Bonampak is a small site in the Mexican state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala. Although its ruins are not overly impressive, a series of brilliant murals makes this one of the most fascinating Mayan sites in Mexico. Found within Structure 1, the Bonampak murals are considered one of the masterworks of ancient Maya art and has earned Bonampak the nickname “The Sistine Chapel of the Americas”.
Bonampak was rediscovered in 1946 when two American travelers, Herman Charles Frey and John Bourne were led to the ruins by local Maya. Shortly thereafter a photographer, Giles Healey, was shown the amazing frescos covering the walls of Structure 1. The name “Bonampak” was given to the site by archaeologist Sylvanus Morley and means “painted walls” in the modern Maya language.
The history of Bonampak is closely linked to that of its neighbor Yaxchilan, located approximately 20 miles (30 km) to the north. A larger and more powerful city, Yaxchilan dominated it smaller neighbor and would captured several of Bonampak’s lords. The first one, lord Bird Jaguar of Bonampak was captured by K’inich Tatb’u Skull I of Yaxchilan in the early 5th century. More noblemen would follow in a later war against the aggressive Knot-eye Jaguar I of Yaxchilan. Bonampak was given a brief pause, when Knot-eye Jaguar I was himself taken captive by the armies of Piedras Negras. But after 526, his successor K’inich Tatb’u Skull II continued the tradition and attacked Bonampak, capturing more lords. The capturing of lords ended around 600 AD when Bonampak became a satellite of Yaxchilan.
In 776 Chan Muwan was installed as lord of Bonampak by Shield Jaguar III (or Itzamnaaj B’alam III), the ruler of Yaxchilan. Bonampak collapsed with Yaxchilan in the 9th century.
Map of Bonampak
|The map shows the location of Bonampak. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.|
The Bonampak Murals
Structure 1, which is often referred to as the Temple of the Murals, is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low pyramid base. The walls of all 3 rooms are covered with murals rendered in a vivid and highly skilled manner.
Room 1 depicts a gathering of nobles and royalty for dance performances that took place around 791 AD. Two seated figures, probably Chan Muwan and his wife watch from a large throne. Room 3 also shows a dance performance. This room does not include a date but the fact that most of the dancers in this image are the same as those shown in room 1 suggests that the rituals in the two rooms were closely related.
The central chamber, room 2, is less peaceful and illustrates a dynamic battle scene and the torture of captives. In the scene, spears are thrown, one piercing the head of a warrior, and prisoners taken by the hair. A the focus of the scene stands the war leader, Chan Muwan, grasping a captive by the hair while holding a spear. He is accompanied by another warrior, probably Shield Jaguar III of Yaxchilan, both wearing jaguar tunics. On the north wall the aftermath of the battle is shown. The unfortunate captives are tortured and bleeding from their fingernails while the chief captive sits at Chan Muwan feet. The head of one captive is already been placed at the steps while the rest will soon be sacrificed as well. The date of the events in room 2 likely dates a few years before the events in room 1.
A full scale reproduction of the Temple of the Murals can be found in the National Museum of Anthropology & History in Mexico City.
Many travel agencies in Bonampak run day tours to Bonampak and Yaxchilán. It is also possible to take a taxi from San Javier, about 7 miles (12 km) from Bonampak. The entrance fee is M$37.