Sayil: Place of the Muleteer Ants
Sayil is located on the Route of Puuc in the Yucatan peninsula, about 9 km (5.6 miles) from Kabah, and roughly 5 km (3.1 miles) to 7.9lm (5 miles) from both Xlapak and Labna, respectively. It’s very easy to travel from the Uxmal ruins by bus or car. Sayil became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
The well preserved archaeological site is about a 30-minute drive southeast from the more well-known ruins of Uxmal. It’s very easy to travel from the Uxmal by bus or car. Sayil dates back to 700-1000 AD when the ancient city was one of the most densely populated in the region. In the past, neither Uxmal nor Kabah were as expansive as Sayil. Today many unexcavated ruins remain hidden in the jungle. As a result, travelers receive a real-life Indiana Jones sense of discovery.
This makes Sayil the perfect destination for history buffs and travel explorers alike.
What Does Sayil Mean?
The name Sayil literally means “Place of the Muleteer Ants”. In the Yucatec Mayan language, the word “say” refers to the muleteer ants also known as leaf-cutter ants. It’s unclear if the name came from the local workers who literally named the city after discovering a large population of ants or if early archeologists named the city after its fall.
The names given to most Maya sites in the Yucatan are not of antique origin. However, Sayil could actually be of antique origin.
Discovery of Sayil: Place of the Muleteer Ants
John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood rediscovered the site in 1841 and in 1843 Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, in which reference is made to the site under the name Zayi, a name given to him by locals. Zayi or Salli means “Casa Grande” (Large House).
How can we be certain the ancient name was not lost in translation? Could Stephens have misinterpreted Sayil as Salli and printing as Zayi?
Whatever the case, both names apply as the Great Palace is indeed large and muleteer ants are ever-present at Sayil. Interestingly, Mexico is known for having a large population of ants never before seen in the United States, about 20 known species.
“Perhaps the most striking peculiarity of the ants is their social character; assembling in companies of almost countless numbers, and yet working in harmony for definite objects; for while they have no head or guide, they all seem to devote themselves to systematic efforts for forwarding the public good. All their energies are given to this, and for this, they are ready to sacrifice their lives.”
– Edward Norton, The American Naturalists vol. II – April 1868 – No. 2 Notes on Mexican Ants
Stephens learned about the legend of Sayil from the locals and how every holy Friday music could be heard in the ruins. If it is a Friday when you visit, don’t be shocked if there is a hum in the air.
Although there are hundreds of Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula, not many have been studied extensively. However, Sayil is one of the few that has been the object of a systematic study program.
One of the most interesting differences of this ancient city compared to others is the high number of stone structures to house the lower and middle classes. In Maya culture, typically these families would have lived in traditional thatch-roof huts made from compostable materials such as mud and cane, which is why for the most part, they have not been preserved.
The stone houses at Sayil are a controversial subject and add a layer of mystery.
The prevailing academic theory is that the unique stone structures discovered at Sayil housed an immoderate number of elite Maya families. This theory, however, has been challenged by scholars. An extensive study of the landscape revealed how Sayil is similar to the Maya sites of Kohunlich and Dzibanché. In these cities, building standards included stone common to the area. Therefore these stone structures were not dwellings for the elite as the opposing theory implies.
History of Sayil
Population estimates based on a count of subterranean storage chambers known as chultuns produced a conservative figure of 5,000 – 10,000. On the other hand, the count of stone houses dates the population of Sayil to at least 8,000. Sayil probably had between 5,000 and 10,0000 residents in the city and another 5,000-7,000 in the surrounding crop fields.
Archaeologists believe the ruling elite of Sayil probably came from the earlier settlement of Chac II in the low valley of The Puuc Mountain range. By 950 AD Sayil began to decline. But at that point, the royal lineages most likely left whereas some farmers and other residents stayed another 50-100 years. There are not only signs of a revolt but also a drought that brought the entire region to their knees between 800-1,000 A.D.
From their excavation study, archaeologists believe Sayil was a city based on agriculture. Farming, irrigation, and pottery would have been their livelihood. It’s possible, from the ceramic findings, that trade with Guatemala, specifically El Chayal, was also sustainable economic development.
Architecture and Society
The city, built into the limestone ridges of shallow hills, had a complex irrigation system that would have sustained the agriculture. This is common to Puuc region settlements, including Sayil where the Maya built their livelihood, belief system, government structure, and loyalty to their rulers. Because Sayil sits on porous limestone, there would be no surface water without irrigation.
The site was built in a causeway manner along a sacbe — or “white road” in the Mayan language — running North from The Great Palace to El Mirador temple in the south, at a distance of about one mile between. The Temple of the Hieroglyphic Doorway and Yum Keep will be of interest to the symbolist.
Some of the most notable structures at Sayil include:
- El Palacio Norte – The Great Palace
- El Mirador – The Pyramidal Temple
- Templo De Las Jambos Jeroglificas – Temple of the Hieroglyphic Doorway
The South group includes a ball court, a palace with more zoomorphic masks, and less-visited ruins.