Detailed views of the dazzling ancient monuments of Central America through the eyes (and hands) of english explorers.
Castle at Tulum, 1844, Frederick Catherwood. Getty Research Institute. Plate 158, No. 2 in Incidents of travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 1853, John Lloyd Stephens. Getty Research Institute. [Idol and altar at Copan] in Views of ancient monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 1844, Frederick Catherwood. Getty Research Institute. Archway; Casa del Governador, Uxmal, Frederick Catherwood (author), Andrew Picken (lithographer). Getty Research Institute.
America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones… standing as they do in the depths of a tropical forest, silent and solemn, strange in design, excellent in sculpture, rich in ornament… their whole history so entirely unknown, with hieroglyphics explaining all, but perfectly unintelligible.
… No Champollion has yet brought to them the energies of his inquiring mind.
Who shall read them?
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, illustrations by Frederick Catherwood (1841)
The tall mound of rubble is an unrestored pyramid that dates to earlier in the site’s occupation.
The name “Kabah” or “Kabaah” is usually taken to be archaic Maya language for “strong hand”. This is a pre-Columbian name for the site, mentioned in Maya chronicles. An alternative name is Kabahaucan or “royal snake in the hand”.
The area was inhabited by the mid 3rd century BCE. Most of the architecture now visible was built between the 7th century and 11th centuries CE. A sculpted date on a doorjamb of one of the buildings gives the date 879, probably around the city’s height. Another inscribed date is one of the latest carved in the Maya Classic style, in 987. Kabaah was abandoned or at least no new ceremonial architecture built for several centuries before the Spanish conquest of Yucatán.
The most famous structure at Kabah is the “Palace of the Masks”, the façade decorated with hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain godChaac; it is also known as the Codz Poop, meaning “Rolled Matting”, from the pattern of the stone mosaics. This massive repetition of a single set of elements is unusual in Maya art, and here is used to unique effect.
Masks of the rain god abound on other structures throughout the site. Copalincense has been discovered in some of the stone noses of the raingods. The emphasis placed on Chaac, the “Protector of the Harvest”, both here and at other neighboring Puuc sites, stemmed from the scarcity of water in the region. There are no cenotes in this dryer, northern part of the Yucatán, so the Maya here had to depend solely on rain.
The site also has a number of other palaces, low stone buildings, and step-pyramid temples. While most is in the Puuc Maya style, some show Chenes elements. The site had a number of sculpted panels, lintels, and doorjambs, most of which have been removed to museums elsewhere. The sculptures mostly depict the site’s rulers and scenes of warfare.
The site is on Mexican highway 261, some 140 km south from Mérida, Yucatán, towards Campeche, Campeche, and is a popular tourism destination. Ruins extend for a considerable distance on both sides of the highway; many of the more distant structures are little visited, and some are still overgrown with forest. As of 2003, a program is ongoing to clear and restore more buildings, as well as archeological excavations under the direction of archeologist Ramón Carrasco.