Palenque is an incomparable achievement of Mayan art. The structures are characterized by fineness and a lightness which resulted from the new construction techniques and drainage methods that were developed in order to reduce the thickness of the walls. The expanded interior space, multiple openings, and the use of galleries give the architecture a rare elegance, richly decorated with sculptures and stucco of a type never previously seen. Its influence was considerable throughout the basin of the Usumacinta, extending even as far away as Comalcalco, on the western border of the Mayan cultural zone.
The outstanding features of the Mayan civilization include its long duration (it first appeared in the 4th century AD and went into decline around the 9th century, although it survived in various forms until the Spanish conquest), the magnitude of its territorial domination (the area involved includes parts of five countries: Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico), and the dispersion of its political structures (a myriad of religious centres in an 'empire' which, unlike that of Teotihuacan, had no centralized power). This resulted in and is illustrated by the prodigious diversity of a fascinating monumental art style. The very original forms were both powerful and refined, and caused great admiration among the conquistadores.
Located at the heart of a tropical jungle, the ruins of Palenque represent only the central area of a vast city whose total area was approximately 8 km2. The layout of the site is incredible. Artificial terracing changed the natural topography of the site, which is between the rugged foothills of the Chiapas to the south-south-east and the lowlands to the north, by creating a whole hierarchy of volumes and spaces where platforms and structures are organized in harmonious balance. The Otulum, a tributary of the Usumacinta, was channelled into an ingenious 50 m long corbelled vaulted-roof canal, and crosses the city. In the Maya dialect, Otulum means 'fortified houses', perhaps an allusion to the city whose ancient name was not retained and whose history has only been partially revealed by archaeological work.
Palenque, as the Spanish called it, was established between the 3rd and the 5th centuries. The principal monuments were built between 500 and 700, when the city was at its peak. Towards the end of the 10th century, coastal peoples from the Gulf of Mexico region invaded and caused its downfall and abandonment.
The dominant element in the central cleared area is the Palacio. Erected at different periods on an immense artificial knoll shaped like a truncated pyramid, the various buildings are set around four at the southwest corner; this is a sort of watchtower or astronomical observatory and is a unique example in Mayan architecture.
The Palacio ensemble is balanced by the even larger Temple of Inscriptions. Set atop a stepped pyramid located below the Palacio, it was built over a funerary crypt that was explored in 1952.
In the distance can be seen other magnificent temple-pyramids, which are half hidden by vegetation. To the south-east are the Temples of the Sun, the Cross and the Foliated Cross, and to the north rises the Temple of the Count (the absurd name refers to an archaeologist, Baron Jean-Frédéric Waldeck, who lived there in the 19th century). Numerous buildings are scattered between these two zones. They have been identified and sometimes explored; more rarely, they have been enhanced after having been excavated. The first such maintenance work on the monuments at Palenque was in fact not undertaken until around 1940.