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Historical city of Izamal (Izamal, Mayan continuity in an Historical City)

Date of Submission: 15/10/2008
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Consejo Consultivo Mexicano del Patrimonio Mundial
State, Province or Region:
Yucatán, Mexico
Coordinates: N20 51 - 21 00 W88 51 - 89 09
Ref.: 5394

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Izamal is known as the "Hill City" because it has in its urban zone, several archaeological vestiges located on the hill sides. The extension of the remains of pre Hispanic constructions as estimated could occupy an area of 10 kilometers square.

Today city of Izamal was a remarkable site of the ancient Mayan civilization. It was probably the largest large city of plains of the north of Yucatan. The investigators have found and catalogued around 80 pre Hispanic structures within the layout of the city. One of the most important pyramids is the Kinich Kak Moo, that is the third pre-Hispanic structure of greater volume in Mexico and at least two stone roads are known, called sacbeóob (ways) that communicated it with other important settlements.

The dimension of its buildings and the network of roads, constructed between 600 and 800 A.C., are evidence of the political and economic power that Izamal exerted on a vast territory, larger than five thousand kilometers square. Here a particular construction technique was developed, mainly by using megalithic carved blocks, with defined architectonical characteristics like rounded corners, projected moldings and superstructures done with perishable materials.

Of the hegemony of Izamal on an ample region is evidenced by the roads that joined the city with dependent populations - like Kantunil, 18 kilometers to the south, and Aké, 29 kilometers to the west and by the control upon commerce and the production of salt through Xcambó, a port located at the Northern coast of the peninsula.

Five pre-Columbian structures are still visible in Izamal (and from a considerable distance in all directions).The first one is a pyramid dedicated to a solar deity, Kinich Kak Moo, which means macaw of fire, solar face, where worship is rendered to this deity as a source of life, by offering flowers, fruits, animals and aromatic substances. This building is the highest of Yucatan and, by its volume, the third most important of the country. It reaches 35 meters of height. In the base its walls measure 195 meters from east to west and 173 meters from north to south. Upon this base a pyramid of 10 levels exists.

Towards the Southeast there is the so called pyramid Itzamatul and, located at the south flank of what used to be an enormous square, there is a structure denominated Ppap Hol Chak, partially destroyed in the 16th century when the Franciscan monastery was constructed upon it.

The southwestern side of the central square is limited by another well-known pyramid Hun Pik Tok, and in the west the public space is closed with the temple of Kabul, where a great stucco large mask of Itzamná god existed, which was drawn in 1840 by Federick Catherwood and published by John Lloyd Stephens.

Other residential constructions that are samples of Izamal's historical development are the Xtul, the Habuc and the Chaltun Has. These great knolls are witnesses of a process of superposition of buildings that lasted several centuries and that originally supported a series of temples and palaces.

In order to determine the religious social, political and administrative importance of pre-Hispanic Izamal, it is convenient to mention that after more than one decade of research works, 163 archaeological structures have been mapped within the urban area of the contemporary city and also thousands of residential units in a series of pre Hispanic communities located in the surroundings have been registered. Also, in the whole region that historically was called Ah Kin Chel, hundreds of sites have been detected that shared the same architectonic characteristics of Izamal. At the present time, there are still  little more than 20 structures left that all together make of Izamal, archaeologically spoken a first rank site for the country.

After the conquest of Yucatan in the 16th century, the Spaniards demanded the foundation and construction of a city, which began upon the existing Mayan city. Due to the presence of two enormous structures, it was decided to build a small Christian temple on the greater pyramid and a great Franciscan convent upon the Acropolis. This convent received the name of San Antonio de Padua.

The construction of the convent began in 1553 by fray Diego de Landa. Given the dimensions of the pyramid, the land of the set of the church and the caretaker's office of the convent, chapel and vestibule, occupy 14 thousand 678 square meters. The church is found in the center with its facade to the west. The temple and caretaker's office were finished in 1554. The architect of this last part was fray Juan de Mérida. The work of the convent concluded in 1561, being guardian fray Francisco de la Torre.

The church has a barrel vault and tracery, some windows of Moorish arcs and flying buttresses in the apse that give it an excellent aspect. It conserves the title of la Purísima Concepción (the Purest Conception). It is a single ship of 51,90 meters in length. In the central part the two lateral doors communicate to the left with the convent and the right with a common courtyard and the chapel of the Third Order.

To the north of the church the convent was built, to the east the orchard and the cemetery with his chapel; in the lower part are located, to the south, the temple of the Third Order and, to the west, the great vestibule, whose arcade was finished in 1618.

And so was built what would be the greatest religious center of the Mayan converted to the Catholicism in the Yucatan Peninsula; like in pre-Hispanic time when worship was rendered to Itzamná, Izamal became the destiny of multiple peregrinations that - still today,  arrive daily to celebrate patron saints in the diverse chapels of the site.

Also, Izamal has been named "City of the Three Cultures", in reference to the architectonic and cultural fusion of the pre-Columbian, colonial and modern societies in the architectural styles found in its houses and public spaces that have given identity to its inhabitants.

Izamal has been a great center of religious peregrination from immemorial times. For the Mayans of today, Izamal continues being the destiny of their pilgrimages, since the image of the Immaculate Conception of Maria, gained its devotion. The image that presides over the greater altarpiece of the temple of the convent - Our Lady of Izamal - was taken to Izamal from Guatemala by orders of Fray Diego de Landa (the well-known and controversial bishop from Yucatan, author of the "Relation of the things of Yucatan" who lived in Izamal).

In Izamal the Mayan language is spoken, at least, as much as Spanish. As for the language, the rites, the architecture, in this community of sober, white and yellow houses, ancestral customs remain: the crossbred food, the way of dressing, the music... daily routine expressions are the synthesis of a distant past in the time, but as near as the Mayan monuments that rise in the center of the town, between houses of the colonial time.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criteria (iii)

Izamal can be considered as one of the oldest cities of the Mayans, populated by Itzáes groups coming from the east and whose denomination Izamal is taken from the name of the God Itzamná or Itzamatul.

Izamal grew as an urban nucleus, and strengthened religiously as well as politically, giving rise to a town considered as a state by the indigenous of the peninsula, likewise a center of peregrination in the early classic period of Middle America.

The similarity between the qualities of Itzamná and those of the god of the conquerors, allowed a symbiosis to occur between the indigenous beliefs and the catholic religion, and smoothed the way to what some describe as a "spiritual conquest". Erected catholic sanctuaries on the Mayan temples were the altars where the natives continued expressing their mysticism and religiosity. Soon, the native ones submitted to the Hispanic God that, like their old deity Itzam Na, was the possessor of extraordinary powers.

Izamal has seen pass centuries of veneration to its gods and saints and, certainly, its relevance as religious center is originated in the splendor of the prodigious Mayan civilization. For that reason, it is an exceptional testimony of the social and religious evolution of a culture whose most excelling characteristics remain to the present time.

Criteria (iv)

The city of Izamal is a settlement with more than two thousand years of antiquity. In the same site Mayan, colonial and buildings of independent Mexico converge, which confers to the city a particular identity.

Izamal was founded by Zamná, priest of the god Itzamná, in the Late Pre-classic period (750 to 200 A.C.). The greater incidence in the constructive activity includes the Proto-classic (200 B.C. to 200 a.c.), the Early Classic (200 to 600 A.C.) And Late Classic (600 to 800 A.C.) periods. It was partially abandoned from the rising of the state of Chichen Itzá during the Final Classic period (800 to 1000 A.C.) until the end of the pre-Hispanic time, when Izamal was considered as one of the main sites of peregrination in the region.

Izamal is one of the most important archaeological sites of the north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Numerous old references talk about the sacred character and the cult to which the city was dedicated, which could have been a stimulus to undertake those works.

Although the colonial settling down destroyed good part of the pre-Hispanic buildings, some in the center of the present population are still conserved and a high number of platforms in the surroundings.

In addition to its pre-Hispanic monuments, among them the hugest of the Yucatan, Izamal conserves numerous colonial buildings. It is common that an itinerary through a colonial street, of a monumental Mayan pyramid to some large house of 18th century, is made in few minutes.

One of the most beautiful convents constructed by the Franciscan order in Yucatan, that took advantage of the base of the Kinich Kak MOO, was the one of San Antonio de Padua.

The chapel of the Remedios (Remedies), in the district of the same name, is another colonial construction and second in size after the convent of San Antonio de Padua. Its altarpiece, of gothic style, was made originally in 1898 in the temple of the convent, and was replaced by one constructed in 1949.

To the north of the convent is the square of "Zamna", in honor to the pre-Hispanic spiritual guide who founded the city. This square has pre-Hispanic and colonial details in its esplanade and is surrounded by vestibules with depressed arcs, colonial those of the western flank, and 19th century those of the east.

In the northeast angle there are two horseshoe arcs forming the vestibule of the chapel of the Divino Maestro (Divine Teacher), construction of 17th century at the base of the pyramid of Kabul. In the Southeastern angle of the square a monumental depressed arc points out on 31s street, abutment of the convent of 17th century.

To the south of the convent the little square "2nd of April" is located with the monument to fray Diego de Landa, and at its southern flank, a large house on the base of a Mayan pyramid. Other constructions of the colonial period are the present terminal of buses, the kindergarten and the municipal market.

The houses of the historical center delimited by streets 22 to 40 in their east - west axis and from 25 to the 33 in the north-south axis are constructions of 17th to 20th centuries. The houses and constructions, as from 16th century, were made of stones of the pre-Hispanic buildings.

The city does not have an orthodox grid plan, because it followed the pre-Hispanic plan, respecting the former existing opened spaces now being the actual squares.

The civil and religious constructions from the 16th to the 20th centuries are numerous and they are in good state of conservation. Being the best conserved in the region, Izamal is called "the most colonial of the Yucatan cities".

The urban outline and the architecture of Izamal represent a fusion of indigenous and Spanish traditions, which confers it exceptional importance and quality to be conserved as legacy of world-wide value:

  • The pre-Hispanic monument system in downtown is an outstanding symbol of the urban image and gives account of the past importance of the settlement;
  • The colonial historical monuments, carefully preserved the civil and religious architecture;
  • The infrastructure of independent Mexico and of modern times complements the history book of the Peninsula that is Izamal through its architecture.

Criteria (vi)

Together whit its singular architecture, where great pre-Hispanic monuments stand out and the splendor of its religious buildings, in Izamal diverse cultural expressions survive that go beyond samples of folklore and that are part of the daily life of the inhabitants of Izamal.

The houses constructed from the Colony are inhabited by the villagers or give space to diverse commercial uses. The color and the uniformity of the civil architecture of Izamal are more than only scenographic elements, but rather are part of the daily life of its inhabitants.

In the main seat the buggies thrown by horses are lined up and are part of public transport for visitors and inhabitants.

The creativity and laboriousness of the Mayan people find a magnificent expression in varied artisan pieces and the gastronomy that incorporates centuries of rituals and knowledge.

In Izamal the Mayan language is spoken because the inheritors of this culture lived in it. The inhabitants of Izamal are direct descendants of the original settlers of these lands, they speak, dress, eat and live attached to their celebrations and traditions.

Izamal is representative example of the symbiosis of religious beliefs of different civilizations. For more than two thousand years of indigenous peregrination and 500 of Christian peregrination, Izamal has been an excellent center of veneration. To the temples in which the God Itzamna was adored, convents and Christian chapels were built on. The present centers of catholic peregrination are represented fundamentally by the convent of San Antonio de Padua, the chapel of Nuestra Señora María Santísima (our Holly Lady María), the chapel of the Remedies and the Chapel of Carmen.

Izamal is testimony of the coexistence and evolution of two civilizations: the native and the Spanish. As a matter of fact, Izamal keeps singular expressions from its crossbreeding. Independently of its religious importance, or the value of its monuments, Izamal is an island of time that contains a special form of lifestyle and way of contemplating life. If its conservation is not assured or promoted, this important cultural good could disappear.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The area propose to be declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, occupies an area of approximately four kilometers square, and mainly includes the historical center of the city and pre-Hispanic monuments. This area fulfils at least the following criteria of authenticity and/or integrity:


  • Form and design: The constructive style of the colonial city, its squares and the great pre Hispanic Mayan structures located in the urban center, grant to Izamal a singular architectonic personality. Special is the grandness of the convent of San Antonio de Padua - the mayor one of the Peninsula -, the vestibule with his 75 arcs and the church of neo gothic style from the end of the XIX Century housing the sculpture of the virgin of Izamal.
  • Use and function: For more than two thousand years Izamal was a Mayan ceremonial center. The construction of its monuments is older than those of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. After the conquest and until now it has become an important religious pole of catholic peregrination.
  • Traditions: From its foundation, in pre-Columbian times, to the present, Izamal is bound to a strong religious tradition. At the moment the Franciscan convent and the devotion to Immaculate Maria, are distinctive of the city.

Another one of the living traditions that make of Izamal a magical town is its gastronomy. Its kitchen has a crossbred touch of the Yucatan area, prepared with indigenous ingredients and flavors.

The settlers of Izamal know to make dreams become real through their hands: legacies transmitted from fathers to sons for generations such as the weaving of hammocks with henequen fiber, the manufacturing of furniture of wood and divers objects of ceramics with pre Hispanic and colonial characteristics.

A reminiscence of the colonial time, but of generalized daily use, are the buggies, known by the name of Victories, vehicle of animal traction , open box and pliable sunshade.

In the streets of Izamal it is common to find its inhabitants dressed with the typical regional dress: women with the typical hipil and men with white clothes and additionally a hat and rope-soled sandals or shoes.

Music, dance, food, language, dress and the pure catholic faith of its inhabitants, make of Izamal a microcosm protected by aged and beautiful buildings that are testimonials of its historical and cultural transformation.

  • Location and surroundings: the city of Izamal is located in the center of the Peninsula, 70 kilometers from Mérida, the State Capital of Yucatan. It is readily accessible by highway and in its surroundings the landscape of henequen plantations, the empty buildings of ex haciendas are common and villages with the traditional Mayan houses are common landscape elements.
  • Language: In addition to the Spanish language, the Mayan language, the inherited native language of the pre-Hispanic time, is of generalized use.

Izamal represents a cultural and religious space that in spite of its evolution has conserved its crossbred characteristics of its people and it is an exceptional cultural site, where history prevails in each daily fact.

Izamal is an historical center whose perimeter coincides with the one of two cities, two cultures and two civilizations. Its design matches with the one of its Mayan past, always present in pre-Hispanic monuments. Its colonial inheritance is clear in yellow and austere large houses; in the vestibule, convent and church, constructed in the style of 16th century fortress-like churches, with its high walls, heavy and crenellated.

The city of Izamal is in good state of conservation; nevertheless, increasing threats exist that threaten the integrity of the culture and infrastructure of the place. Outstanding are the negligence of the pre Hispanic structures as well as the colonial ones, the indifference or lack of conscience of the inhabitants related to the value of their tangible and intangible cultural patrimony, the continuous migration of the villagers towards other parts of the Mexican Republic and abroad, and the insufficiency of a regulation that assures the preservation the built cultural patrimony.

Seated on the palaces that were built by the prodigious Mayans, Izamal of today is a syncretism expression of cultures that, despite the ups and downs of modernity, conserves cultural identity and the architectonic expressions of the diverse stages of its history.

Izamal, microcosm, island of identity, legendary collection of buildings and monuments, yellow of calm, cordiality that walks around in buggies through tight stones paved streets, pilgrimages and fireworks breaking the calmness of the afternoons, music and the color embroidered daily clothes, laborious hands since centuries, overflowing faith in churches and chapels, enormous, monumental convent, always at the center of the glances, a limpid life that passes by in the river of history.

The intention of this proposal is to contribute to preserve the cultural legacy of the civilizations that have converged in a same place: Izamal.

Comparison with other similar properties

Valladolid city is located in the same Mexican state of Yucatan, this city is a clear example of what may happen to a property if it is not looked after and preserved on time. It was founded in March 24th 1545 on the Mayan settlement known as Zaci, the city of Valladolid has archaeological traces of the pre classical medium or formative medium period. Just like Izamal, in this location traditions and Mayan customs persist, just as Colony buildings. Nevertheless, the lack of legal codes in terms of urban development and the lack of a politics of preservation of the native cultural expressions have permitted the serious deterioration of its architecture and the valuable cultural expressions loss that have reduced identity to the place.

The convent of San Antonio de Padua, in Izamal, shows unique characteristics. It is considered the hugest of whole Latin America. By its religious relevance and architectonic singularity, this convent is comparable to the basilica of Guadalupe of the City of Mexico.

By its pure religiosity and its architecture, Izamal shares similarities with Xochimilco, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO; who's Historical Center in its ancestral religiosity demonstrates to be a strong bastion of identity. The Franciscan Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, monument of the XVI Century, artistic patrimony, and its chapels in the 17 districts, as well as the temples of the 14 neighboring towns of the demarcation, are spaces of coincidence with the religious infrastructure of Izamal.

In Izamal as well as in Xochimilco the perennial religious devotion has fortified the communitarian values and has contributed to the permanence of diverse cultural expressions that conforms its identity, resisting the attacks of modernity.

Finally it is important to emphasize the great affinity that exists between Izamal and Cholula. Both properties are localities inhabited since the pre-Hispanic age, they always have been large ceremonial and religious centres and, still today, its main axis is the sacred-ritual. An extensive calendar of religious festivities and the continuance of architectural traces of their diverse historic ages are coincidences that show their cultural and historic value.

Mystic, ceremonial, sacred from the night of the times, Izamal has, without reducing its religiosity, passed through the encounter of two cultures and continues being the center of peregrination of the Mayans of today as well as thousands of faithful catholic who share an immemorial faith, originated in the certainty of the extraordinary power of its founder, Zamná. This intrinsic value as religious center remains to the present time.