Acrópolis and El Trono
The highlight of Ek’ Balam is, without question, an artful and remarkably pristine stucco frieze known as El Trono (The Throne). It is located under a protective palapa roof, about two thirds the way up the Acrópolis, a massive pyramid at the north end of the site, and Ek’ Balam’s largest structure. (In fact, at 32 meters (105 feet) high and 158 meters (514.8 feet) wide, it is among the largest Maya pyramids ever built.) A steep stairway leads up the center of the pyramid, and a platform to the left of the stairs provides visitors a close-up view of El Trono.
About 85 percent of El Trono is the original stucco. Often structures like this would have been painted blue or red, but not so here. In fact, shortly after it was built, El Trono was sealed behind a stone wall 50–60 centimeters (19–24 inches) thick. It remained there untouched until the 1990s, when restoration workers accidentally dislodged one of the protective stones while removing a tree growing above it.
The tall, winged figures immediately catch your eye, as they appear so much like angels. In fact, they are high priests. Notice that one is deformed—his left arm is longer than the right, and has only four fingers. The Maya considered birth defects to be a sign of divinity, and the priest depicted here may have risen to his position precisely because of his deformation.
Directly over the door is a seated figure (unfortunately, the head is missing). This represents Ukit Kan Le’k Tok,’ one of Ek’ Balam’s former rulers, described in inscriptions as the “king of kings,” and the person for whom El Trono was built and dedicated. A tomb was discovered in the chamber behind the frieze that contained thousands of jade, gold, obsidian, and ceramic artifacts, left as offerings to this powerful leader. The small face at the king-figure’s navel represents a rival whom he defeated in war.
Viewed as a whole, the frieze is unmistakably a Chenes-style “monster mouth”: a huge stylized mask in which the doorway represents the gaping mouth of a high god. The pointed upper and lower teeth are easy to spot, as are the spiral eyes. Monster mouths are never mundane, but this one is especially elaborate: notice how two beautifully crafted figures straddle the lower eyelids, while hoisting the upper lids with their shoulders. At least five more figures, plus lattice patterns and other designs, adorn the rest of the mask.
Before heading down, climb the rest of the way to the top of the Acrópolis to take in the view. With the exception of the odd telephone and radio tower, and the site’s large new visitor’s center, the view of the broad flat Yucatecan landscape is probably not all that different than the one Maya priests and kings enjoyed from this very same vantage point, more than a thousand years ago.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition