King Pakal of Palenque

Pakal and his Tomb are Marvels of Archaeology

Pakal's Mask at the MNAH, Mexico.

K'inich Jahahb' Pakal ("Resplendent Shield") was ruler of the Maya city of Palenque from 615 A.D. to his death in 683. He is usually known simply as Pakal or Pakal I to differentiate him from later rulers of that name. When he came to the throne of Palenque, it was an embattled, destroyed city, but during his long and steady reign it became the most powerful city-state in the western Maya lands. When he died, he was buried in a glorious tomb in the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque: his funeral mask and finely carved sarcophagus lid, priceless pieces of Maya art, are only two of the many wonders found in his crypt.

Pakal's Lineage

Pakal, who ordered the construction of his own tomb, painstakingly detailed his royal lineage and deeds in finely carved glyphs in the Temple of the Inscriptions and elsewhere in Palenque. Pakal was born on March 23, 603; his mother Sak K'uk' was of the Palenque royal family, and his father K'an Mo' Hix came from a family of lesser nobility. Pakal's great-grandmother, Yohl Ik'nal, ruled Palenque from 583-604. When Yohl Ik'nal died, her two sons, Ajen Yohl Mat and Janahb' Pakal I, shared ruling duties until both died at different times in 612 A.D. Janahb' Pakal was the father of Sak K'uk, mother of the future King Pakal.

Pakal's Chaotic Childhood

Young Pakal grew up in difficult times. Before he was even born, Palenque was locked in a struggle with the powerful Kaan dynasty, which was based in Calakmul. In 599, Palenque was attacked by Kaan allies from Santa Elena and the Palenque rulers were forced to flee the city. In 611, the Kaan dynasty attacked Palenque again. This time, the city was destroyed and the leadership once again forced into exile. The Palenque rulers set themselves up at Tortuguero in 612 under the leadership of Ik' Muuy Mawaan I, but a breakaway group, led by Pakal's parents, returned to Palenque. Pakal himself was crowned by his mother's hand on July 26, 615 A.D. He was barely twelve years old. His parents served as regents to the young king and as trusted advisors until they passed away decades later (his mother in 640 and his father in 642).

A Time of Violence

Pakal was a steady ruler but his time as king was far from peaceful. The Kaan dynasty had not forgotten about Palenque, and the rival exile faction at Tortuguero made frequent war upon Pakal's people as well. On June 1, 644, B'ahlam Ajaw, ruler of the rival faction at Tortuguero, ordered an attack on the town of Ux Te' K'uh. The town, birthplace of Pakal's wife Ix Tz'ak-b'u Ajaw, was allied with Palenque: the lords of Tortuguero would attack the same town a second time in 655. In 649, Tortuguero attacked Moyoop and Coyalcalco, also Palenque allies. In 659, Pakal took the initiative and ordered an invasion of the Kaan allies at Pomona and Santa Elena. The warriors of Palenque were victorious and returned home with the leaders of Pomona and Santa Elena as well as a dignitary of some sort from Piedras Negras, also an ally of Calakmul. The three foreign leaders were ceremoniously sacrificed to the god K'awill. This great victory gave Pakal and his people some breathing room, although his reign would never be completely peaceful.

"He of the Five Houses of the Terraced Building"

Pakal not only solidified and extended Palenque's influence, he also expanded the city itself. Many great buildings were improved, built or begun during Pakal's reign. Sometime around 650 A.D., Pakal ordered the expansion of the so-called Palace. He ordered aqueducts (some of which still work) as well as the expansion of buildings A,B,C and E of the palace complex. For this construction he was remembered with the title  "He of the Five Houses of the Terraced Building" Building E was built as a monument to his forebears and Building C features a hieroglyphic stairway which glorifies the campaign of 659 A.D. and the prisoners which were taken. The so-called "Forgotten Temple" was built to house the remains of Pakal's parents. Pakal also ordered the construction of Temple 13, home of the tomb of the "Red Queen," generally believed to be Ix Tz'ak-b'u Ajaw, Pakal's wife. Most importantly, Pakal ordered the construction of his own tomb: the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Pakal's Line

In 626 A.D., Pakal's soon-to-be wife Ix Tz'ak-b'u Ajaw arrived at Palenque from the city of Ux Te' K'uh. Pakal would have several children, including his heir and successor, K'inich Kan B'ahlam. His line would rule Palenque for decades until the city was abandoned sometime after 799 A.D., which is the date of the last known inscription at the city. At least two of his descendants adopted the name Pakal as part of their royal titles, indicating the high regard the citizens of Palenque held him even long after his death.

Pakal's Tomb

Pakal died on July 31, 683 and was entombed in the Temple of the Inscriptions. Fortunately, his tomb was never discovered by looters but was instead excavated by archaeologists under the direction of Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuiller in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Pakal's body was entombed deep in the temple, down some stairways which were later sealed off. His burial chamber features nine warrior figures painted on the walls, representing the nine levels of the afterlife. His crypt contains many glyphs describing his line and accomplishments. His great carved stone sarcophagus lid is one of the marvels of Mesoamerican art: it shows Pakal being reborn as the god Unen-K'awill. Inside the crypt were the crumbling remains of Pakal's body and many treasures, including Pakal's jade funeral mask, another priceless piece of Maya art.  

Legacy of King Pakal

In a sense, Pakal continued to govern Palenque long after his death. Pakal's son K'inich Kan B'ahlam ordered his father's likeness carved into stone tablets as if he were leading certain ceremonies. Pakal's grandson K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb' ordered an image of Pakal carved into a throne on Temple Twenty-one of Palenque.

To the Maya of Palenque, Pakal was a great leader whose long realm was a time of expansion of tribute and influence, even if it was marked by frequent wars and battles with neighboring city-states.

Pakal's greatest legacy, however, is undoubtedly to historians. Pakal's tomb was a treasure trove about the ancient Maya; archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma considers it one of the six most important archaeological finds of all time. The many glyphs and in the Temple of the Inscriptions are among the only surviving written records of the Maya.


Bernal Romero, Guillermo. "K'inich Jahahb' Pakal (Resplandente Escudo Ave-Janahb') (603-683 d.C) Arqueología Mexicana XIX-110 (July-August 2011) 40-45.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. Grandes Hallazgos de la Arqueología: De la Muerte a la Inmortalidad. Mexico: Tiempo de Memoria Tus Quets, 2013.

McKillop, Heather. New York: Norton, 2004.

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Minster, Christopher. "King Pakal of Palenque." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). King Pakal of Palenque. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "King Pakal of Palenque." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).