Saturday, July 2, 2011

Guatemala Part 9b: Tikal's jungle pyramids

Two tourists are dwarfed by the soaring Templo V. After the impressive monuments, palaces, and tombs of the Great Plaza, I wondered how much the rest of Tikal could offer that would be worth a hike through the jungle in the growing heat. How wrong I was! In addition to Templo V (shown above), this second posting on Tikal will focus on Templo IV (the largest pyramid in Tikal), the Plaza of the Seven Temples, the Lost World Complex, and Complex Q. For a map showing these areas in relation to each other, click here. Again, I would like to stress that even including all of this, what we saw barely scratched the surface of Tikal's wonders. If you have the opportunity, plan to spend at least a couple of full days here. Unless otherwise noted through the various links, the information I present here comes from William R. Coe's excellent "Tikal: A handbook of the ancient Maya Ruins", or from local pamphlets I picked up at the Tikal visitor center.

Jungle encounters:

Coatimundi enjoys lunch, warmed by a ray of sunlight. As we walked through the jungle, we often encountered some of its permanent residents, such as this coatimundi. His size is about that of a large house cat. As he chewed, I was able to glimpse his rather fearsome-looking fangs. Although coatimundis appear rather friendly, I hesitated to get in range of this one's jaws. Although this little guy was alone at the time, they like to travel in groups of a dozen or so.

Bromeliad thrives on the side of a handy forest tree. This one was starting to bloom, as you can see from the red flower. Bromeliads trap water in their long, trough-like leaves and provide homes for many jungle animals, including frogs, slugs, and spiders. After we left the Great Plaza, we walked through a cathedral-like tunnel of green, with little shafts of sunlight filtering down to the jungle floor as if from stained-glass windows set high in the canopy above. The sounds of the forest were all around us. All this left us unprepared for our encounter with Temple V.

Templo V, a musical interlude

A huge temple looms as eerie music drifts around us. We rounded a bend in the trail and were suddenly confronted by the awesome staircase of this 58m (190 ft) giant. Archaeologists place the construction of this pyramid around 600 AD, making it the first of Tikal's great temple pyramids. Templo V is higher by more than 15m (50 ft) than either the Temple of the Great Jaguar (Templo I) or the Temple of the Moon (Templo II). Oddly, Templo V is the only pyramid at Tikal where no tomb has yet been discovered. The tomb of Animal Skull, the ruler who built it, was found in the North Acropolis. As I stood, rooted with astonishment and fumbling with my camera, I again heard the soft, eerie notes of some wind instrument. Examining the temple more closely, I looked for the source of the music. Finally, using my telephoto as a telescope, I spotted a small figure near the top of the structure.

Summoning ancient Maya gods? A young man sat at the very entrance of the temple that tops the pyramid, playing what appeared to be a recorder, a woodwind instrument related to the flute. Instead of holding the instrument to the side and blowing across a flute hole, the musician blows directly into one end. Recorders were popular from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. The lack of a tomb is not the only oddity of Templo V. The temples surmounting most of the other pyramids of Tikal have three successive rooms, positioned so that a person has to step up from one to the next. Templo V has only one room, measuring .76m (2.5 ft) wide. Surprisingly, the rear wall of the room is 4.6m (15 ft) thick. As archaeologist William Coe mused, "perhaps never was so much built to provide so little floor space". Why? No one knows. It is just another of the many mysteries of this ancient city, lost for so long in the heart of the Petén jungle.

Templo IV, Tikal's largest pyramid

A wooden stairway switches back and forth up the heavily forested side of Templo IV.  Although it is the largest of all Tikal's pyramids (70m or 229 ft), very little of the structure has been unearthed. It is easy to discount this giant when approaching it because only the temple and roof comb are visible. The rest could well be a steep, jungle hill if you didn't know better. In fact, from the base of the staircase, you can hardly see the temple on top. The photo above shows only a part of the actual staircase. It is a long climb up. Although there are some with greater volume, Templo IV is the tallest of all such ancient structures in the New World. Templo IV is sometimes called the Temple of the Two Headed Snake and archaeologists estimate its construction date at approximately 745 AD.

Temple and roof comb atop Templo IV's pyramid. Tourists carefully step along narrow stone paths after reaching the base of the temple at the top of the pyramid. As with other temples at Tikal this one was partially covered by scaffolding to enable repair work. Why make the long climb, if so little of the structure has been divested of its jungle cloak? In short: the view!

Seen from atop Templo IV, Petén's jungle stretches away in every direction. Pyramid roof combs provide the only visible evidence of the massive metropolis that once thrived below the forest canopy. In the center-right you can see the roof comb of Templo III, a site we didn't visit. To its left are the combs of Templos I & II. Given the difficulty of traversing this jungle on foot, as well as its vast size, it is easy to understand how experienced explorers like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood could pass nearby in the 1840s, completely unaware of Tikal's existence. It was not until 1848 that Guatemala's government sent an expedition to check out the rumors of a lost city and discovered Tikal.

Telephoto shot of Templo II (right) and Templo I (left rear). If you look closely you can just make out the face and shoulders of the figure of the priest-king on Templo I's roof comb. In 800 AD, the peak of the Tikal's Classic era, all of the jungle for miles around would have been cleared for buildings and fields. The city at that time had an area of at least 9.6 sq. km (6 sq. mi) and may have covered as much as 75.6 sq. km (47 sq. mi.), with a population of 60,000. Although I was facing thick jungle rather than desert, I was reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandius" as I looked out across the endless forest canopy.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Top of a South Acropolis pyramid peeps above the foliage. This was another complex we didn't visit. It is largely unexcavated, but its origins may extend far back into the pre-Classic period. Archaeologists can look forward to many years of excavation on this extensive and almost untouched site.

Plaza of the Seven Temples

Palace at the south end of the Plaza of the Seven Temples. Although the plaza and some of its structures date far back into pre-Classic times (600 BC-250 AD), the structure above is one of 3 palaces constructed in the late Classic period (700-900 AD), almost 1000 years later. The Plaza of the Seven Temples, and the Lost World Complex to which it adjoins, are some of the oldest areas of Tikal, and accordingly have some of the thickest concentrations of ruins.

The center of the seven temples for which the plaza gained its name. The temples sit on an embankment in a row along the east side of the rectangular plaza. This one (#4 from either end) has been restored. The others have been partially unearthed but otherwise left in their ruined state. The palm-thatched palapa roof protects the interior carvings of the temple. The plaza was open and park-like, but still shaded by the tall trees scattered around. It was getting to be mid-day and the shade was welcome.

Trio of temples to the left of the central temple. There are 3 other almost identical temples to the right of temple #4. The Seven Temples face west, directly across the Plaza to the back side of the adjoining Lost World Complex.

The  Lost World Complex

Back side of the Lost World complex from the Plaza of the Seven Temples. The west side of the Plaza of the Seven Temples adjoined the back side of the Lost World Complex. The structure above is sometimes called the Temple of the Skulls. Between 500 BC and 250 AD (the start of the Classic era) the Lost World functioned as an observatory. Then it became a ceremonial center and royal burial place that rivaled the North Acropolis. The Lost World Complex is also important because it provides an architectural and historical link between Tikal and the great city of Teotihuacan far to the north in the Valley of Mexico, about 48.3km (30 mi.) north of present-day Mexico City.

Temple built in Teotihuacan style. This structure, dating from the 4th Century AD, is sometimes called the Temple of Talud Tablero (Panel and Slope), an architectural style clearly associated Teotihuacan. There is evidence that a substantial number of Teotihuacans lived in the area immediately around the Lost World Complex. This was not unusual. Teotihuacan was a great commercial state with trade connections to both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and from Honduras to New Mexico in the US. The Zapotec capitol of Monte Alban in present day Oaxaca, Mexico also contained a substantial population of Teotihuacans. The city of Teotihuacan itself was divided into neighborhoods populated by people from a variety of Mesoamerican areas, including a Maya sector. From the period of 100 AD to 600 AD, Teotihuacan was the largest and most powerful state in all Mesoamerica, with a population that grew to approximately 200,000. Apparently Teotihuacan's power was based on military conquest as well as trade.

Palapa protects the unearthed top of the small temple in the Lost World Complex. In some cases, archaeologists seem to have left structures largely buried to protect them. Ancient Maya records from the late 4th Century AD indicate that Teotihuacan conquered Tikal, possibly with the help of the resident population of Teotihuacans. The Maya king of Tikal, called Chak Tok Ich'aak (Great Jaguar Paw) was killed on January 14, 378 AD, apparently after being captured by invading Teotihuacans under their general Siyah K'ak' (Fire is Born). Chak Tok Ich'aak was apparently revered by his people, even after (or perhaps because of) his execution by invaders. His palace was never covered over with other buildings but was maintained intact for centuries as a sacred monument. Even with local help, the Teotihuacan conquest was quite an amazing feat of arms, since the two capitals were 1014 km (630 miles) apart, separated by great mountain ranges and vast stretches of thick jungle. Not until the arrival of the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 AD would a conquerer again travel such a distances in Mesoamerica.

The Great Pyramid of the Lost World. Standing 30.5m (100 ft) tall, this was one of the greatest structures of the pre-Classic era when it was built. It achieved its final form during the rule of Chak Tok Ich'aak, the king killed by the Teotihuacans. After defeating Tikal's army and executing its king, Siyah K'ak' installed Yax Nuun Ayiin (First Crocodile), a son of the Teotihuacan ruler, as the new king of Tikal in 379 AD. We know all this because archaeologist David Stuart deciphered Tikal's Stela 31 in 1998, revealing the answer to a question that has puzzled archaeologists ever since they first noticed Teotihuacan's strong influence on Tikal. The clincher was the discovery of a symbol showing an owl with a spear. It was the symbol for the ruler for whom the general Siyah K'ak' worked. Archaeologists promptly dubbed the unnamed ruler Spearthrower Owl. This symbol was not only distinctly non-Maya, but it appears in Teotihuacan itself as a symbol for the city.

Jungle looms over the remains of a ruined palace in the Lost World Complex. The fast-growing jungle constantly threatens to swallow up Tikal's ruins. Spearthrower Owl's son, Yax Nuun Ayiin, promptly married into the dynasty of his executed Maya predecessor. This was the move of a smart ruler sitting on the throne of a newly conquered people far from his own home. It helped mute opposition to the succession of his son Siyaj Chan K'awiil. Although he was the King of Tikal from 379-411 AD, Yax Nuun Ayiin remained the vassal of his father, the ruler of Teotihuacan, at least until Spearthrower Owl died. Yax Nuun Ayiin's son, Siyaj Chan K'awiil, ruled from 411-456. It is not clear what relationship Tikal had to Teotihuacan after that. Teotihuacan itself abruptly declined in 600 AD, when its temples and elite palaces were destroyed in an apparent revolt by the commoners. Within 100 years or so, Teotihuacan was an abandoned ruin, its empire gone. Tikal lasted until 900 AD, when it too was abandoned in the general collapse of Classic-era Maya civilization.

Small temple on the edge of the Lost World. Tikal abounds with small sites like the one above. Most have no marker explaining what they are, making them truly (for me, at least) a lost world. By studying several maps of the site, and carefully reading William Coe's book and other sources, I was able to piece together at least some information about many of my photos. If I have mis-identified any of the structures I show in this or the previous posting, I welcome corrections from my viewers.

Complex Q

One of the twin-temples of Complex Q with a line of stelae and altars in the foreground. Complex Q is one of 3 twin-temple complexes (Q, R, & O) stretched out along a 531m (1/3 mi.) path. In each complex, there are two pyramids, like the one shown above, facing each other and oriented along a strict east-west axis. Complex Q is the easternmost and largest of the twin-temple complexes. It sits on a huge platform of about 5 acres. Equidistant from the two pyramids, but well off to the side, is an enclosure containing a carved stela and altar. It is believed that Complex Q was built by Yax Nuun Ayiin II, who reigned from 768-790 AD. A stela on the site provides a Maya date equivalent to 771 AD. He was apparently a distant relative, or perhaps simply adopted the name, of the Teotihuacan noble elevated to power 400 years before. Twin-temple complexes were once thought to be unique to Tikal, but have been found in several other Petén cities, attesting to the political and cultural influence of Tikal in the area. You can get a sense of the pyramid's scale from the small figure seated on top of the pyramid.

Lucas makes a careful descent. The figure on top of the Complex Q twin-temple turned out to be Lucas, a high school student seen in my previous post on Lake Atitlán. He and his parents were part of our Caravan Tour. Typically, steps to Maya temples are quite high but also quite narrow. It is necessary to exercise considerable care to avoid a mishap. In some archaeological sites, careless tourists have been killed by tumbling down such staircases. This has led both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments to restrict access to many temples.

A low-walled enclosure is entered through a classic Maya "corbel" arch. For all their amazing architectural skills, the Maya never mastered the true arch. The closest they came was the false or corbel arch. Just inside the arch, behind the wood barrier, you can see an upright stela and a low disk-like altar immediately in front. The arrangement of an enclosure off to the side of a twin temples, and containing a stela and altar, is typical of all three twin-temple complexes.

One of the more finely carved stelae and altars was in this Complex Q enclosure. Some of the stelae found in Tikal are blank, for unknown reasons. It is always the case, however, that if a stela is carved, so will be the altar, and vice-versa. As with very many of the stelae containing carvings of priests or kings, the face has been obliterated. Archaeologists think that this defacement may have occurred in the centuries after Tikal fell to ruin. Although no longer occupied as a city, it remained a sacred site and local cults were active here. The defacement may have been done to take away the power of the stela, or of the figure on it.

Kickin' back at the base of a sacred ceiba tree. A ceiba is instantly recognizable by the shape of its unusual buttress roots, and by the tall, straight trunk. Ceibas can grow to 70m (230 ft). Their arrow- straight trunks contain no branches up to the broad spreading canopy. The Ceiba was sacred to the Maya. They saw it as connecting the underworld (Xibalba) through its buttress roots, with the trunk representing daily reality, and the spreading canopy as heaven. Even in modern times, Maya foresters will often leave a ceiba standing while cutting all the trees around it.The photo of me above was taken by one of two Guatemalan soldiers who were assisting tourists wanting their picture taken in this evocative site. Dressed in jungle camouflage, and armed to the teeth with assault rifles and other weapons, the soldiers were really quite friendly and easy-going.

This completes my two-part posting on Guatemala's stunning Tikal archaeological site. I hope you enjoyed it. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. What a interesting post and all of these images are really so beautiful and i like these pictures.

  2. We visited Tikal some years ago & had the same problem you mention with orienting ourselves. The jungle paths from one site to the next made it hard to get an over all picture of the layout. We solved it be renting a small plane from our guides (uncle) for a sightseeing trip over the site. It's been some time so I can't remember for sure but I think it was from a town called Florez. Definitely worth it.

  3. Interesting...
    Hope to visit this beautiful place someday

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim