The name Palenque (Palisade) is Spanish and has no relation to the city’s ancient name, which may have been Lakamha (Big Water). Palenque was first occupied around 100 BC, and flourished from around AD 630 to around 740. The city rose to prominence under the ruler Pakal, who reigned from AD 615 to 683. Archaeologists have determined that Pakal is represented by hieroglyphics of sun and shield, and he is also referred to as Sun Shield (Escudo Solar). He lived to the then-incredible age of 80.
During Pakal’s reign, many plazas and buildings, including the superlative Templo de las Inscripciones (Pakal’s own mausoleum), were constructed in Palenque. The structures were characterized by mansard roofs and very fine stucco bas-reliefs.
Pakal’s son Kan B’alam II (684–702), who is represented in hieroglyphics by the jaguar and the serpent (and also called Jaguar Serpent II), continued Palenque’s expansion and artistic development. He presided over the construction of the Grupo de las Cruces temples, placing sizable narrative stone steles within each.
During Kan B’alam II’s reign, Palenque extended its zone of control to the Usumacinta river, but was challenged by the rival Maya city of Toniná, 65km south. Kan B’alam’s brother and successor, K’an Joy Chitam II (Precious Peccary), was captured by forces from Toniná in 711, and probably executed there. Palenque enjoyed a resurgence between 722 and 736, however, under Ahkal Mo’ Nahb’ III (Turtle Macaw Lake), who added many substantial buildings.
After AD 900, Palenque was largely abandoned. In an area that receives the heaviest rainfall in Mexico, the ruins were soon overgrown, and the city remained unknown to the Western world until 1746, when Maya hunters revealed the existence of a jungle palace to a Spanish priest named Antonio de Solís. Later explorers claimed Palenque was capital of an Atlantis-like civilization. The eccentric Count de Waldeck, who in his 60s lived atop one of the pyramids for two years (1831–33), even published a book with fanciful neoclassical drawings that made the city resemble a great Mediterranean civilization.
It was not until 1837, when John L Stephens, an amateur archaeology enthusiast from New York, reached Palenque with artist Frederick Catherwood, that the site was insightfully investigated. And another century passed before Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, the tireless Mexican archaeologist, uncovered Pakal’s hidden crypt in 1952. Today it continues to yield fascinating and beautiful secrets – most recently, a succession of sculptures and frescoes in the Acrópolis del Sur area, which have vastly expanded our knowledge of Palenque’s history.
Frans Blom, the mid-20th-century investigator, remarked: ‘The first visit to Palenque is immensely impressive. When one has lived there for some time this ruined city becomes an obsession.’ It’s not hard to understand why.