The Palace of Palenque - Royal Residence of Pakal the Great

Pakal's Intricate Maze of Buildings at Palenque

View of the Palace, Palenque (Unesco World Heritage List, 1987), Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan civilization, 7th-8th century
View of the Palace, Palenque (Unesco World Heritage List, 1987), Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan civilization, 7th-8th century. De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

One of the finest examples of Maya architecture is without a doubt the Royal Palace of Palenque, the Classic Maya (250–800 CE) site in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.

Fast Facts: Palenque

  • Known For: The palace of the Maya king Pakal the Great
  • Culture/Country: Maya / UNESCO World Heritage Site in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
  • Occupation Date: Classic Maya (250–800 CE) 
  • Features: Palace buildings, courtyards, sweat baths, Pakal's throne room, reliefs, and painted stucco murals.

Although archaeological evidence suggests that the Palace was the royal residence of Palenque's rulers beginning in the Early Classic period (250-–600 CE), the Palace's visible buildings all date to the Late Classic (600–800/900 CE), the period of its most famous king Pakal the Great and his sons. Relief carvings in stucco and Maya texts suggest that the Palace was the administrative heart of the city as well as an aristocratic residence.

The Maya architects of the Palace inscribed several calendar dates on the piers within the palace, dating the construction and dedications of the various rooms, and ranging between 654–668 CE. Pakal's throne room, House E, was dedicated on November 9, 654. House A-D, built by Pakal's son, contains a dedicatory date of August 10, 720.

The Architecture of the Palace at Palenque

The main entrance of the Royal Palace at Palenque is approached from the north and east sides, both of which are flanked with monumental staircases.

The complex interior is a maze of 12 rooms or "houses," two courts (east and west) and the tower, a unique four-level square structure dominating the site and providing a stunning view of the countryside from its top level. A small stream at the back was channeled into a vaulted aqueduct called the palace aqueduct, which is estimated to have held over 50,000 gallons (225,000 liters) of freshwater. This aqueduct likely furnished water to Palenque and to crops planted north of the Palace.

A row of narrow rooms along the southern side of the Tower Court may have been sweat baths. One had two holes for the passage of steam from a subterranean firebox to the sweat chamber above. Sweat baths at Palenque's Cross Group are symbolic only—the Maya wrote the hieroglyphic term for "sweat bath" on the walls of small, interior structures that did not have the mechanical ability to generate heat or steam. U.S. archaeologist Stephen Houston (1996) suggests they may have been sanctuaries linked to divine birth and purification.

Court Yards

All of these rooms are organized around the two central open spaces, which acted as patios or courtyards. The largest of these courts is the East Court, located on the northeast side of the palace. Here a wide-open area was the perfect space for public events and the site of important visits of other nobles and leaders. The surrounding walls are decorated with images of humiliated captives illustrating the military achievements of Pakal.

Although the layout of the Palace follows a typical Maya house pattern—a collection of rooms organized around a central patio—the Palace's interior courts, subterranean rooms and passages do remind the visitor of a maze, making Pakal's Palace Palenque's most unusual building.

House E

Perhaps the most important building in the palace was House E, the throne or coronation room. This was one of the few buildings painted in white instead of red, the typical color used by the Maya in royal and ceremonial buildings.

House E was built in the mid-7th century by Pakal the Great, as part of his renovation and enlargement of the palace. House E is a stone representation of a typically wooden Maya house, including the thatched roof. At the center of the main room stood the throne, a stone bench, where the king sat with his legs crossed. Here he received high dignitaries and nobles from other Maya capitals.

We know that because a portrait of the king receiving visitors was painted over the throne. Behind the throne, the famous stone carving known as the Oval Palace Tablet describes the ascension of Pakal as ruler of Palenque in 615 and his coronation by his mother, Lady Sak K'uk'.

Painted Stucco Sculpture

One of the most striking features of the complex palace structure is its painted stucco sculptures, found on piers, walls, and roofs. These were sculpted from prepared limestone plaster and painted in bright colors. As with other Maya sites, the colors are meaningful: all worldly images, including the backgrounds and bodies of humans, were painted red. Blue was reserved for royal, divine, heavenly objects and personages; and objects belonging to the underworld were painted yellow.

The sculptures in House A are particularly remarkable. A close investigation of these shows that the artists began by sculpting and painting naked figures. Next, the sculptor built and painted clothing for each of the figures on top of the naked images. Complete outfits were created and painted in order, beginning with the underclothing, then the skirts and belts, and finally ornaments such as beads and buckles.

Purpose of the Palace at Palenque

This royal complex was not only the residence of the king, provided with all the comforts such as latrines and sweat baths, but also the political core of the Maya capital, and was used to receive foreign visitors, organize sumptuous feasts, and work as an efficient administrative center.

Some evidence suggests that Pakal's palace incorporates solar alignments, including a dramatic inner courtyard that is said to demonstrate perpendicular shadows when the sun reaches its highest point or "zenith passage." House C was dedicated five days after a zenith passage on August 7, 659; and during nadir passages, the central doorways of houses C and A seem to be aligned with the rising sun.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Palace of Palenque - Royal Residence of Pakal the Great." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 27). The Palace of Palenque - Royal Residence of Pakal the Great. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Palace of Palenque - Royal Residence of Pakal the Great." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).