Made Up of Time

Maya Guatemala, Belize, Honduras

The greatest concentration of Mayan ruins is in Mexico. They are awesome, but heavily influenced by contact with, and conquest by, the Toltec peoples to the north. Tikal in Guatemala is probably the best restored example of classical Mayan style. But Altun Ha, a ceremonial center in Belize, and Copan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Honduras, also offer rich experiences of classical Mayan cities.

Guatemala has the largest Maya population of any country, and in terms of numbers, they are the dominant ethnic group. There are at least 15 distinct Mayan groups in the country, mostly living in the highlands. After years of brutal war, tribal elders have recently signed a pact with the Guatemalan government guaranteeing land and political rights, and freedom to practice their traditional religion. Guatamalen Mayas produce beautiful textiles, pottery, and baskets. One town especially, Chichicastenango, has a renowned market dating back to pre-Columbian times.

Tikal is located in the middle of Tikal National Park, a wildlife preserve covering 222 square miles and the first such park in Central America. The park shelters magnificent jungle and wildlife. Some of the rainforest trees that grow in the park are Spanish cedar, ceiba, a tree sacred to the Maya, zapotes, from which chicle, a base for chewing gum is derived, and mahogany. Living in and amongst these trees are troops of spider monkeys and 285 species of birds, 209 of which are resident species, including hawks, hummingbirds, parrots, and golden turkeys. Outside of the ruins live jaguar, puma, ocelot, pecarry, small deer, and countless other animals, many rare and endangered.

Tikal was a prime city of the Maya. At least 10,000 people lived within the mapped portion of the city, which encompasses six square miles. The maps reveal 3,000 separate constructions, including temples, palaces, shrines, cremonial platforms, residences, ballcourts, terraces, causeways, and plazas. In the main ceremonial precincts there are 200 stone monuments, known as stelae. Stelae were elaborately carved with glyphs, a form of writing, and other images. The employment of stelae was not general in Mayan culture, and seems to have been confined to the southern portion of their lands, principally around Tikal.

As well as the buildings and monuments, 100,000 tools, ceremonial objects, personal ornaments, and other items have been unearthed. These smaller objects give a more intimate picture of the texture of ancient Mayan life. The humbler residences found at Tikal have told us a lot about the ordinary Maya. The houses at Tikal were typically arranged in clusters around a central plaza. Most people were buried beneath the houses they had lived in. Along with the bodies were ritual objects that seemed to have daily life uses as well. The ceramics that have been unearthed at Tikal are especially fine.

The heart of Tikal is the Great Plaza. The plaza is surrounded the two largest temples, and to the north is a cluster of temples known as the North Acropolis. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar is especially notable. It was named after a motif on one of its lintels. Built in A.D. 870, it towers 145 feet above the Great Plaza. Tombs are riddled beneath and inside the structure. There are a couple of temple complexes at Tikal that resonate as a group, even if the individual buildings are not especially spectacular. These complexes have been given such evocative names as the Lost World Complex, the Plaza of the Seven Temples, the Twin Pyramid Complex, and the Acropolis.

Tikal is reachable by plane from Guatemala City. Flores is the closest town. You can find lodging within the National Park. You can also charter a plane for a one-day visit from Belize. You have to be a little lucky to find a plane available—and to find six visitors interested in the trip to make it affordable.

About 20,000 Mayan live in this tiny country of 200,000 people. Most of the Mayans are descendants of a group that fled here in 1847 along with a group of mestizos, or people of mixed Indian and European or African descent, escaping a bloody caste war. The Mayan of Belize are currently engaged in a struggle to protect the rainforest from destructive logging by a Malaysian logging concern.

Altun Ha is a small but rich ceremonial center of the Mayas about 30 miles north of Belize City. Because it was on the outskirts of the Mayan world, several things set it apart from sites closer to the center. The city was on the coastal trading route between the southern lowlands in Guatemala and Belize and the Yucatan and Mexico. Excavated in the late 1960s, the site is small, about 1 square mile, and includes around 500 visible structures and mounds. At its peak, Altun Ha probably had about 3,000 people living within the main center, with another 5-7,000 in the outlying vicinity.

The earliest evidence of settlement in Altun Ha dates from 200 B.C. The first major construction took place in 100 A.D. As in the rest of the Mayan world, the society was severely disrupted in the tenth century. The town was never completely abandoned, but construction stopped, to be resumed 200 years later in a much degraded form.

Altun Ha had a very distinctive tomb construction method, unknown in other Mayan sites. The walls were formed of roughly shaped pieces of quarried limestone and occasional facing stones, and covered by a ceiling of huge slabs of flint and limestone. The floor was a beaten bed of lime soil.

One tomb was named the "Green Tomb" because 300 jade objects were found inside. Many other objects were found as well, including shell ornaments, stingray spines (used in ritual bloodletting), flint sculptures, and the badly deteriorated remains of a codex.

Another temple displayed evidence of a ritual unknown at other Mayan sites. It is the product of four construction phases. At each phase, an altar was set up at the top of the temple. Offerings of copal incense and carved jade were made to fire. The remains of the final ceremony were cast on the floor around the altar before the next phase of construction, which put a shell around the existing structure.

The largest jade from the Maya area, the carved jade head of Kinich Ahau, the Sun God, was found at this site. At the time of its discovery, this was the largest carved jade object in the Mayan world.

Honduras was on the very outskirts of the Mayan world, but it has a superior Mayan archeological site in Copan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its unique hieroglyphic staircase and its ball court, the second largest in the Mayan world. The site is large—there are 3,500 mounds in the 9.25 square miles surrounding the main group, an area known as the Copan bottomlands, and another thousand mounds in the hills surrounding the bottomland.

Nature did to the the Main Acropolis what human kind hasn't dared. The Copan River eroded the monumental complex's eastern edge, exposing its history more completely than the gingerly excavating and tunneling archeologists. The result is a real-life cross-section of Mayan construction. The Mayans frequently built on top of their old monuments, going higher, wider, and more elaborate. The old monuments are contained in the shell of the new, like a series of nesting eggs. The slice that the river took out gives a revealing look at this process, and is a good reason in itself to visit Copan.

The Hieroglyphic Staircase is another unique feature of Copan. Constructed in 743, the staircase tells the official history of the ancestors of King Smoke Shell on 63 steps of a tall pyramid—the most complete chronology of any royal house. The kings of Copan really liked their self-aggrandizement. The Forest of the Kings, a field of elaborately carved stelae, are almost full-fledged statues in the round. The stelae seem to depict Mayan kings, with glyphic inscriptions praising their auspiciousness and accomplishments. Walking amidst these stones is an eerie experience, like being a child lost in a crowd of demi-deities.

The nearest town is Coban Ruinas. Many people cross over the border from Guatemala to see the ruins on a daytrip.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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