Tulúm's Majestic Castle: El Castillo

Resting beautifully on a cliff overlooking the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea is El Castillo of Tulúm, its castle. Originally presumed to be a temple El Castillo reflects the glory of Maya civilization at its height when realizing from a recent discovery in 1984, its critical role operating as a lighthouse. With many small windows perfectly aligning to the break in the barrier reef, the magnificence of this structure comes when imagined is a line of canoes, vessels and sailors traveling from afar who can unload that of their precious cargo as directed by reference points where to line and business kept in fashionable order. When late into the evening, in replacement of sunlight captured in the windows a small fire would be lit transforming the structure into a lighthouse.

Furthering its role as a lighthouse El Castillo truly lives to its name as a wondrous castle. Tulúm is one of the few fortified cities built and its walls can still be seen today standing 5 meters in width. With the Caribbean Sea to the east, the walls consist of three sides and five gates. For this reason, in the Yucatec language Tulúm translates as “wall.” With five gates facilitating inflow and out both of traffic and commerce, Tulúm was from the Classical Period, perhaps 564 A.D. by what is of known earliest inscriptions, to the Post Classic Period, 1200 to 1450 A.D., having reached its apogee as a trade center and seaport.

By its geographical location to the sea Tulúm was an important center for receiving imports and operating in the business of shipping. Activity thrived as trading canoes frequented stops from Honduras and the Gulf Coast. Overseas routes proved extensive as to reaching Costa Rica and even to Panama, by demand for precious metals inclusive of gold, copper, and silver. Via land routes Tulúm facilitated its success equally in welcoming merchants through its gates as well maximizing the use of rivers as an express by placing traffic signs along in assisting, both the distribution and timeliness of, essential and luxury goods to deliver. Tulúm was key for networking societies into the streamline of various goods and resources. Obsidian, for instance, is found in abundant supply as a household item throughout the lowlands area despite how the land, within that particular area, contains no obsidian ores. Adding to obsidian, the importance of Tulúm may also be illustrated by example of the metate, a stone-grinding tool crucial for the preparation of corn and grains. In Tikal, over 2,000 metates have been excavated and of these: 15% made of native limestone; the remaining 85% being of imported stone such as granite or serpentine. Other trade items into the lowlands or any landlocked region include shells, stingray spines for rituals, salt, and jade ornaments.

The role in allowing basic necessities to be attained made Tulúm vital and its role facilitating the accessing of luxury items representative of royalty such as gold and coral-colored shells made itself heavily sought. By the 4th century, rulers from Teotihuacán began investing their attentions into the tapping and control of the routes. Cities, such as Calakmul and Tikal, became political and economic rivals by clash of their interests to claim supreme rule, including the securement of control over a wealth generating asset.

The significance of this seaport is historically rich. Tulúm allowed the nobility to establish their prestige while becoming promotive of commoners who participated in trade. The city once populated by 1,500 inhabitants can still be seen with activity by visiting tourists and El Castillo proving in continuance a wondrous sight.


The ruins of Tulum face directly over the Caribbean Sea to the east on a 12 meter high cliff. Below the cliff lies a small bay and it is believed with the function of El Castillo trading canoes would have anchored at the location of. At Tulum most trade was done with Coba. As a signifier of trade activity, artifacts from all across Mexico have been identified at this site location. Due to the weathering from the salt in the air many of the stones show deterioration. However, within the buildings such as the Temple of the Frescoes or in the Temple of the Descending God are paintings still preserved in good condition and bearing the name of its city. View File Details Page

The infamous El Castillo stands as the tallest building construction of the Tulum ruins. At 7.5 meters tall or 25 feet, this structure in particular indicates there were several stages in building. Its rooms are vaulted in the classic Mayan style and the lintels of the rooms upstairs are carved with motifs of the feathered serpent. Windows and perhaps a deck that may have been constructed extending to the sea face strategically where in the barrier reef there is a break. Watchmen were known to help facilitate and direct incoming merchants and tell canoes where to line up and dock. When it became dark into the evening each window would have been lighted by that of a small fire and where this building earned its recognition as a lighthouse. View File Details Page

This entrance leading to the ruins of Tulum is one of 5 doorways in total. Upon entry to the inside is a landscape of gentle rolling hills and the remaining outcrops of the structures. The walls measure about 5 meters thick and in some areas depending on the landscape, up to 8 meters. Certainly, the walls is what distinguished Tulum from any other city being of the only few fortified. It served as a protection, but it is also indicated most residences were outside the wall and the inside exclusively for the elite rulers and administration. Business thrived and interestingly the only source of fresh water was the cenote located inside the walls and where residents would have to walk to and from in collecting fresh water. View File Details Page

Coupling the importance of corn in Mesoamerica is the metate, which is an essential stone grinding table having a slight depression at center. A hand-held stone called a mano, is used for the crushing of important grains and corn or maize, by which the indigenous groups mixed with lime and ash that provides key nutrients. The metate differs from the mortar and pestle as its shape is horizontal and requires then a rolling motion than pounding. The quality stone of the metate became an indicator as trade networks were established as to defining or offering hints of what one™s socio-economic class be. With trade networks available so also diversity in choices followed provided if one had the means to afford the importation of the desired item or was permitted to display their wealth defined under the customs of their culture. As in the case of this metate shown above, the grade stone reflects the native limestone of the area region and suggests greater possibility the owner of the metate ranked as a commoner. Nevertheless, the use of the metate benefited every food prepared as because of it being stone, mineral supplementation is provided enhancing the diet. View File Details Page

This metate shown above is an example to the wealth trade brings in monies, in knowledge, and ideas exchanged by how the focus in society advances from everyday surviving to artistically defining class sophistication. As Tulum brought together the Pacific, places far south as Ecuador, and the Gulf Coast, it was during the Classic period items from distant lands evolved as royal symbols. In the Yucatan treasured goods may have been the jaguar pelts which were so desired. To cities as Teotihuacan such prized goods included salt, honey, and shells that only the coasts could offer. In the south to acquire stones like turquoise signified wealth. The rarity of the item provided with a possible means to attain by barter or pay led in a consequence towards an intensified social class stratification. As a society defined what items are deemed symbols of royalty it became for the elite to access as preservation and display of their prestige. Trade is also a factor as to recognizing the development overtime of certain craftsmanship styles and in reference to the metate carved as a jaguar, is the fine detail displayed pertaining to one™s rank, standing, or acknowledging a personality trait versus a typical and nonspecialized basic cut. View File Details Page

This map from Lynn Foster™s Ancient Maya World illustrates the various overseas trade routes from the Gulf Coast to the Caribbean Sea, as well routes interconnecting the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Pacific Ocean. Exports from the highlands region includes: grinding stone, feathers, gold, hematite, obsidian and serpentine. Exports from the Yucatan and coastal areas include: cotton, hemp rope, honey, shells, and stingray spines. When adding into the factor transshipped goods based on the overseas routes where it could be expected to receive at ports the following: alabaster, cacao, cochineal, copper, pearls, rubber, silver, turquoise and tobacco compared to the landlocked lowlands exporting resources limited to chert, copal incense, dyes, jaguar pelts, and tobacco, the lowlands became disadvantaged by competition-wise in the market. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Michelle N. Balliet, “Tulúm's Majestic Castle: El Castillo,” HistoricalMX, accessed January 19, 2019, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/12.

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