MX, Quintana Roo: The fortified city of Tulum

Important seaport for trade on Caribbean Sea, Tulum is known to have flourished in the 13th century. Facing the Eastern side of Yucatan peninsula, Tulum still stands up with its fortified walls and mysterious history witness through so many years. One of the last cities built and occupied by Mayan, Tulum ruins is the most visited site in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Beach, sun and sea
Beach, sun and sea – a perfect place to spend a birthday

Perching on the 12 m high cliffs, Tulum is one of the very few walled cities built by Mayans. Built between 9th and 12th century, in several stages, Tulum was the most important commerce center between Central-America and midland Mexico.

Hidden by the high cliffs stands a little beach, a place where the trading boats were landing. The little hidden cove and landing beach is wisely located in front of a break of the reef barrier that is stretching along the whole Yucatan Peninsula. This place is also home to two species of sea turtles (loggerhead turtle and white turtle) where they return to spawn, in the same place where they were born, once they reach the reproductive age.

The little cove with one of the watch tower in distance

After entering the ruins through one of four narrow gateways in the wall, we were greeted by a field of grey stones, which were once part of these ancient buildings.

Tulum, entrance gateway

Most of them were bungalows, living spaces for middle class, but some, the most important ones were places where magical and religious rituals were held. Although in Tulum, major rulers and priests may have lived in buildings made of stone, like the Palace, the important people of the city also lived in houses made of perishable materials, such as wood, vines, palm leaves that were built on some platforms with stairs.

Tulum dwelings

Made of limestone, the 700+ meters-wall encloses the site on three sides. It was about 8 metres thick, with a height between 3 and 5 metres. There are several theories as to why Tulum is so well fortified. One suggests that a Mayan population of 600 lived inside, protected from invaders. Another suggests only priests and nobility were housed within the walls, while about 10,000 peasants were living outside.

The most prominent structure is El Castillo, or The Castle, which is perching right on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the Caribbean coast. From here the view of the sea is amazing. A small shrine appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. This shrine marks the break in the reef barrier making the perfect place for trading canoes.

It was customary to paint over the facades with bright colours related to the cardinal directions and different deities and priests, and this building still stands out for its traces of large stucco masks.

At ground level, on both sides of the stairs, there are two small temples with inner altars where offerings were left. The upper level was for major religious ceremonies.

The Castle, Tulum

In front of the Castillo is the Temple of the Frescoes or the Temple of the Paintings, one of the better-preserved buildings. The murals inside represent the Mayan world of the dead on the first level, the middle is that of the living, and the final, the highest one, is of the creator. Niched figurines of the Maya “diving god” decorate the front of the temple. This “diving god” is also depicted in the Temple of the Diving God and is believed to represent a Mayan deity who protected the people and is particularly well-preserved on various buildings around the site.

Temple of the Paintings, Tulum

Some theories state that this temple is also dedicated to Itzma, or Itzamnathe Wise man God, a man who came from the far East, a wise man who went from village to village (we will actually see a stucco with this white man face at Chichen Itza as well) and taught Mayans agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, science, etc. It is said that Itzma has landed in the 9th century in Tulum, and he was made a God after his death. Other theory says that he went back to East with a promise to come back, reason the Mayans were waiting for more white people when the Spanish came to occupy the country.

Itzamna, the Wise man God on Temple of the Paintings, Tulum

The Temple of the Descending God consists of a single room with a door to the west and a narrow staircase that was built on top of another temple that served as its base. It was painted nicely with animals, flowers, agricultural products.

In the niche located at the top of the door stands a stucco figure of a winged figure falling from the sky, the “diving god” that is found throughout Tulum. His legs are up, his arms below, he has wings, feathers, and a headdress and holds an object in his hands, and it is known to protect the people, the sailors, and the commerce.

The Temple of the Descending God, Tulum

Temple of the Winds God is guarding Tulum’s sea entrance bay. The wind god known by various names in the language spoken by different groups, it was called Kukulkan in the Mayan.

The Temple of the Winds God, Tulum

Two watch towers were identified in the Northeast and Southeast of the site, part of the defensive system of the whole city.

A small cenote in the northern side of the city provided water for the inhabitants, and a cenote house still stands up for centuries. The building was a limestone house, which then was extended with a room placed directly over the hole that forms the cenote.

The Palace of The of Great Lord, or The palace had an upper level and was the most astonishing building in the city, a living space for chiefs and rulers. It has several large rooms covered with flat roofs supported by columns, with benches along the walls used as seats and probably beds. In the back there is a sanctuary where the family performed their religious ceremonies.

The palace, Tulum

Mayan gods were present in one or more elements of nature. Some were manifesting in atmospheric phenomena like rain, other in plans, and animals like the jaguar. Each season of the year and each daily activity were marked by rituals dedicated to various deities. Tulum was a city dedicated to the planet Venus, a deity with a dual nature that of the morning and evening star. Another important deity was Ek Chuah, the god of trade.

Gods or not, I could not refrain to shoot some photos of Tulum today’s inhabitantsJ


Tip(s) of the day:

* The all-day tour we took from our hotel did not offer us enough time to stroll between the ruins: about 20 minutes after some swift explanations. I believe one needs at least a couple of hours at the site.

* Not all guides are very knowledgeable either in history, or in English/French, so you shouldn’t go with high expectations,

* Wear comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and a hat, as there is not much shade between the ruins.

~visited in December 2019

6 thoughts on “MX, Quintana Roo: The fortified city of Tulum

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