Such walled cities are few in number. Research indicates that the Mayan ruins of Tulum were previously known as Zama, which meant ‘dawn’. Given its location, this name seems appropriate. The site was given the name ‘Tulum’ before the visit of the explorers Stephens and Catherwood in the year 1841. This was just before the Caste War of 1847. Here the city was abandoned and left in ruins. Tree felling was ordered. Catherwood made several illustrations of temples, which were later published in the book ‘Incidents of Travel in Yucatan’. The discovery of Tulum is often attributed to Juan José Gálvez.
The site dates back to 564 AD. An inscription on a stela indicates this. Tulum thus belongs to the Classic period. The city witnessed activity much later, from AD 1200 to 1521. This was during the Postclassic period. Tulum served as an important link in the extensive trade network of the Maya. The city saw a convergence of sea and land routes.
Artifacts excavated from the site indicate contacts from central Mexico to Central America. The bells and copper rings indicate the presence of the culture of the Mexican highlands. Flint and pottery were obtained from Yucatan jade. Juan de Grijalva and his men were perhaps the first Europeans to see Tulum. They sailed up the east coast of the Yucatan in 1518. The Spanish returned years later to conquer the peninsula. They brought with them Old World diseases that wiped out the native population. Thus, like many cities, Tulum lay abandoned.
Visitors get a glimpse of Tulum’s main center both ceremonially and politically when they arrive at the pre-Hispanic site. The city was monumentally surrounded by the best known Mayan wall. A large number of wooden and palm houses were built around this wall. This area is currently inaccessible and there is no evidence of these houses.
The plaza, which is located in the center of the city, was in all probability used for ceremonies and rituals. It is flanked by a Castillo or castle to the west. El Castillo is often touted as the tallest building in Tulum. It is often referred to as the lighthouse. It is located on the cliff mentioned above. It offers an impressive view of the ocean and the coast. This structure went through various stages of construction. The upper rooms are carved with the motif of the plumed serpent. The rooms are vaulted in the classic style of the Mayan culture.
The Temple of the Descending God is another intriguing structure. The facade includes a sculpted figure upside down. The interior walls show traces of ancient pigments used by the Mayans. The figure is believed to represent a deity, with Tulum appearing to be at the center of the cult.