The White House of Reading

The fang-like teeth of the Flower Mountain monster protect the entrance to the king's tomb and the White House of Reading
The fang-like teeth of the Flower Mountain monster protect the entrance to the king's tomb and the White House of Reading

No, not that White House.

But a thousand years ago, the White House we’re talking about today was a political place.

“I think we should go even though it is a two-hour drive each way,” I said to Magellan over breakfast at Casa de las Olas. “We’ll be sorry if we don’t.”

Leaving the white-sand beach of Tulum that stretches, seemingly to infinity, we headed inland in our rental car, following the ruler-straight highway to the archeological site of Ek’ Balam.

It may have been the same 130-kilometre sacbe (‘white road’ made from limestone) that the ancient Mayans walked between these two cities. “It’s so odd that Maya children had wheeled toys but their parents had no wheeled vehicles,” I said to Magellan, thinking of the long walk these people had and the loads they’d be carrying. “Not enough engineers,” he laughed.

When we got to Ek’ Balam and saw the Acropolis, we marveled at how the Maya built it without wheeled equipment. Home to the ruling king and his family—and counted as one of the most impressive Maya structures in the Yucatan—the Acropolis rises 31 metres, its base measuring 160-by-75 metres. A lot of the 20,000 people who lived here must have been quite the architects and artisans.

You can guess why the name “White House of Reading” came about when you catch a glimpse of the white frieze of stucco sculptures halfway up the Acropolis. That’s where, in 2000, archeologists discovered the royal tomb of Ukit Kan Le´t Tok.

Halfway up. That would be 53 steps on thousand-year-old stones. The height of a five-storey building. But unlike the Nohoch Mol pyramid we’d climbed at Cobá, there’s no thick guide rope at Ek’ Balam’s Acropolis, no umbilical cord to tether you to the mother structure.

Up we went.

Ek’ Balam is unique for its use of sculpted stucco and limestone in constructing the Acropolis and adorning its façade. The royal tomb, commissioned by one of the city’s last kings, is guarded by a huge, winged creature on each side of the entrance to what the Maya called the ‘other world.’ The Maya didn’t believe in angels so why the wings? I’ve read two different versions. One is that the winged monster is a compilation of all earth’s creatures. The other explanation is more fascinating.

These winged creatures may have been ancestors, as they have club (sic) feet, and other deformities that were a sign of royalty. The deformities were a result of the inbreeding between members of the royal family, and were considered to be special.

Protecting the king are six exquisitely carved figures, some winged, some meditating in the lotus position and one sitting headless above the fanglike teeth of the Flower Mountain monster guarding the tomb’s entrance. “Off with his head,” as the saying goes.

Of course we weren’t allowed into this White House.

But we read that when archeologists broke down the sealed mouth of the monster, they found the remains of the tomb of Ukit Kan Le´t Tok who ruled Ek’ Balam from 770-802 AD. He was laid out on a jaguar pelt with more than 7,000 treasures: a gold frog, religious objects, jewelry, jaguar claws, knives, clay vessels…It’s believed there are other kings buried under the piles of rubble beneath his tomb.

And what were the royals reading in this White House?

It’s difficult to say as only three books survive from all of the Maya ruins.

Were they reading about the weather, records of how often and how much it rained? (The Maya had a counting system, by fives up to twenty, by twenties up to one hundred, by hundreds up to four hundred, by four hundreds up to eight thousand and so on counting the number 80,000 twenty times.) Or the economy: accounts of corn crops from year-to-year and how much was in storage? Maybe they were reading population data: births, marriages, deaths (including sacrifices)? Or examining details of their riches: lists of the royal jewels and objects? (It’s also been called The White House of Counting.)

Maybe the White House of Reading is where they kept their calendar—one of the most sophisticated in the world. The Maya had calculated every solar and lunar eclipse through to 2012. Or maybe, using the 800 different hieroglyphic symbols they created to represent words or syllables, they recorded and read about past daily life around the White House. Like “Why King Ek’ Balam was Murdered.”

We climbed all the way to the top of the Acropolis. There’s a royal view of the countryside but it’s not a place I wanted to linger. I vascillated between marveling at the grandeur of the country below and feeling the vulnerability of stepping downward.

I wonder if Maya kings felt the same way.


At the end of the Tulum road near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, the seven-bedroom Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves, make that pounding waves) attracts guests who don’t want a pool, bar service or high-pressure showers. People who wear Dead Star T-shirts. Brand bourbon. Draw you a map of how to get to Chamico’s. Design restaurant kitchens. Win Pulitzer prizes. Take stunning photos of Valladolid churches. Jimmy, the Curator of Opportunities, his pal Bear, the onsite Canuck (watch him do “rakey yoga”) who winters here because it’s “magical” and LuLu, whose breakfasts have guests lingering for up to two hours, make lasting impressions that cause 70% of guests to return.

Coe, Michael D. The Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

This site shows Maya symbols for deciphering their language.

The Guardian also has an article on Maya script.

For archeological info on Ek’ Balam, this site is good as well as this one. I especially like Loco Gringo.

4 Responses

  1. They were reading about the weather and crop yields, just as we do today, haha. Or maybe they were gossip stories? Why didn’t they have more (some) engineers? They must have had some to build these amazing structures. And artists too.
    Big thanks for this!

    1. I think you’re right on with what they were reading and writing. It is such a pity that only three books survive for scholars to try and figure out this advanced society. But what a complex challenge for those inquisitive minds eager to take up the task.

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