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Tikal: The Capital of Maya Civilization

North Acropolis
Watson E Mills is a member of the Circumnavigators Club of New York having completed three around-the-world journeys. He has traveled to 174 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations during his 140 overseas trips. He says, “A visit to Tikal is more costly and difficult than one to Chichen Itza in Mexico, but it is absolutely more rewarding. While the crowds are measurably smaller and the commercialism less evident than Chichen Itza, its real reward is the site’s immensity and the state of its preservation. It is one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited.”

It was 5:00 a.m. and my taxi driver was lost along the deserted streets of Guatemala City on this dark January morning. I was anxious because my TAG Airline flight had a mandatory check-in time of 5:30 am. In frustration, I began to wonder if this would be the day for me to travel deep into the jungles of Guatemala to visit the ancient Maya ruins at Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Of course, my cabbie knew where the international airport was located, but my flight was domestic and was departing from a different terminal located on the other side of the airfield. So, even though we were at the airport the driver seemed unable to locate the domestic facility, the clock was ticking! 

We drove and drove and drove, circling the same streets multiple times. There were chain link fences everywhere. The driver would roll down the window and ask the occasional passerby, but to no avail. He tried to put me out a couple of times, but I wasn’t biting. It was I who finally inquired of a security guard about the location of the domestic terminal – in my not-too-good Spanish. He was stationed at a fenced entrance to some hangars along the runway apron. He spoke no English but he motioned the way, and, after a few more wrong turns, the taxi stopped in front of a sign that read TAG Airlines. I made the mandatory check-in with a couple of minutes to spare!

The flight to Flores, a city set deep in the Guatemalan jungle, was on a small turbo-prop aircraft. There is no road from Guatemala City to Flores – the closest airport to the ruins at Tikal National Park – so the 160-mile flight is the only option. After an uneventful flight to this remote city, I boarded a van for the 40-mile drive to Tikal, set deep in the Guatemalan rain forest. The streets of Flores, made of multi-colored, tiny stone pebbles, sparkled as they reflected the early morning light, shades of blue and pink and green bouncing off each other. The warm smiles and waves of the folks dotting the streets seemed genuine as the van pushed on, however slowly, toward Tikal.

The road had some rough sections ,and a little over an hour passed before I finally arrived at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tikal is located in the jungles of what is now northern Guatemala. Tikal National Park is number three on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” Tikal was once the capital city of one of the most powerful kingdoms among the ancient Maya. Though some of its monumental architecture dates to the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classical Period, 200–900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily.

North Acropolis

After an orientation lecture, the guide led my group on a walk that was long but rewarding. We were heading towards the heart of the ancient city of Tikal. As the morning wore on, the temperature seemed to spike by giant leaps, but fortunately I was packing bottled water and wearing a wide-brimmed safari hat.

We finally arrived at the very epicenter of the largest Maya site in the Americas. Once inside the Great Plaza, I was immediately struck by how few tourists were there compared to the huge crowds at the Maya Ruins at Chichen Itza. Around noon time, for a few moments at least, I was alone in the Great Plaza!

This Great Plaza is flanked on two sides by great temple-pyramids. Temple I is a nine-step pyramid whose apex (called a “ roof comb”) towers 145 feet above the plaza floor and stands on the east side of the plaza. This temple is also known as the “Temple of the Great Jaguar” because it boasts a lintel that represents a king sitting upon a jaguar throne. It is a limestone, stepped pyramid that dates to approximately 732 AD. The structure is actually a funerary temple and has a burial chamber deep inside. Atop of the temple are three lintels that were finely carved from sapodilla wood – a wood that is a very hard and brownish in color – that was available locally. The lintels were formed from planks of this wood set into small niches fashioned into the wall. At its apex, the temple bears a high “roof comb” decorated with a sculpture of the seated king, although it is difficult to discern his likeness due to decades of accumulated debris overlaying it. The front of the roof comb was finished with stone blocks carved to represent the enormous figure of the king, flanked by scrolls and serpents.

Temple I

Across the Great Plaza, on the west side, sits Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Masks because of a pair of grotesque masks which flank the stairway to the platform on which the temple rests. Its function was actually as a mausoleum for the wife of the great King Jasaw Chan Kawiil I who reigned between 682-734 AD. Its style is very different from Temple I, e.g., it has only three tiers. With its sharp, defined edges and features, it is more squat and robust in its appearance, but it still reaches an impressive 121 feet including its roof comb.

Also adjoining the Great Plaza is the North Acropolis that served as a royal necropolis (burial site) for more than 1,300 years. Around 250 AD, this complex underwent a major redevelopment with the construction of a massive base platform that supported a cluster of temples. This effort was later followed by the addition of a row of four pyramids on a terrace to the south of the main platform.

On the South side of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis, which housed the royal families during its earliest occupation. The area was enlarged over the centuries by adding to its height rather than its base area, and as its developed, it gradually began to also serve administrative, as well as residential, purposes.

Though truly magnificent, the ruins of Tikal visible today represent only a fraction of the original city-state. During its heyday, archaeologists say, “downtown” Tikal was about six square miles, yet most of Tikal – the heart of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park – was not seriously excavated until the early to the mid 20th century. Before these excavations most Maya experts held that the Maya were peaceful and extraordinary observers of celestial events, the nature of time and of the cosmos. This theory suggested that Maya sites like the Great Plaza were “ceremonial centers” where priests studied planets and stars and the mysteries of the calendar, and that these sites had virtually no permanent residents. But it turns out that this theory was completely wrong. When, in the 1960s, their writing system – the most sophisticated created in the New World – was at last beginning to be deciphered, a new picture of these people emerged.

Temple II

From 1956-1970 the University of Pennsylvania Museum conducted archaeological investigations at Tikal. At the time, this effort was the largest archaeological project ever undertaken in the Americas. The work carried out at Tikal resulted in the accumulation, examination, and classification of more than 60,000 photographic images which provided new, primary data about the Maya past. This effort resulted in an increased appreciation for the importance of the site and how much could be learned from it.

Maya art and writing did, in fact, contain stories of battles, sacrificial offerings, and even torture. Far from being peaceful, the Maya were warriors and their kings vainglorious despots. Maya cities were not merely ceremonial; instead, they were a patchwork of feudal fiefdoms bent on conquest while living in constant fear of attack. At the peak of its glory, Tikal was home to at least 60,000 Maya and held sway over several other city-states scattered through the rain forest from the Yucatan Peninsula to western Honduras.

Make no mistake. Visiting Tikal requires a considerable amount of determination and a significant outlay of cash, but, I tell you, this is an amazing place, and you will no doubt treasure your memories of it for a lifetime.

Next time: “Little Petra: The rose red city’s baby sister”