Located along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya. A contemporary to Chichen Itza, but when that city fell, Tulum consolidated its position, paving the way for its greatest period of expansion. It was probably known by the name of Zama, which means City of Dawn due to it facing east towards the rising sun.
The site was inhabited as early as the 6th century, and its success was due to its access to the sea and land routes. Tulum was able to establish itself as a great trading centre and was a distribution centre for local and foreign products, by sea, river and land, and flourished between the 13th and the 15th centuries. Despite its success and a population of 1000 to 1600 inhabitants, including those living outside the walls, sources from the time of the Spanish give its population as 600. It was only to survive for about 70 years after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico; this was due to the devastation inflicted on the inhabitants by the diseases brought by the Spanish, resulting in a breakdown of society and the city eventually being abandoned. By the end of the 16th century, the site was abandoned completely.
Built in the late thirteenth century, in the Mayan post-classic period, it contains architecture typical of this period along the Yucatan Peninsula, which consists of the buildings being constructed on platforms with steps running around them.
Situated on the top of a 12-metre-high cliff, a protective stone wall 5 metres thick and as high as 5 metres in places runs the 784-metre along the length of the site. The wall is irregular in height as it follows the contours of the land and only on three sides, as the side facing the sea is naturally protected. The wall included watch towers and five narrow gateways, making Tulum one of the best fortified Maya sites and one of the few walled cities. The elite lived inside the walls; the common people outside.
One of the first buildings which can be seen on entering the site is the House of the Cenote. This had a room placed directly over the hole that forms the Cenote. It was usual for houses or temples to be constructed near water sources. The location of this building provides good views over the site of gently-rolling hills and gives an indication of its size.
Within the site, many of the buildings portray the splendour of the city as it would have been during its occupation. The most famous building is the El Castillo or Castle which consists of a temple at the top of a pyramid structure. it contains a wide staircase leading up from the plaza. Situated by the cliff edge, it stands 7.5 metres tall, with the small shrine appearing to have contained a beacon, which was used to guide trading canoes through a gap in the barrier reef to the beach of the cove below the cliff. The temple features columns which were decorated with plumed serpents indicating a Toltec influence on the Maya, and like most Maya buildings it was constructed in several phases over the years.
El Castillo was the most imposing and important building. The façade would have been covered by stucco and brightly painted. It would have contained sculptures and large stucco masks at its corners, traces of which still remain.
At the lower level on each side of the staircase there was a small temple, each of which contained an altar where offerings would have been left. Above them two additional temples where used for religious ceremonies.
To the left of El Castillo, as you face the sea, is the Temple of the Descending God, with a small staircase and a carving over the door of the swooping figure that is often referred to as the “diving God”, something that is seen throughout the site. Its’ resemblance to a bee is taken by some as an indication of the importance that the Maya placed on honey.
Tulum was dedicated to the planet Venus and the descending God is symbolized by the setting sun closely related to Venus. Consequently, the deity is found on the façade of some of the buildings with their accesses orientated to face where the planet sets.
In front of the Castillo is the Temple of the Frescoes, used as an observatory. It retains the greatest number of decorations remaining on the site. The building consists of two levels. The lower level consists of two temples, one within the other. The façade of the inner temple is decorated with murals painted in three sections. The first level represents the Mayan world of the dead, the middle is that of the living, and the final, highest, is of the creator and rain Gods.
Contained in the middle of the section is a God astride a four-legged animal believed to be a horse. If it is a horse, it confirms the Maya still occupied the site when the Spanish arrived in 1518, which would have been the first time they would have seen the animal.
On the outside, it has stucco figures in relief. It also has masks on the corners and sculptures in three niches of the façade with the descending God in the centre. The upper level is just simple decoration.
Most of the buildings in Tulum were grouped along streets. Although the leaders and priests lived in buildings of stone with the roofs being either vaulted or constructed of beams used to support rubble above. Most of the residential buildings were constructed of wood with palm roofs and placed on platforms: Only the platforms survived.
Although Tulum is smaller and may not be as impressive as Chichen Itza or Uxmal it is one of the most visited Maya sites in the Yucatan, due in part to its proximity to Cancun and ease of access. Its layout gives a good appreciation of the site and what life would have been like there when it played such an important part in the civilisation of the Maya.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.