Tulum, the ancient Mayan city located on the Yucatán Peninsula, stands as a testament to the rich historical legacy of the region. Nestled between the provinces of Cochuah and Cozumel, this strategic coastal settlement flourished during the Middle and Late Postclassic period (1250-1550). Recent archaeological studies have shed light on Tulum’s significance as one of the principal Mayan cities of the 13th and 14th centuries, serving as a vital hub for trade and the exploitation of the abundant maritime resources along the Quintana Roo coast. Today, we embark on a journey through time to unravel the mysteries of Tulum’s ancient civilization and explore its architectural grandeur, religious symbolism, and historical demise.
A Thriving Mayan Metropolis
Tulum’s architectural remnants, primarily belonging to the Middle and Late Postclassic periods, provide glimpses into the city’s vibrant past. Although certain elements, such as the Estela 1, dating back to 564 AD, and the Estructura 59, showcasing stylistic features from the Terminal Classic, suggest a possibly earlier foundation, perhaps as a dependency of the neighboring Tancah. Nevertheless, extensive archaeological evidence confirms that Tulum emerged as a significant Mayan city, strategically positioned atop the highest elevation in the region. Its efficient defensive system and proximity to Cochuah and Cozumel rendered it an indispensable settlement along trade routes and for exploiting the coastal resources of Quintana Roo.
An Independent City of Remarkable Architecture
Tulum may have existed as an independent political entity, free from the dominion of other polities, until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, when it was ultimately abandoned. The architecture of its early buildings reflects influences from the Puuc style, while exhibiting unique characteristics. Unlike the structures found in the eastern coast of Quintana Roo, Tulum’s buildings lacked ornamental elements like moldings and mosaics, favoring smooth surfaces that likely once adorned magnificent murals, regrettably lost to time. Starting from 1200 AD, the Tulum region experienced substantial population growth, prompting the development of a distinct architectural style that later gained widespread popularity.
The Rise of the “Costa Oriental” Style
Around 1400 AD, Tulum experienced a surge in architectural projects, defining what archaeologists refer to as the “Costa Oriental” style. This style featured miniature temples, inner adoratories within larger adoratories, intentionally sloping walls, as well as palaces with colonnades and flat roofs, deviating from the characteristic vaulted roofs of earlier Mayan buildings. The decorative elements of Tulum’s structures included niches above door lintels, often housing stucco depictions of descending deities. Tulum’s mural paintings exhibit remarkable complexity in execution and religious symbolism. Profiles dominate human and animal figures, while objects are depicted frontally. Scholars suggest that these paintings symbolize cosmogonic themes associated with rebirth and the passage from the underworld to an intermediate world, where the human and mythical realms converge. Celestial bodies such as Venus and the Sun play significant roles in this symbolic narrative.
The Sacred and Profane
Renowned researcher Arthur Miller proposes that Tulum’s sanctuaries were dedicated to cosmogonic rituals involving pilgrims from various locales, likely linked to long-distance trade—the primary source of wealth for the city. If this hypothesis holds true, the sacred and the profane would have been intertwined with the city’s design and characteristics. The commercial activities would have formed the economic foundation for Tulum’s transformation into a paramount ceremonial center and a significant political hub.
The Name Tulum: The Legendary Walled City
The name “Tulum” itself carries a relatively recent origin, translating to “wall,” “fence,” or “palisade” in Spanish, alluding to the intact defensive wall that surrounds the monumental complex. It appears that the name “Tulum” was used to refer to the city once it lay abandoned and in ruins. The story of Tulum’s discovery is long and intricate. During Juan de Grijalva’s second expedition to the Mexican coasts in 1518, Juan Díaz, the expedition’s chaplain and chronicler, wrote of encountering a city “as large as Seville,” which could very well have been Tulum. At that time, Tulum was densely inhabited and seemingly served as the capital of an independent Mayan chieftaincy (referred to as “batabil” in Maya). The Spanish conquest and colonization campaign in the Yucatán Peninsula had a devastating impact on the region. By 1579, when the “Relaciones de Yucatán” were drafted, Tulum’s splendor had become a thing of the past, and Juan de Reigosa described the settlement as a city in ruins.
Tulum, the ancient Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula, unveils its enigmatic past, offering a glimpse into the thriving Mayan civilization of the Middle and Late Postclassic periods. Its strategic location, awe-inspiring architecture, and religious symbolism solidify Tulum’s status as one of the region’s primary cities during the 13th and 14th centuries. The evolution of its architectural style, from Puuc influences to the distinctive “Costa Oriental” style, showcases the city’s creative and adaptive spirit. Tulum’s murals, with their intricate symbolism and cosmogonic themes, provide a window into the religious and cultural beliefs of its inhabitants. While the city’s precise historical trajectory remains shrouded in mystery, Tulum’s rise and eventual decline serve as a reminder of the profound impact of colonization on indigenous civilizations. As we walk in the footsteps of the ancient Mayans within the preserved walls of Tulum, we honor their legacy and strive to unlock the secrets of this remarkable archaeological treasure.