The ruins of the ceremonial structures at Uxmal represent the pinnacle of late Mayan art and architecture in their design, layout and ornamentation, and the complex of Uxmal and its three related towns of Kabáh, Labná and Sayil admirably demonstrate the social and economic structure of late Mayan society. (UNESCO World Heritage Inscription, 1996)
Maya architecture is various in its local traditions, from the stark grandeur of Tikal or Chichén Itzá to the gentler refinement of Palenque or Copán. But Uxmal, with its spacious courts and quadrangles, varied elevations and vistas and sense of proportion and balance between architectural form and ornament, displays a sophisticated aesthetic all of its own, where one directly senses the intelligence of architects at work. (Drew, 1999, p. 362)
. . . the architecture at Uxmal was the most beautiful of the American continent during Pre-Hispanic times – its fine finish, the delicacy of its soft lines, the proportions of it majestic buildings, and the richness of its varied reliefs, are all indications of its builder’s high sense of esthetics. (Zapata Alonzo, 1983, p. 27
Uxmal the most intactly beautiful of all Maya cities. Uxmal is also the least typical, having, like most masterpieces, transcendent properties and qualities. (Kubler, 1964, p. 236)
The four buildings of the [Nunnery] Quadrangle . . . stand on different levels and vary in form and design. Yet all blend harmoniously into a whole, forming one of the most beautiful architectural complexes ever produced. (Schele and Mathews, 1998, p. 261)
The builders of the House of the Governor took all the lessons of the Nunnery and used them in a single structure, composing what may be the single most beautiful building of ancient America. (Miller 1999, p. 59)
. . . a few buildings erected in the Puuc, such as the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, rank among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. (Dunning, 1992, p. 323)
On this third terrace, with its principal doorway facing the range of steps, stands the noble structure of the Casa del Gobernador. The façade measures three hundred and twenty feet. Away from the region of dreadful rains, and the rank growth of forests which smothers the ruins of Palenque, it stands with all its walls erect, and almost as perfect as when deserted by its inhabitants. The whole building is of stone, plain up to the moulding that runs along the tops of the doorways, and above filled with the same rich, strange, and elaborate sculpture, among which is particularly conspicuous the ornament before referred to as la greque. There is no rudenss or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life. If it stood at this day on its grand artificial terrace in Hyde Park or the Garden of the Tuilleries, it would form a new order, I do not say equalling, but not unworthy to stand side by side with the remains of Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman art. (John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 2 vols., New York: Harper & Brothers, and London: John Murray, 1841; Vol. II, pp. 429-430)
The UNESCO World Heritage citation for Uxmal recognizes also “its three related towns of Kabáh, Labná, and Sayil”. Their histories have been closely intertwined. At the collapse of Uxmal in the early 10th century A.D., Kabah, Sayil, and Labná seem to have been part of a confederation or regional state under the authority of Uxmal. However, a century before, Kabah may have been as large as Uxmal and its political equal.
Only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) separate the 2 farthest of the 4 cities. A causeway (sacbe) runs 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Uxmal to Kabah, and the general lack of fortifications indicates some form of evolving alliance. Although the 4 cities may originally have been settled at different times, most of their monumental architecture was constructed between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 10th centuries and share similarities in urban design, architectural style, and modes of construction.
Under these conditions, it is surprising to find the degree to which each of these 4 cities expressed its uniqueness. The 2 arches at Labná and Kabah are each unique in Maya architecture but in different ways. At Labná an arch was designed, for the first time, not just as a passageway through a wall but as a larger, distinctive architectural component, both sides clearly visible and dramatized with ornament. The arch at Kabah is not connected to other buildings and is the greatest Maya freestanding arch.
The façade of the Codz Poop at Kabah was covered top to bottom and end to end with Chac-type masks, unlike any other Maya building. The over-life-size, near freestanding kings of Kabah figures attached to the back and the narrative, carved relief doorjambs are also unique.
At Sayil, the Great Palace, unlike any other Puuc structure, is composed of 3 separate levels, the façade of each set back from the one below, each uniquely designed but forming together a superbly coherent whole.
At Uxmal, the Pyramid of the Magician is the tallest Puuc pyramid and includes an enormous zoomorphic mask with the temple entrance as its mouth. The Governor’s Palace is composed of a central building and 2 separate but continuous end sections, separated by 2 transverse arch shapes, each the full height of the building, all unique to Maya architecture. The design of the Nunnery Quadrangle and its 4 separate buildings, at different levels, is unique not only in the Puuc region but in many ways within all Maya architecture.
Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Labná have also had rather different afterlives. Various documents tell us that Uxmal was well known at the time of the Spanish invasion, one of only 3 Maya cities for which we have 16th century references. On the other hand, even the existence of Kabah, Sayil, and Labná had been generally forgotten, and seems to have been known to exist only by local farmers and the priest who served as Stephens' and Catherwood's informant. On their second expedition to the Yucatan in 1843, Stephens and Catherwood explored the area around Uxmal and discovered the remains of Kabah, Sayil and Labná, and they have been known to the outside world ever since.
The 20th century history of study and restoration at the 4 sites has also varied. Since the 1950s, Uxmal has been under almost continuous study and reconstruction and has been subject to extensive tourist trafiic. Previous to the recent completion of a paved road to Kabah, Sayil and Labná, these 3 sites were visited by relatively few tourists and, as such, were much less explored and reconstructed. Recently, however, Sayil has become the only Puuc site for which an extensive settlement survey has been conducted. Partly because it had been relatively undisturbed, Sayil provided a near ideal site for thorough mapping and study of the platforms of the perishable domestic buildings spreading out from the civic-political-religious center.
All descriptions of these 4 cities must be qualified by recognition of how much information has been lost over the centuries and by the fact that vast areas and numbers of buildings have yet to be explored or even discovered and that very little excavation has been carried out. Recent scholarship on these 4 sites has produced remarkable new information and stimulated important new ideas, but we must remember that, as in all scholarship, these ideas are best understood as hypotheses. New discoveries correct previous datings, previous identification of images, previous ideas about the original shape, appearance and use of buildings, and previous ideas about the size and population of cities and their relationship to each other and to other Mesoamerican societies.
For much fuller information on these 4 cities, consult the outstanding publications described in the annotated bibliography, on which this web site is heavily dependent.