A Very Different Palm Sunday Among The Ruins of Ancient Aké

Religion and faith in Aké are very different from that of its Maya past, but its fervor remains intense. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Since Aké was settled over 2,300 years ago, this Maya village flourished into a major center of commerce, and ritual.

Judging Aké’s Izamaleño/megalithic architecture and the fact that the town is connected to Izamal directly by a sacbé (white road) suggests a special relationship between these two ancient cities. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These days, aside from its archaeological site, Aké is best known for its Porfirian-era hacienda of San Lorenzo and colorful Catholic church built atop an ancient Maya temple.

Aké’s San Lorenzo Hacienda still produces henequen, though in quantities much smaller than during its heyday in the 19th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine. 

After arriving in Aké under the blustering noon sun on Palm Sunday, carrying the beloved Virgen de Aké began in earnest. Despite the heat, the religious fervor was palpable with fireworks blazing and crowds cheering the virgin.

On Easter Sunday, among the ancient ruins of Aké, The Virgin of Aké was carefully taken from her altar to join the procession in her honor.

After the icon of the virgin was removed from its altar inside the church, the process of carefully carrying it down the long stairway began. Waiting was a convoy entrusted to take the virgin to a weeklong celebration in the nearby village of Sahcabá.

Pilgrimages carrying prized religious icons to other towns are an act of great reverence as well as trust and kinship with the community entrusted to temporarily house them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Accompanying the Virgen de Aké on her pilgrimage were another couple of icons, including a large statue of the Santo Niño de Atocha.

Though the icons venerated today in Aké’s church are very different from those of its ancient past, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the more things change the more they stay the same. 

The ruins of Aké as seen through the artwork of Frederick Catherwood in the mid-19th century. Photo: Courtesy

The symbolism of mostly Maya locals carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary from her altar atop the ruins of a Maya temple is difficult to miss but also raises questions. 

An outsider may think that such a display is a sign of disrespect. Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, the veneration of the Virgin Mary (in her many forms) is central to identity in Yucatán and Mexico as a whole.

Aké’s striking Catholic church sits atop — and is surrounded by — temples dating back thousands of years, though unlike those within the formal archaeological site managed by INAH, these structures are not restored. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“Our virgin loves and protects us and we are very proud that she has her home here in Aké. We are lucky to have her as she brings us light and hope,” said Aké local Silvia Moo. 

Religious syncretism can be found all over the Yucatán Peninsula, with many communities even choosing on their own to place Catholic religious icons atop the remains of ancient structures, as in the tiny town of Bolón. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because very little evidence of Aké’s ancient past survives, it is hard to piece together in any sort of definitive way what religious life in this Maya town would have been like. But we do have a few clues. For one, given the close relationship between Aké and Izamal, it is logical to infer that they shared in the cult of the sun deity Kín, after which the largest pyramid in Izamal, the Kinich Kak Moo is named. 

It is likely large stucco masks of Kinich Ahau “the sun-eyed lord” would have been plentiful on the facades of temples in Aké, as they still are in the nearby town of Acanceh. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Virgen of Aké and Kinich Ahau are extremely different religious figures. But while it may be a stretch while observing the Virgin of Aké’s bright orange, almost blinding gown and radiant gold crown… well, just let’s say you could draw at least some speculative parallels. 

Aké’s Structure 1, also known as El Palacio, was likely the epicenter of religious life in Aké during Prehispanic times, though details regarding its ancient rites have been lost to time. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During the conquest of Mexico, parallels were often drawn between the Mexica deity Tonantzin — referred to as “our venerable mother” — and the Virgin Mary. While this parallel was encouraged by Spanish missionaries to ease the conversion of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, much in the same way that the archangel Michael came to be associated with the Rain God Chaac in Yucatán, the idea stuck. 

Tradition holds that the Cero de Tepeyac, where the Virgen de Guadalupe first appeared, had been the site of a temple to Tonantzin, further driving home the connection between the two. Pictured, carved image of Tonantzin in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine.

If you go 

Visiting Aké is a great day trip from Mérida, taking roughly 45 minutes by car. 

The steep remains of temples within the ancient complex Aké’s Catholic Church sit upon are unrestored and likely always will be, as the damage caused by pillaging its materials to build the church, as well as several nearby structures, is too extensive. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entrance to Aké’s archaeological site costs 75 pesos, though several ancient structures can be seen scattered outside the INAH park as well. 

Aké is home to several impressive ancient temples, though many more still await excavation. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
VOTE NOW!spot_img
Verified by ExactMetrics