TIKAL: An Ancient Mayan Citadel Hidden Deep In The Rainforest Of Northern Guatemala

Tikal is a complex of Mayan ruins that lie deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala. It is believed that more than 3,000 ancient structures on the site are what remains of the ancient Mayan city known as Yax Mutal, which was once the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient empire.

Tikal lies deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala
Tikal lies deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala

The Maya people, ancestors of the present-day Maya Indians, belonged to a civilization that inhabited a wide area of highland and lowland Mesoamerica. Their culture, dominated by religious ceremony, was presided over by ruler-priests. The highly elaborate Maya calendar, the Long Count, involved a cycle of 52 years, and attempts to reconcile this with the European system have produced conflicting results. But radiocarbon dating supports the view that the Classic Maya period, when the civilization reached its peak, was between the 4th and 10th centuries A.D. Tikal, in the northern lowland area of Maya territory, was perhaps the largest centre of Classic Maya civilization.

At the heart of Tikal, there was a huge square bordered by pyramid temples on the west and east sides and an acropolis on the north. Beyond this complex, there were some 3,000 buildings within an area of 6 square miles (16sq km) and a population calculated at between 10,000 and 45,000. The acropolis shows signs of having been occupied continuously for 11 centuries, and the 16 temples to be seen there now stand on the buried remains of countless earlier buildings, including some elaborately painted tombs.

The central ceremonial area covered about 1 square mile (2.5sq km), and the buildings here were linked by causeways to further squares and their associated structures. So-called "palaces" abound - single-story complexes and rooms, plastered, decorated, and, like almost every Maya building, standing on a platform. The elevation of the central religious buildings clearly enhanced the awe in which they were held, and also served the practical purpose of enabling large numbers of people to have an unobstructed view of any ceremonies taking place. But even relatively modest houses far from the centre were built on mud platforms, presumably as a safeguard against floods during the rainy season.

Glimpses of Maya rulers and their religious ceremonies can be seen in stone sculpture as well as in fine carvings on sapodilla wood. This woodwork was used for decorative beams in some of the places and for ornate lintels over the doorways of the pyramid temples. Tikal has six steep pyramids, with chambers at the top, approached by the steps and crowded with elaborate "roof combs"; the largest, known simply as Pyramid IV, is 228 feet (70m) high. The pyramids served as a tomb for the wealthy and important people, who were buried with sumptuous grave goods as well as food to sustain them on their journey to the next world. Stone stelae in front of palaces and temples were often sculpted with a favourite theme, that of a ruler or warrior trampling an enemy underfoot.

The word city is perhaps not the best description of Tikal; rather, it was an important ceremonial centre on whose outskirts large numbers of people chose to live. Although the majority of people did not live in any great splendor, the Maya devoted tremendous energy to the construction of their tombs and temples. In honouring their gods, their elite, and their dead, they created monuments that are still overwhelming and awe-inspiring today.

The Conquest of the Yucatán

Tikal lies on the Yucatán Peninsula in a region discovered in 1517 by a Spaniard, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, and gradually conquered by Spain over the next 30 years. The conquerors saw themselves as exercising a sort of divine right: the pope had declared that the king of Castile was entitled to all of the territories west of a demarcation line he had drawn on a map. In return for this gift, the king was obliged to convert the native people to Christianity. If the pope, who exercised God's authority on earth, said that the inhabitants of the Yucatán were subjects of the king of Castile, then any resistance shown by those inhabitants could be regarded as rebellion or treachery.

In 1526, one Francisco de Montejo was authorised to lead an expedition to the Yucatán, with certain conditions for the conduct of this expedition laid out in a formal document known as a requerimiento. It was stated that the aim of the king of Castile was to win the natives of the New World to allegiance and to the True Faith by means of understanding and good treatment. These intentions were to be explained clearly to the natives through an interpreter. If they failed to comply, the consequences would be serious: the Spaniards would make war against the land and subject the people to the yoke and the authority of the Crown and of the Church. There followed years of guerrilla warfare, and resistance to the conquistadores continued long after they had imposed their rule on the Yucatán. Cliff Palace: The Village In The Stone Built By The Prehistoric Anasazi People


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