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Gillett G. Griffin

Princeton University

Palenque, the most enigmatically moving of all Maya sites, has held its secrets for over twelve hundred years. The location is imbued with a quality that reaches out and draws one irresistably.

Enigmatic though it might be, its architecture sings to us with a Mozartian sort of richness and classical elegance -- not mute like the heavier, more rigidly conservative architecture of most other Classic Maya sites.

Originality and harmony shine out of the mellow Palenque limestone. The presence of its builders is felt across the centuries by those who give themselves completely to the Palenque experience.

First of all the setting, nestled against the Chiapas mountain wall, most of it engulfed by lush, deep rain forest, is most dramatic.

It sits in a shelf sculpted into the mountain by subtle Maya designers, at the edge of a virtual precipice, facing the vast unbroken stretch of eighty miles of savannah and swampland stretching north to the Gulf of Mexico, which provided natural protection in ancient times.

At the back of the central nuclear plaza the mountains spin upwards dizzily into clouds of dense soaring rain forest which conceal endless levels of man-made terraces, bearing uncounted structures, most of which appear to have been mausoleums.

Through this enchanted setting clear streams splash and tumble, cascading over sinter basins and into sparkling pools. All of the early travelers remarked with pleasure on the extraordinary beauty of the setting of Palenque.

In this century Frans Blom remarked "the first visit to Palenque is immensely impressive. When one has lived there for some time this ruined city becomes an obsession."

Indeed there is a marked contrast between Palenque and other Classic Maya sites. Only a few sites: Copan, Coba and Yaxchilan, for example, enjoy the benefits of ample water, rich soil, a bearable climate and an attractive setting.

Obviously these things did not matter to the Maya. It seems that in some perverse way the Maya deliberately chose sites which avoided competition with agricultural land.

But as haunting as the setting is the architecture. It is exquisitely balanced and related to its setting.

Its heavily overhung roofs and cornices surmounted by the elegant panaches of roof comb echo the curtain of mountains. Those wise and sensitive Palencian architects employed entasis and manipulated proportions in audacious ways never before used by the Maya.

The harmonies that they created with eaves, corbals and roof combs quicken the heart of any aficionado of architecture, for they are as subtle as architectural masterpieces anywhere. Those of us who have allowed ourselves to be caught, find ourselves forever haunted by Palenque.


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