Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatán - Chichanhá

This is the last of our featured "lost" missions of Yucatán.  
We welcome any comments, suggestions or information on these or other similar ruins. 


Chichanhá was the capital of the Icaiché Maya, an offshoot of the Itzá Maya, located well inland from Chetumal in the southwestern part of the Yucatán peninsula, now in the state of Campeche. 
   Late in the 1600s the Franciscans established a major mission here, dedicated to St Clare, intended to serve as the main evangelical center for the conversion of the Itzá. 
The mission functioned sporadically during the late colonial period until it was finally destroyed during the Caste War of the 1840s and the roofless church abandoned to the tropical bush.

Like Oxtankah, Santa Clara Chichanhá was an impressive structure. Today only the masonry walls and apse of the mission remain, complete with a stone altar and baptismal font. 
Until recently, niches in the apse contained the bones of Franciscan friars.

Text © 2012 Richard D. Perry.  Photography: ©Jack Simpson

For more on the history and art of the Yucatán missions, consult our published guides. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatán - Oxtankah/Tamalcab

The southernmost of the lost Yucatán missions occupies a coastal site known as Oxtankah/Tamalcab.
Oxtankah is an extensive Mayan archaeological site, located beside the seasonal island of Tamalcab, 16km north of Chetumal, the capital city of the State of Quintana Róo.
As with the other coastal mission sites, the 16th century ramada chapel is located within the perimeter of the ancient Maya ceremonial center—in this case, on its northern periphery.
Built on a broad, raised foundation—a former temple platform —the rectangular chapel was at one time fronted by a pole and thatch nave. All that stands of the mission today is the original open chapel or apse of the church.
Constructed of rubblestone (mamposteria) this now roofless but clearly substantial structure is identified by its surviving arch.  The chapel, probably originally covered by a stone barrel vault, or bovedilla, retains its raised altar and a lateral doorway to the former side room—probably the sacristy or friar's quarters.
Oxtankah, rear view of apse 
text: © 2012 Richard D. Perry.  Photography: © I D Rangel et al
In editing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent Yucatan archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews
For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Xcaret/Tankah

The east coast of the Yucatan peninsula, now the state of Quintana Roo, was the first area to be missionized by the Franciscans in the mid 1500s.  Primitive chapels were established in the numerous Maya trading settlements along the coast, from Ecab to Chetumal and beyond.
The "Costa Maya"
Recent development of tourism along sections of the "Costa Maya" has all but obliterated several of these early missions, including the mission of San Miguel on Cozumel, razed to build the airport there! 
   However some traces of the missions remain, which indicate how the innovative T-shaped "open air" church first developed along this coast and was later adopted and expanded across the entire peninsula during the colonial period.  Here we look at two such remnant early visitas, Xcaret and Tankah.
Xcaret, site plan. Group G= mission location
Located south of Cancún, this major Maya settlement on the east coast of Yucatan, formerly known as Polé, was a flourishing trading hub and embarkation point for Cozumel island in ancient times.
  After the Spanish conquest, this role was eclipsed although there were enough Maya residents there to justify the building of a modest Franciscan mission some time in the mid to early 1500s. The settlement and its mission were probably abandoned late in the century.
The now razed mission, at one time a dependency of Ecab, was the only colonial structure located among a large number of scattered Maya ruins.

A primitive chapel may have been founded here as early as 1528, even before the Spanish conquest of Yucatan was complete, and probably continued to be expanded and in use as late as 1580.

The mission was a substantial one, set within a rectangular, walled precinct or atrium. The church building was a fairly standard early open ramada chapel, but with some atypical features: 
  • First, the arched sanctuary was rounded at the east end like a traditional Maya hut rather than squared off.
  • Second, the stone sanctuary seemingly lacked the adjacent rooms—sacristy and friar's cell—that usually formed the classic T- shape building.
  • Third, despite this omission and its early abandonment, a substantial masonry nave was also erected, featuring low walls with lateral openings and a west entry.  The entire church appears to have been covered by a steeply pitched thatched roof. 

Tankah, mission plan with atrium

Located between Xelhá and Tulum but now also lost to development, traces of the mission at the neighboring Maya site of Tankah, survived into the 1960s, allowing for some idea of the plan.
   A simple, flared masonry chapel, probably arched, opened into a covered ramada, possibly with stone foundations or low nave wall, that narrowed towards the opposite end.
   Foundations were also traced of a trapezoidal atrium wall enclosing the mission, possibly of a defensive nature.
text © 2012 Richard D. Perry   Maps by Tony Andrews. Drawing by Ann & Gordon Ketterer
Information based on A Preliminary Study of the Ruins of Xcaret, Quintana Roo 
by E Wyllys Andrews IV and Anthony P. Andrews  MARI 1975

For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Ecab

Well, today is the day!  Perhaps, given the present world situation, it was the end of rationality that the Maya had in mind. Whether or not the world as we know it ends on December 21st, 2012, we hope that you have enjoyed our blog this past few months.  

In any event, we now press on with the Lost Missions of Yucatan, continuing down the east coast of the peninsula, now part of the state of Quintana Roo.
Ecab, the shell of the mission (Richard Perry)
Black Land

On the 1st of March 1517, the first Spaniards set foot on the mainland of what is now Mexico. This epochal event, as related by the chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, took place at Ecab, situated on the northeastern corner of the Yucatan peninsula, a town that he dubbed “El Gran Cairo” because of its impressive size.
   At the time, Ecab was a large and populous Maya settlement that played an important role in the flourishing coastal trade route. Following the Spanish conquest, Ecab, as the dominant town in the region, was the natural site for a Franciscan residential mission, which was duly established by the mid 1500s. 
Ecab, the mission from the lagoon
This mission became the hub for several other visita missions along the coast of eastern Yucatan, including those at Xcaret (Polé) and Cozumel (the mission of San Miguel Cozumel was sadly destroyed during development on the island in the 1950s).
    The network stretched southwards to Tancah, Tulum, Oxtankah and Xocá, extending as far as Lamanai and Tipú in present day Belize, several of which retain vestiges of early mission structures. 
    However, with the post Conquest decline of ancient coastal trade, together with devastating epidemics, the growing menace of piracy, and its remoteness from the colonial capital at Mérida, the town, the mission at Ecab along with the network of east coast visitas were all abandoned by the mid-1600s.
Ecab, site plan
The remains of numerous Maya structures and causeways dot this still inaccessible * settlement, visible from the coastal lagoon known as Boca Iglesia. The surviving mission complex is a relatively pristine example of a substantial 16th century mission—the largest and most ambitious of the abandoned eastern missions. 
   Raised on a platform, the foundation of a former Maya temple, it retains its original arched open chapel with flanking side rooms, capped with a two tier belfry or espadaña—all sturdily built from some recycled Maya stonework and the abundant limestone rubble.  

In addition, parts of the low masonry walls of the church remain in place, which was originally covered by a traditional, palm thatched roof, as the reconstruction diagrams show:

The relative importance and longevity of the Ecab mission allowed for  the construction of a separate, and substantial, casa cural for the resident friar(s), now in ruins.
This also was later abandoned when the mission was downgraded to a visita, served from the mission at Chancenote.
Ecab, casa cural (reconstruction)
 *Although still remote at this writing, ambitious plans are afoot for the construction of a resort at Ecab, to be called Boca Iglesias! 
text © 2012 Richard D. Perry.  drawings by Richard Perry & Gordon & Ann Ketterer
photography by Jorge Martin Castillo et al

In editing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent 
Yucatán archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews
For more on the history and art of the Yucatán missions, consult our published guides. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Xlacah/Temul

Xlacah, rear of mission with belfry and window

Moving east across northern Yucatan, the only abandoned early mission located within a Maya site to be rediscovered between Izamal and the east coast (of Quintana Roo,) is that at Xlacah/Temul, located near the town of Panabá, north of Tizimín, a major colonial mission town.

Xlacah and Temul are alternative names for the same place: initially, a still largely overgrown prehispanic Maya site with stone pyramids, known to researchers as Xlacah.

Later, a Spanish encomienda and brief colonial settlement called Temul was established here within the ancient site, with resident population that was later moved to nearby Panabá as part of the Franciscan congregation program.
Xlacah, site plan with mission and atrium
Nevertheless, during this brief period, for about 20 years in the mid-1500s, a frontier style ramada mission of some size was erected among the Maya ruins upon a former temple platform.  The mission was enclosed by a square walled atrium (lower center)

Xlacah, original chapel plan and elevation

The substantial colonial structure consisted of an elevated, arched open chapel with a flanking sacristy and baptistry, much of it constructed with cut stone from the Maya temple which it replaced.

The walls are pierced by doorways and recessed windows, which originally may have been part masonry and part timber, with a thatched roof overhead.
Xlacah, chapel arch
Additional masonry structures, possibly accommodation for the visiting friars, extended to the north of the chapel.

There are other abandoned colonial missions in the area, many of them the victims of pirate attacks, disease and depopulation as well as the 19th century Caste War which devastated eastern Yucatán.

Two other abandoned missions of note near Tizimín, closer to the north coast, are the churches of Kikil, and Loché, formerly an important prehispanic center of the Chikinchel Maya.


The existing ruined church exhibits more than one phase of construction, with the now largely collapsed open chapel with its vestigial belfry at the rear, fronted by a roofless masonry church with low nave walls.

The typical triangular facade formerly fronted the original, steeply pitched, palm thatch roof. Today, the entire structure is overgrown and neglected and in danger of further collapse.


Like Loché, the abandoned church at Kikil is overgrown with vegetation and neglected, its facade riven by enormous cracks and the interior burned out.
Kikil, interior with burned choir loft
Numerous other  "T-plan" mission churches, with formerly thatched masonry naves added to earlier open chapels, can be found all across Yucatan, many still in use and others—like Loché and Kikil— roofless and in ruins since the 19th century Caste War.
Details on many of these can be found in our guidebook Maya Missions, as well as the more extensive two volume illustrated guide The Colonial Churches of Yucatan by Christian Heck et al.
text © 2012 by Richard D. Perry.
Based on the article: "A 16th century church at  Xlacah, Panaba, Yucatan"  by Tomas Gallareta Negron, Anthony P. Andrews & Peter J. Schmidt.     Méxicon 12(2):33-36  1990.  maps & plans by Hope Henderson.   Xlacah photographs by Tony Andrews.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Chalanté

Southeast of Xcambó, close to the ancient and colonial city of Izamal lies the lost mission town of Chalanté.  Hidden in overgrown woodlands attached to the Hacienda de Chalanté, once the location of an extensive Maya site, this rural settlement was chosen by Franciscans from Izamal as the site for a satellite visita mission.
The church was set on the platform of a former temple. Cut masonry from the demolished  temple was recycled to build an open air  chapel framed by an grand stone archway and flanked by a log-beamed sacristy and choir/baptistry.
In the 16th century, an oval pole-and-thatch ramada would have extended out from the chapel front across the old temple precinct to shade the Indian congregation from the fierce tropical sun. The ramada nave was raised atop at least partial masonry walls whose limestone foundations can still be traced. 

In later colonial times, work began on a second mission church behind the original building, again using stone from the Maya ruins as well as probably cannibalizing the older chapel.
However, because of depopulation and quite likely the expansion of the hacienda onto village lands, both the settlement and its roofless churches were abandoned.

text and photographs © 2001 , 2012 by Richard D. Perry

Background: recycled Maya stonework at Akil © Christian Heck

In editing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent 
Yucatan archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews


For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Tzemé / Kinchil


While the colonial missions of Dzibilchaltún and Xcambó are mostly restored and fairly well known, another more recent discovery, also located in the precincts of an ancient Maya settlement about 30 kilometers west of Merida, is neither.

Now uninhabited, Tzemé was an important Maya archeological site from the Classic period. The city boasted numerous temples and pyramid structures, so far unrestored and little explored. 
A ground survey of Tzemé in 1999 uncovered the hitherto unknown remnants of a modest colonial chapel, located inside the walled enclosure of the principal ceremonial center. 

The rectangular chapel, probably dating from the mid to late 1500s, was founded upon one of the lesser temple platforms. The simple chapel was apparently bounded on all sides by waist high stone walls—much like the chapel at Xcaret.

These walls no doubt originally supported an open pole-and-thatch ramada. A west entrance was cut into the walls, as were a pair of narrow lateral doorways, also near the west end.
There is no evidence of an arched sanctuary or belfry, although remains of a stone altar survive at the eastern end.

 Kinchil, church front
A dependency of the convento at Hunucmá, the colonial settlement of Tzemé, although dwindling, survived until the late 1700s, when it was absorbed into nearby Kinchil.

Kinchil also possesses an early mission, whose substantial 16th century open chapel—constructed like most of the colonial buildings here with Maya stones from ancient Tzemé—is fronted by a later nave and imposing 19th century church front with twin towers. 

Despite the extensive Maya site, the diminishing importance of Tzemé in early colonial times may account for the very modest scale of the chapel here and its failure to grow into a more substantial mission over time. 

Text & photograph © Richard  Perry.  Drawings by Angél Góngora Salas et al

In preparing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews

For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Xcambó


Thirty kilometers northeast of Dzibilchaltún, close to the north coast of Yucatan, lie the ruins of the ancient Maya site of Xcambó. The site has been partially cleared and excavated in recent years, and several of the pyramids have been restored.
Due to its strategic position on the rich coastal salt flats, in early Classic times (AD 250-550,)  Xcambó had become an important salt producing and distribution center for Yucatan and beyond. (The region is still an important salt production area.)
Xcambó, the Maya site (David Morgan)
Xcambó's small ceremonial center is organized around a main plaza and includes pyramids and platforms, known as the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of Sacrifices and the Pyramid of the Masks, so called from the stucco and painted masks on its façade.
However Xcambó was abandoned after 750 AD, possibly as a result of changes in Maya trade routes.

After the Spanish conquest, Xcambó was chosen as the site of a Catholic sanctuary, and a chapel dedicated to the cult of the Virgin was erected in the mid-1500s.
Set in the center of the site amid the ruins, and built of recycled stonework, the little thatched chapel of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, stands atop the base of a former Maya temple or residence, one of whose corbeled Mayan arches still remains.
Now restored and in use, the chapel takes the traditional form of an early mission with open sides and a thatched roof, with the addition of diminutive Yucatan style tower belfries on the front—a charming mix.
Xcambó, chapel front

          Chapel apse above corbeled Maya arch                                     Open sided nave
The chapel interior with traditional Mayas thatched roof and open sides
Text © 2012 Richard D. Perry. Photography © Linda Dorton

In editing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent Yucatan archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews
For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides.