ceiling forms a triangular arch without the keystone, as at Palenque 524-Triangular Arch-djvu608.jpg; but, instead of the rough stones overlapping or being covered with stucco, the layers of stone are bevelled as they rise, and present an even and polished surface. Throughout, the laying and polishing of the stones are as perfect as under the rules of the best modern masonry.

In this apartment we determined to take up our abode, once more in the palace of an unknown king, and under a roof tight as when sheltering the heads of its former occupants. Different from ruins in the Old World, where every fragment is exaggerated by some prating cicerone, in general, in this country, the reality exceeded our expectations. When we left Captain Fensleys brig we did not expect to find occupation for more than two or three days. But a vast field of interesting labour was before us, and we entered upon it with the advantages of experience, the protection and kind assistance of the proprietor, and within reach of comforts not procurable at any other place. We were not buried in the forest as at Palenque. In front of our doorway rose the lofty House of the Dwarf, seeming almost to realize the Indian legend, and from every part of the terrace we looked over a field of ruins.

From the centre apartment the divisions on each wing corresponded exactly in size and finish, the details of which appear in the plan, and the same uniformity was preserved in the ornaments. Throughout, the roof was tight, the apartments were dry, and to speak understandingly, a few hundred pounds expended in repairs would have restored it, and made it fit for the re-occupation of its royal owners. In the apartment marked A the walls were coated with a very fine plaster-of-Paris, equal to the best seen on walls in this country. The rest were all of smooth polished stone. There were no paintings, stucco ornaments, sculptured tablets, or other decorations whatever.

In the apartment marked B we found what we regarded as a most interesting object. It was a beam of wood, about ten feet long, and very heavy, which had fallen from its place over the doorway, and for some purpose or other been hauled inside the chamber into a dark corner[1] On the face was a line of characters carved or stamped, almost obliterated, but which we made out to be hieroglyphics, and, so far as we could understand them, similar to those at Copan and Palenque. Several Indians were around us, with an idle curosity watching all our movements; and, not wishing to call their attention to it, we left it with an Indian at the moment sitting upon it. Before we were out of the doorway we heard the ring of his machete from a blow which, on rising, he had struck at random, and which chipped off a long shaving within a few inches of the characters. It almost gave us a shivering fit, and we did not dare tell him to spare it, lest from ignorance, jealousy, or suspicion, it should be the means of ensuring its destruction. I immediately determined to secure this mystical beam. Compelled to leave in haste, on my arrival at Merida Don Simon kindly promised to send it to me, together with a sculptured stone which formed one of the principal ornaments in all the buildings. The latter is now in my possession, but the former has never arrived. In the; multitude of regrets connected with our abrupt departure from these ruins, I cannot help deploring the misfortune of not being assured of the safety of this beam. By what feeble light the pages of American history are written! There are at Uxmal no "idols," as at Copan; not a single stuccoed figure or carved tablet, as at Palenque. Except this beam of hieroglyphics, though searching earnestly, we did not discover any one absolute point of resemblance; and the wanton machete of an Indian may destroy the only link that can connect them together.

It was our purpose to present full drawings of the exterior of this building, and, in fact, of all the others. The plate, No. 80, represents one division, with its sculptured ornaments, or what I have called mosaic. As at Copan, Mr. Catherwood was obliged to make several attempts before he could comprehend the subject so as to copy the characters. The drawing was begun late in the afternoon, was unfinished when we left to return to the hacienda, and, unfortunately, Mr. C. was never able to resume it. It is presented in the state given by the last touches of the pencil on the spot, wanting many of the minute characters with which the subject was charged, and without any attempt to fill them in. The reader will see how utterly insufficient any verbal description must be, and he will be able to form from it some idea of the imposing exterior of the building. The exterior of every building in Uxmal was ornamented in the same elaborate manner. The part represented in the engraving embraces about twenty feet of the Casa del Gobernador. The whole exterior of this building presents a surface of 700 feet; the Casa de las Monjas is 2,000 feet, and the extent of sculptured surface exhibited by the other buildings we are not able to give. Complete drawings of the whole would form one of the most magnificent series ever offered to the public, and such

P582-Sculptured Front of the Casa Del Gobernador.jpg

F. Catherwood


it is yet our hope one day to be able to present. The reader will be able to form some idea of the time, skill, and labour required for making them; and, more than this, to conceive the immense time, skill, and labour required for carving such a surface of stone, and the wealth, power, and cultivation of the people who could command such skill and labour for the mere decoration of their edifices. Probably all these ornaments have a symbolical meaning; each stone is part of an allegory or fable, hidden from us, inscrutable under the light of the feeble torch we may burn before it, but which, if ever revealed, will show that the history of the world yet remains to be written.


  1. Mr. Waldeck informs me that he had caused this beam to be hidden away.— F. C.