I love exploring ancient civilizations. It takes a lot to impress me. I’ve seen the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico City; I’ve seen the Egyptian pyramids at Giza and the ruins of Karnak and Luxor; I’ve seen the Athens Acropolis, Roman Colosseum and Stonehenge in England; I’ve seen numerous Mexican Mayan ruins, including Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Mayapan, Xcambo, and Izapa.
And yet, I was definitely impressed with the sheer height and majesty of Tikal, shrouded deep in the lush 180’ high jungle canopy of northern Guatemala, guarded by myriad creatures such as howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, deer, ocelots, wild turkeys, and the occasional jaguar. Apparently I’m not the only one fascinated with the metropolis… According to “Rough Guides,” Tikal “is possibly the most magnificent of all Maya sites.”
Tikal was once an affluent metropolitan area housing as many as 100,000 residents and the base of the great Jaguar clan lords. It is the largest excavated site on the American continent, and considered by some archaeologists as the capital of the Maya.
Pennsylvania University headed the excavation and restoration of the site from 1956 through 1969. Six impressive limestone temple pyramids pierce Tikal’s skyline, the highest 230 ft. in height from which Mayan astronomers and priests studied the movements of the planets and calculated dates for their ritual calendar. The site also lays claim to many stone carvings and hieroglyphics.
Some records date Tikal as far back as 400 BC. The earliest monument was constructed in A.D. 292, but the history of Tikal spans the entire “Classic Period.” The metropolis reached its height in the eighth century A.D. when the pyramids were constructed, all within roughly a fifty-year span of time. Mysteriously, a century later, like other Mayan communities, Tikal was abandoned and consumed under a thick layer of encroaching jungle growth.
Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, led an expedition in 1525 very close to Tikal, but because of the thick growth, did not see it. The reason for Tikal’s decline remains a mystery, but disease, famine, overpopulation wars, and draught have all been speculated as possible causes.
Tikal’s rulers built six “temple” pyramids which marked the burial place of a ruler.
Temple I, The Temple of the Grand Jaguar Temple I, built for the 26th ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, stands sentry over the eastern portion of the plaza.
A stone stairway leads up the pyramid’s nine stories, symbolizing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. Due to the injuries and deaths that resulted from falling off the 20-story pyramid, climbing is now prohibited.
Temple II, The Temple of the Masks, faces off with Temple I on the opposite side of the Great Plaza, a large courtyard encompassing terraced stone palaces by terraces and the ubiquitous Mayan ball courts.
Temple III was the last large structure built at Tikal. It is speculated to contain the burial of Chi’taam, the last major ruler at this sit, although his tomb has not yet been found.
Temple IV, towering above the canopy at 212 feet tall, is not only the tallest structure in Tikal, but the whole Mayan civilization. It was built by Yax Kin, who began his rule on December 12th, 734 A.D, and is believed to be buried here. There is a series of stone steps, wooden ladders, roots, and protruding stones leading up to the top.
Temple V is the second tallest pyramid at Tikal. It is yet to be determined who may be buried here.
Temple VI is said to contain the most extensive hieroglyphics in the Mayan world, depicting the history of the Tikal civilization.
Other structures include “Mundo Perdido” or Lost World Complex, the Palace, and North Acropolis.
The residential area of Tikal covers around 23 square miles, much of which has not yet been excavated.
Star Wars fans may recognize Tikal as the hidden rebel base used by filmmaker George Lucas for the 1977 Episode IV: A New Hope.
Today, the fascinating ruins of Tikal is a great source of pride to Guatemala and attracts archeologists from all over the world, It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.