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Mexico: Tomb of the ancient Maya king

Chichén Itzá pulls in the crowds, leaving nearby Ek’ Balam quiet enough to explore the mysterious tomb of an ancient Maya king

Mexico: Tomb of the ancient Maya king
Ek’ Balam. Image: Getty

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As the thunder claps overhead and the earth floods its way into becoming a boggy impromptu river, taking refuge under the solitary shelter seems the wisest course. And, as it turns out, it offers a perfect position to take in the site. Ek’ Balam is not one of the most famous ancient Mayan sites. The nearby Chichén Itzá tends to pull in the crowds, leaving Ek’ Balam relatively peaceful to squelch through.

Where the latter is cleared, primped and polished, Ek’ Balam’s appeal lies in its relative rough and readiness. It’s been partially reclaimed from the jungle, but there’s no doubting that the jungle is firmly in command. What look like hillocks are unexcavated buildings, choking in vegetation.

And what applies to the site as a whole also applies to the largest building on it. The Acropolis is still half-consumed by the jungle. But the half that’s been cleared is still an absolute behemoth. At 525ft long, 230ft wide and 102ft tall, the Acropolis is one of the largest ancient buildings ever discovered on the American continent. From the top of the dicily steep steps that line the sides, views extend above the tree line towards the peeping tops of other temples.

As is usually the case with Mayan sites, the present building has been built on top of previous incarnations. But it’s what’s been found inside that makes the Acropolis remarkable for more than just its sheer size.

Once the storm subsides, our guide, Juan, leads the way as we trudge about halfway up. He’s heading to a part of the Acropolis that’s protected by a palm roof on wooden poles. And once there, the giant face of a snake sticking its tongue out awaits.

It’s extraordinarily well preserved. The plasterwork that’s long gone from most Mayan buildings is still in place. But it’s not archaeologists who deserve the credit for this — it’s the ancient Mayans themselves.

According to Juan, this was the tomb of King Ukit Kan Le’k Tok. We know the name because it’s written in glyphs on the snake’s tongue, with ‘Divine Lord of Talol’ written beneath it. It’s a massively handy shortcut to the history of the city and the Talol kingdom it was part of. Juan tells us the reason this tomb is in such good condition is because it was walled up.

“We think his son would have sealed the tomb in order to hide it and the 7,000 or so treasures the king was buried with,” he explains. “Victorious invaders would break monuments where kings were depicted, violate the tombs and scatter the bones.”

And in preserving the tomb, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’s son preserved some highly illuminating decorative detail. “The winged figures were symbols of divinity,” says Juan. “So we can assume that the king was regarded as divine.”
He also points to a four-fingered, unusually short club arm. It’s the sort of detail that wouldn’t be there if the king didn’t have such an arm himself. “It was probably a result of inbreeding to preserve lineage and power,” says Juan. “There are representations of dwarves elsewhere too.”

This is an unexpected hint at one aspect that may have brought down the great Mayan kingdoms. But much of the evidence is gone, swallowed up by the jungle that doesn’t want to release its grip.

Read David’s Mexico feature in the December issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK), on sale 5 November 2015.