Crucible of Maya Civilization


Among the high hills which we passed over there is a variety of old buildings, excepting some in which I recognized apartments and though they were very high and my strength little I climbed up them (though with trouble). They were in the form of a convent, with the small cloisters and many living rooms all roofed over and … whitened inside with plaster.


Half-starved, thirsty and with only the vaguest notion of where he was, the Franciscan friar Andrés de Avendaño stumbled upon a great ruin in the Maya forest of 1696. Although the region Avendaño passed through contains the desolate remains of many fallen cities, his description quoted above best fits Tikal, and he was almost certainly the first European to lay eyes on it.

Today, Tikal, with its iconic architecture, has become the signature for ancient Maya culture. Images of its sharply inclined pyramids piercing the jungle canopy appear on everything from book covers to banknotes – their profiles so exotic that they were even used in the original Star Wars film. Tikal is a proud emblem of modern-day Guatemala, and increasingly a symbol for contemporary Maya people, who are now allowed to conduct rituals and make offerings there.

This ceramic figure of an unknown Tikal king gives an idea of the finery – exotic feathers, textiles and jade jewels – that Tikal’s rulers once wore. This forms the lid of an incense burner within which aromatic copal, a crystallized tree sap, would be burnt as an offering to the gods.

Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.

It was not until the 19th century that proper reports of Tikal appeared, and it was still largely unexplored when the University of Pennsylvania Museum began excavations there in 1955. Over some 14 field seasons the scale and complexity of the site became clear, as deep trenches cast light on its early history and a programme of mapping charted its outer limits. Subsequent projects, in particular those conducted by the Guatemalan government, have expanded and refined this picture. The map proved to be a particular revelation, shattering the long-standing view of ‘ceremonial centres’, in which a cluster of temples with few permanent residents stood isolated in the forest. It showed instead thousands of homes radiating out from the central core, establishing the model of low-density urbanism since identified throughout the Maya world. This sizeable population lived not in a dense jungle but in a cultivated landscape of maize, beans and squash, doubtless mixed with orchards and groves of useful trees.

Occupied for as much as 1,800 years, Tikal began life some time between 800 and 600 BC as two hamlets on elevated ridges, with a third lying along the perimeter of a swamp. It was only after about 300 BC that substantial structures developed on the ridge-tops – the large platforms and levelled plazas of the North Acropolis and the Lost World Complex – signalling Tikal as a place of importance. Even so, it was overshadowed by cities such as Nakbe, Ichkabal and El Mirador and did not come into its own until the beginning of the so-called Classic period in about AD 200. This marks a significant shift in Maya culture, as many major settlements were abandoned and a range of new features – especially monuments with historical texts – emerge at survivors such as Tikal.

A view of central Tikal today from above the North Acropolis. Temples I and II frame the Great Plaza, with the royal palace of the Central Acropolis and the outline of the unexcavated Temple V beyond.

W. E. Garrett. R/National Geographic Creative.

The North Acropolis developed into a necropolis for Tikal’s kings, and the Great Plaza in front of it became the central focus of the Classic-era city. The tall temple pyramids, some of them royal mortuary shrines, were erected during the 7th and 8th centuries, creating a more dramatic skyline. At the same time a series of broad causeways was constructed to connect the more distant elements of the city. On the south side of the Great Plaza lay the main royal palace, the Central Acropolis, a dense concentration of chambers and enclosed courtyards modified continually over time. It was joined by other grand complexes – probably the residences of noble families – that formed a ring around the inner core. At a greater remove, the city was encircled by earthworks composed of a ditch backed by a rampart of the packed spoil, running to over some 25 km (15 miles) in length. Although the design is overtly defensive, there are many gaps and no line at all to the south. Evidently the system was started in a time of special need, but abandoned unfinished.

Inscriptions on carved limestone monuments and architectural features are common, but it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that they could be read to any real effect. Today, we can reconstruct the outlines of Tikal’s history and make important connections to the archaeological record. We can now trace the origins of the Classic-era dynasty of Tikal to some time around AD 100, when it was initiated by its founder, Yax Ehb Xook, a ruler who was celebrated by at least 28 royal successors. Little is known of the earliest kings, but during the reign of the 14th, Chak Tok Ich’aak, we see significant contacts with the distant power of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. Several inscriptions refer to a day in 378 and tell of the arrival of someone called Sihyaj K’ahk’ and the death of Chak Tok Ich’aak. These events appear to represent the overthrow of the existing Tikal regime. A year later a new king took power under the aegis of Sihyaj K’ahk’ and both lords are depicted in distinctive Central Mexican garb. It is at this same point that we find a surge of Teotihuacan-style art and artifacts. The father of this 15th Tikal king has a name with strong affinities to Teotihuacan and he might even have been a ruler of that great metropolis.

These events led to almost two centuries of prosperity and apparent regional dominance for Tikal. However, it was not without rivals, and in 562 the 21st king, Wak Chan K’awiil, suffered a major defeat. The main beneficiary and likely perpetrator was the mysterious kingdom of the ‘Snake’ – whose capital seems to have been at Dzibanche until the early 7th century, when it switched to Calakmul. There followed a long struggle as Tikal sought to restore its position, with success coming under the 26th king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, who was victorious over Calakmul in 695. A new golden age followed, with Jasaw’s son Yik’in Chan K’awiil defeating two of Calakmul’s major allies: El Peru in 743 and Naranjo in 744 – apparently capturing both opposing kings.

Detail of a wooden lintel from the inner sanctuary of Temple IV, the tallest pyramid at Tikal. It shows the face of a god effigy, part of an elaborate royal litter captured from the rival kingdom of Naranjo in 744.

Museum für Volkerkunde, Basel/Werner Forman Archive.

Yet within a generation or two Tikal’s position began to slip again, although this time as part of a regional decline that reached crisis point in the early 9th century. After this the population fell rapidly and all construction and monument erection ceased. Activity continued only at smaller, peripheral sites, whose lords put up stunted stelae and claimed the same royal titles as the Tikal line. After a long gap one last monument was dedicated in the Great Plaza of Tikal in 869, but by now the site was in terminal decline, and it was abandoned – save for squatters – by about 900.

Today Tikal lies within a small national park and is a magnet for regional tourism. Time will tell if visitors and the income they bring can save the tropical forest, but the signs are not good. Beset by logging and land clearance, the greater natural reserve of northern Guatemala – a haven for jaguars, tapirs, macaws and other exotic species – is disappearing fast. The chainsaws may be too distant to hear, but if a breeze catches the smoky haze of destruction it can blanket the site.

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