Mayans' land of temples

20:02, Jun 09 2013
HAPPENING PLACE: Tikal's Gran Plaza - flanked with burial pyramids and temples and studded with commemorative pillars, the plaza was the epicentre of Mayan City life.

There are about 250 steps up the side of King K'awiill-Who-Darkens-the Sky's pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala.

I write "about" because somewhere after the first 90 or so, in the 35 degrees Celsius heat and dripping humidity, I lost count.

Yik'in Chan K'awiill, to give him his proper name, was Tikal's 27th Mayan ruler. As befitting his status as one of the most successful of his dynasty, his pyramid is the second highest in the Mayan world at 70 metres (it's pipped by about 3m by a Mexican pyramid).

INTRICATE: A stela or pillar depicting the ancient Mayan rules of Copan in western Honduras.

During the 1st millennium AD, the Mayans were the dominant civilization across a vast area of Central America, from southern Mexico, through Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. They reached the zenith of their power and wealth between about AD200 and AD850 and despite the waning of their might, even before the Spanish conquest began in the 16th century, there are many millions of Maya still living in Central America today.

Mayan pyramids are the most spectacular and most monumental reminders of their golden age. The pyramids contained temples (and sometimes the burial places of royalty). Their stepped designs were clearly meant to bring royalty, priests and worshippers closer to the heavens. Many of the pyramids, such as King K'awiill's (named by archaeologists as Temple IV), are topped by what are known as "combs". These are walls with no structural purpose and may simply have been a way to advertise the current king's importance as they would have been one of the few structures to be seen above the lofty jungle trees.

Although the Mayans would once have climbed the steep stone steps that lead to the temples at the top of the pyramid, today tourists are confined to several flights of rather rickety wooden stairs on the side of Temple IV (climbing is not permitted on any of the other pyramids). Not only does this restrict damage to one of the world's great archaeological wonders but it also reduces the risk of people falling to their deaths (which has happened).


EAR-SPLITTING: Macaws are gregarious and noisy.

However, at the top of the staircase one steps on to a ledge of the original pyramid just below the apex and the sheer wonder of Tikal and the complexities of Mayan civilization are revealed.

Elevation is essential at Tikal because what makes this historic site especially awe-inspiring is that it is surrounded by dense forest. In fact in many places tropical trees and other vegetation still grow on the ruins with giant roots writhing over the stones. It's estimated only 3000 sites have so far been excavated - there are about 10,000 to go.

The Mayan sites and the forest that all but consumed them are now protected in a national park covering 550 square kilometres so there is an abundance of wildlife here too, benefiting from the higher degree of security.

DELIGHTFUL: A scarlet macaw shows off its plumage while perched in the trees around the ruins of Copan.

That is why the view across the jungle to the other pyramids is not one to be absorbed in silence. A troop of howler monkeys nearby were in such full and constant cry that several other travellers were certain the park authorities were broadcasting animal noises to add to the ambience.

There is a prolific array of birds and other animals in the park. Earlier in the day our site guide had showed us the spot where one morning at dawn he'd been stunned to find himself sharing a lonely path with a jaguar, the Americas' elusive and rare big cat.

From Temple IV the view east is towards Tikal's Gran Plaza, which is flanked on three sides by Temples I, II and III, or more picturesquely the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, Temple of the Masks and the Temple of the Jaguar Priest - the latter still being almost totally submerged by vegetation.

SKY SCRAPERS: From near the apex of Temple IV, the ruins of other great Mayan pyramids at Tikal punctuate the vastness of the Guatemalan rain forest near the border with Mexico.

This plaza was the centre of Tikal's public and ceremonial life - a place for religious ceremonies, sacrifices and as venue for a unique Mayan sport.

To one side of the Gran Plaza are two sloping parallel walls of limestone with a stretch of grass between them. This is the Mayan ballcourt. Teams of about four players on each side would score points by keeping a 4kg rubber ball in play by using their hips, elbows, and shoulders (hands and feet could not be used). The ball could be bounce against the flanking walls, earning more points and, in ballcourts on other sites, there are even stone circles through which the ball could be propelled.

Whereas some games were played for recreation, others were part of rituals, involving human sacrifices. Although some guidebooks state it was the losing team (or at least its captain) who was killed, our guide was adamant that in fact it was the entire winning team. It was considered an honour to be chosen to be a sacrifice to the Mayan gods. Priests apparently opened up the chest of the victim and tore out the heart.

ROYAL REST: Tikal's Temple of the Grand Jaguar, the burial place of a Mayan king, built in the 8th Century AD.

You can stand in the ballcourt today and imagine the scene, but even more so in small forest clearings near ruined temples or shrines where sacrificial stones can still be found, many still stained with blood. However, before anyone could conjure up images of grisly modern-day human sacrifices we were told that although the Mayans still perform religious ceremonies, in Tikal only animals such as rooster are used.

The signs of sacrifice we saw were apparently the remains of ceremonies carried out in December 2012 at the end of one of the Mayan's Great Cycles. The ancient Mayans, especially, measured time by extremely complicated astronomical and mathematical calculations. Mayans believe that end of the cycles were deeply significant, although as history now shows the completion of the last cycle did not mean the end of the world but rather the start of another calendar cycle.

Tikal is an enormous site - to visit all the main ruins you cover about 10km. The scale is such that although there may be dozens of tourist buses in the carpark, nowhere other than in the Gran Plaza or the onsite restaurant are you likely to encounter more than a few groups at any one time.

The wonderfully named El Mundo Perdido (Lost World) complex of temples and pyramids just a few hundred metres from the Gran Plaza is a perfect example of this, as is neighbouring Plaza of Seven Temples.

Sometimes it can be the small details that bring alive sites, especially overwhelmingly vast ones like Tikal. I enjoyed walking beside the excavated remains of Mayan irrigation channels used to bring fresh water into the heart of the city and being able to use original Mayan paved roads or causeways that link the various temple sites.

Beside one of these an enterprising local offered visitors the chance to hold his "pet" tarantula. These giant spiders have a fearsome reputation but most are not harmful to humans and apparently some species make good pets. Despite being the size of a small dinner plate this one appeared docile enough as it crawled slowly up volunteers' arms.

Fascinating they may be but the tarantulas were not nearly as captivating as the newly reintroduced residents of another ancient Mayan city in neighbouring Guatemala.

Copan, like Tikal, flourished especially between AD250-900 under a dynasty of picturesquely named kings, including Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw and Waterlily Jaguar.

Although its pyramids are not as spectacular as Tikal's, Copan is famed for its massive ballcourt (which features beautiful carvings of macaw heads and is the second largest in the world) and intricately carved stelae or pillars covered with Mayan hieroglyphs.

However, it is hard at Copan not to be repeatedly distracted by the presence of one of the world's most spectacularly coloured birds, the scarlet macaw. These parrots used to be common in the forests around the ruins but poaching had seen them disappear. However, a breeding project and careful monitoring has seen the birds successfully reintroduced.

They are fed to encourage them to stay in the area and their ear-splitting screeches can be heard even when they are well out of view. When you do see the macaws up close it's easy to understand why the Mayans regarded them as symbol of power, a representation of the gods and why their feathers were used for adornment by the rich and powerful.

It is hard to believe that any creature could be so brilliantly coloured, they are spectacularly beautiful - a delight to the eyes, even if an assault on the eardrums.

The Timaru Herald