Ek Balam - Black Jaguar.
Like those big black cats there is something rather slinky and seductive about Ek Balam. It could be the light. It could be the lush, deeply green jungle foliage. Or it could simply be the lack of tourists. Whatever the reasons, it is a hauntingly beautiful site and well worth spending a morning (before it gets too hot) exploring the nooks and crannies.
According to oral histories that have been passed down, Ek Balam was the leader of the group of Maya that originally settled and developed the location. It thrived for about 1,000 years reaching it's peak between 700-900 A.D. and was a contemporary settlement to Cobá In fact, on a clear day, from the top of the main pyramid, it is possible to see the pyramids of Cobá 30 miles away!
Ek Balam, like most Maya cities, lay on one of the well traveled sacbe, the Route 66 of the Maya world.
The first thing a visitor traveling the sacbe would have encountered was a 4-sided, arched entry into the town, each arch facing one of the 4 directions (North, East, West and South). During Maya times, travelers would have made offerings for having arrived safely, or offerings to ensure a safe trip. Modern day travelers simply take photos.
Walls around a Maya city were not all that unusual. They functioned to fortify the city and provide an extra measure of defense during periods of warfare. The system of double walls discovered at Ek Balam is unique to that location. Archaeologists have found no clear indicators that would explain the purpose of the 2 walls.
There are still numerous oval Maya homes dotting the landscape all over the Yucatan. They usually consist of adobe/mud walls with tall thatched roofs that rise to a peak over the center of the house. Even though the homes were oval, an oval structure atop a pyramid was uncommon. Other than Ek Balam, very few have been documented
Another unique feature of Ek Balam, that most likely speaks to the importance or significance it commanded, is the sheer size of some of the structures. The Acropolis is an enormous building, over 500 feet long, 200 feet wide and 6 stories tall. It was home to the government palace and most of the city's business functions, and functionaries.
(The thatch pictured above was added by archaeologists excavating the site to protect from the elements some of the well preserved relics, artifacts and bas-relief carvings they found while working on this pyramid)
True to Maya construction principals, every 52 years a new shell was wrapped around the outside of the original structure. Any new levels would have been added at this juncture as well. 52 years - about the average life span at the time Ek Balam was active - is a frequently used time frame in the Maya system of counting and marking time. Using the day, month and year system of astronomy/astrology to name babies usually meant that a name was not repeated for 52 years. So unless there were multiple babies born on the same day, it pretty much ensured that everyone had a unique name as their personal identification. But, back to the pyramid...
As excavation began on The Acropolis, a number of key discoveries were made. Chief among them was a fierce facade about half way up the pyramid. It is a gaping mouth lined with fangs, presided over by a ruler and flanked by warrior guards.
The Maya actually believed in 5 Directions - the 4 cardinal directions North, South, East and East - with the 5th Direction being a portal into the underworld. The mouth/doorway is believed to be such a portal and Ek Balam himself is thought to be buried within the pyramid. The jaguar was, in multiple guises, a primary player in the Maya pantheon of deities, and is represented by the fangs (the inverted hook-like pieces that protrude from the walls) around the portal. Evidence of blood has been found within the fang-lined platform in front of the monstrous gaping mouth. Most of it is believed to be the result of ritual blood-letting by sacerdotes (priests); it is unknown how much of the blood residue may be the result of human sacrifice.
The fanged portal is guarded on either side by large warrior statues. Statuary as we know it was not common in the Maya world and statues with what appear to be angel wings is virtually unknown. Most Maya stone work is in flat bas-relief. These status are 3-D with well chiseled features.
The climb up the pyramid to the platform where the fanged portal and warrior guardians are located is, surprisingly, much easier than it looks. The stairs not nearly as steep or as narrow as at other sites. Continue on up the pyramid to the top where the view is grand, if not flat.
Bring a hat, bring a bottle with water and about $4 USD for the entry fee. Ek Balam is a gorgeous and well maintained site . It has features that are unique and unusual, but best of all you may have the entire place to yourself. It that's the case, climb up to the top of The Acropolis, settle in and try and imagine what it must have been like 1,000 years ago. You might discover your imagination doesn't have to wander far...