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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The long and storied history of Aké, the place of reeds

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture off to explore the Mayan city of Aké.

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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. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Stone columns adorn the Palace at Aké. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Meaning “place of reeds” in Yucatec Maya, Aké is 32 kilometers / 20 miles from Mérida in the municipality of Tixkokob. Just a few years ago the dirt road and overgrown vegetation leading to Aké made the trek rough for most vehicles and their paint jobs. Thankfully there is now a proper road and it’s possible to park in a nearby field adjacent to the archaeological site and hacienda. 

The new road to Aké is a big improvement in many ways, but the old route (above) is still quite lovely. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aké offers visitors a glimpse into a couple of different eras of Yucatán’s storied history. For lovers of antiquity, the Mayan ruins will surely be the main attraction, but the 19-century San Lorenzo de Aké hacienda warrants some attention as well. 

Although the advent of synthetic fibers all but destroyed the henequen industry, the link between this rough material and the development of the Yucatán can not be overstated. Plantations of henequen, also known as sisal, created vast fortunes that fueled Yucatán’s boom and led to the region’s rapid growth. On the other hand, the henequen industry relied on the labor of tens of thousands of indigenous workers who were treated not much better than slaves. 

Henequen still grows and is produced in small quantities at San Lorenzo de Aké hacienda. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One can only imagine what went through the heads of the Maya workers at places such as Aké as they toiled in the hot fields and rested in the shadow of ancient temples which attested to a very different time. Local tour guides at San Lorenzo de Aké hacienda demonstrate how henequen was processed using 19th- and early 20th-century technology. The large and heavy machinery is interesting as are the techniques used to create the fiber. 

Henequen is still being produced using 19th-century technology. Photo: Joanna van der Gracht.

The archaeological site at Aké is limited to a handful of structures, but in antiquity, the city was considerably larger and covered several square kilometers. Archaeological evidence suggests that Aké was first settled by the Maya sometime in the 2nd century BC and reached its zenith sometime in the 9th century AD before being abandoned a hundred years or so before the arrival of Europeans. 

Multi level platform in Aké, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city is bounded by two concentric walls which protect the core of the main structures at the site, as well as a large housing complex.

Aké has two distinct architectural styles. The first corresponds to its early history and is megalithic, which is to say built out of large carved stones. The second phase of the city corresponds to a more refined Puuc style but also has features characteristic of talud-tablero architecture imported from central Mexico.

Large pyramid in Aké, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Remains of a Sac-be, or Mayan road, are also visible and connected Aké with Izamal approximately 40 kilometers to the east.  There is good reason to believe that Aké had very close ties with Izamal, and may have even become a vassal kingdom to the great city in its latter history. 

The temple known as the palace is a large step platform topped with stone columns that likely supported a thatched roof. Its architecture is reminiscent of similar structures of its era found in other ancient cities such as Chichén Itzá and Mayapan

Stone pillars atop the Palace in Aké. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Directly across from the palace stands severely eroded stelae from which archaeologists have amazingly been able to extract important details pertaining to the chronology of the settlement. 

Time has not been kind to this stelae, but thanks to modern technology archaeologists have still been able to extract valuable information from it. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The main pyramid at the site has four levels and terraces that wrap around its outer walls. At the top of the structure, it is possible to see evidence of archaeological excavations of smaller structures within the pyramid, a common practice among the Maya. The corners of the structure are nicely rounded, much like in Izamal, and have megalithic slabs that extend from the pyramid and which would have been covered with stucco, featuring colorful murals.

Base of Structure 2, or great pyramid in Aké, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the north of the main pyramid are several structures including a oval base pyramid and the foundations of a residential complex. 

Oval based pyramid in Aké. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

As of April 2021, Aké remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back for updates.

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink — other than water. The entrance fee is 55 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Yucatán (with ID).

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