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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 13:06 GMT
Inside the city of the black tiger
Ek Balam in Mexico
The ruins of Ek Balam may have important significance
By Katty Kay

One hundred and fifty miles inland from the crowded beaches and throbbing bars of Cancun, Mexico, lies a recently discovered ancient Mayan city of great beauty and potentially huge archaeological significance.

Since the discoveries at Ek Balam are so recent, they do not yet appear in any guide books.

When I went to visit, I had the ruins to myself - an unheard of luxury in Mexico's better known Mayan cities, which are busy tourist attractions.

The custodian's ledger showed that a grand total of eight people had visited that day.

Archaeologists began serious work at the site of Ek Balam, which means black tiger or jaguar in Mayan, just over two years ago. What they dug out from the encroaching jungle were huge, fully intact plaster sculptures unlike any others found in Mexico's ancient sites.

Intricate details

Ek Balam reached its peak of civilisation around 1000 AD. While it is not the largest Mayan city in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, it has by far the most detailed and beautiful friezes.

The most impressive is found on the side of the main pyramid, where an elaborate six metre high doorway known as the Gate of Hell is still fully intact.

The entrance is actually depicted as the gaping jaws of a monster. Large sharp fangs surround the door. Above it are two huge eyes and a cross-legged god is perched on the nose.

The face is covered in full size statues of the city's rulers and Mayan gods. In each of the eye sockets, a statue of a human figure is perched looking out over the city.

Gruesome death

The Gate of Hell is still covered in original plaster-work, and is just as the Mayans must have seen it centuries ago.

The main pyramid
Digs in the main pyramid have revealed elaborate friezes
It is thought that the rulers of Ek Balam threw their captured prisoners into the doorway which led to a 20-metre drop. At the bottom of the pit were spikes on which the poor captives were impaled and there they died.

With its flashing monstrous eyes and huge teeth, it is still a fiercely imposing sight.

The pyramid at Ek Balam is not fully intact, though from what is left of it, archaeologists estimate that it must have been some 30 metres high. This would make it one of the tallest in the Yucatan.

The base is covered in well-preserved Mayan hieroglyphs which are still being deciphered.

Much of Ek Balam is still to be excavated. The site is about a kilometre wide and less than one third of it has been recovered from the jungle growth.

Twin pyramids

Can Cuen in Guatemala
Only last year there was a Mayan find in Guatemala
But recent work uncovered some other interesting treasures including a mysterious pair of small twin pyramids.

These buildings were built with astrological precision in mind. The two pyramids are joined with a steep split down the middle.

When the sun rises at the spring equinox on the 21 March, the rays fall directly through the schism. When it sets that night, the last rays of sunset fall back through the split in the other direction.

Archaeologists are looking for funds in order to resume work at Ek Balam. They think there is still a lot to be discovered in the city of the black tiger.

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See also:

26 Sep 00 | Americas
Scientists 'find lost Mayan king'
09 Sep 00 | Americas
Lost Mayan palace found in Guatemala
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