The various ruins found throughout modern day Latin America tell of the widespread influence of the Mayan and Aztec empires, which thrived in the centuries before Spanish conquest and colonization. One such site is the Mayan city of Tulum, which is now a popular tourist destination on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

The City

Many of Tulum's buildings depict Mayan deities.
Many of Tulum's buildings depict Mayan deities.

The Mayan name for Tulum is believed to be Zama, translated as "dawn." This is primarily thought to be due to the city's stunning coastal location, overlooking high cliffs. However the name Tulum was given by the explorers Catherwood and Stephens in 1841. One of Tulum's most striking buildings is "El Castillo," a platform twenty-five feet high. The ruins include a city square and temples, all surrounded by a stone wall that is sixteen feet thick. Many Mayan deities are represented among the ruins, such as the "Descending God" who is shone head down within his temple.

Significance

Tulum was a key center of commerce.
Tulum was a key center of commerce.

Historians speculate that Tulum was founded during the Classic period, according to dates found inscribed upon a stele. Tulum's coastal location proved pivotal in its importance as a seaport and trade center among the Mayans. According to the Athena Review, the city flourished from A.D. 1200 to 1521. During the time of the Spanish Conquest, Tulum's population was ravaged by the invaders' Old World diseases.

The Descending God

The Descending God is prominent in Tulum.
The Descending God is prominent in Tulum.

The figure of the Descending God depicted at the Tulum temple is also found among archaeological ruins at Sayil and Coba, other Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula. Historians speculate that the diving figure represents Ah Muzencab, the Mayan bee god, or possibly Xux Ek, the "Wasp Star." According to Ancient History Encyclopedia, Tulum's Descending God temple is built so that the setting sun illuminates the temple on April 6, the Mayan deity's birthday.

Spanish Explorers

The explorers saw Tulum's tower on the coast.
The explorers saw Tulum's tower on the coast.

Juan de Grijalva led the Spanish expedition that first set eyes on Tulum as the fleet journeyed westward along the Yucatan coast. Although the expedition did not come ashore, it recorded several Mayan towns. Tulum was first mentioned by Juan Diaz, Grijalva's chaplain, who described seeing a high tower. The explorers ventured upon Tulum in 1518, after setting out from Havana, Cuba in April of the same year.