Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guatemala Part 9a: Tikal, an ancient metropolis

Temple of the Great Jaguar at the Grand Plaza, Tikal. Towering 44.2m (145 ft) above the plaza, this temple, also called Templo I, is probably the best known structure at the ancient Maya metropolis of Tikal. Archaeologists stumbled upon one of the richest of the late Classic Era tombs when archaeologists tunneled under the temple. After our visit to Antigua, we piled on the Caravan Tours bus for the long drive to Tikal from the mountainous high country of southern Guatemala up to the northern lowland jungles of the Petén panhandle. Even with a modern tour bus on good highways, the trip can take at least 10 hours. As it happened, ours took a bit longer. To locate Tikal and the Petén area of Guatemala, click here.

High desert stream in one of Guatemala's many different environments. When I first pictured Guatemala in my mind, I thought of low, buggy jungles. There are plenty of those, particularly on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Petén panhandle to the north. However, there are also the mountains of the southern highlands with their many volcanoes and cool, temperate climate. In addition, there is an area of high desert located in a long valley between the two main mountain ranges that cross southern Guatemala from east to west. This valley runs in a slant heading northeast from the central part of the southern highlands to the Lake Izabal area near the Caribbean Coast. The valley's climate and countryside are similar to California's San Fernando Valley, or the high deserts of eastern Oregon and Washington State. Before we reached this valley, traffic came to a complete halt for several hours, right in the middle of the mountains. We assumed there had been a major accident, or landslide, but it turned out to be a labor dispute. Apparently a group of workers became frustrated when the government neglected to pay their salaries. The road we were traveling is the main east-west link in Guatemala, and the workers decided to get the government's attention by shutting it down. As a former labor organizer, I was fascinated by this creative use of civil disobedience. Our Caravan Tour director Jorge Fuentes used his cell phone to gather information so he could brief us on the progress of events. Finally, after several hours, government representatives arrived and negotiated a settlement satisfactory to the workers and traffic began moving again. It is very significant that there was never any violence throughout this entire episode. Only a few years ago, these workers would have been lucky to escape with their lives, and would almost certainly have been arrested and tortured. Times have changed in Guatemala!

Lago Petén Itza lies in the geographic center of the Petén panhandle.  The lake is the largest body of water in the Petén area, and lies 260km (160 miles) north of Guatemala City "as the crow flies", but is much further by road. Measuring 35km (22 miles) long and 16km (10 miles) wide, Lago Petén Itza is 50m (165 ft) deep. It is the home of the Itza Maya. They were one of several groups of so-called Mexicanized Maya who, in the Late Classic period (700-900 AD), adopted the customs and styles of warfare of the Toltec Empire. The Itza moved into the northern Yucatan peninsula after the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization around 900 AD and conquered a Puuc Maya city that they renamed Chichen Itza ("Well of the Itza"). Several hundred years later, they apparently lost a power struggle with another group of Mexicanized Maya from the city of Mayapan. Driven out of Chichen Itza, they retreated to Lago Petén Itza and founded the city of Tayasal on an island in the lake. The Itza of Tayasal managed to maintain their independence from the Spanish until they were finally conquered in 1697. Today, the island city is called Flores and is the capital of the Petén district.

Hotel Villa Maya

The restaurant of the Hotel Villa Maya overlooks a quiet lagoon teeming with life. We arrived late at night, due to the labor dispute, but the Hotel Villa Maya opened their dining room and a delicious buffet dinner was waiting for us. The restaurant is completely open-air, allowing diners to enjoy the sights and sounds of the surrounding jungle and lagoon. Earlier, while driving through the pitch-black jungle of the Petén, Jorge suddenly announced that the headlights behind us belonged to a truckload of police assigned by the Ministry of Tourism who had been alerted that our bus was traveling through the area late at night. We were all cheered by this news, but after a moment's reflection it dawned on me to ask "why do we need a police escort?" Apparently there have been problems with bandit gangs on this road and the Ministry decided that the last thing they wanted was the hijacking of a bus full of foreign tourists. However, we arrived without incident. The scene above was photographed not long after dawn. Much of Petén is swampy, making for wonderful concentrations of wildlife, but also plenty of bugs. Visitors are strongly advised to bring insect repellent.

A permanent resident cast a skeptical eye as we walked by. The trees were full of brilliantly feathered Scarlet Macaws like this one. Although he seemed a little disdainful of gawking tourists, he remained still and allowed me to photograph him. Scarlet Macaws live 30-40 years in the wild, and up to 50 years in captivity. Poaching, destruction of habitats through deforestation, and insecticides have decreased their numbers and range, but they are still fairly common from southern Mexico down to Paraguay and Brazil. Hotel Villa Maya is surrounded by a nature preserve, and sits on a peninsula extending into a large lagoon. There are trails along the edge of the lagoon and bicycle paths for those so inclined.

The hotel is situated along the shores of Pentenchel and Monifata lagoons. Above, a thick mist begins to rise off the lake as the warm morning sun casts a golden light on the trunk of a small tree in the foreground. The lagoons are truly idyllic. In addition to Scarlet Macaws, the surrounding jungle contains wild deer, pecari (a kind of wild pig), and howler monkeys. We never saw any howlers around the hotel, but we sure heard them at night and in the early morning. Their name is well-earned.

Hoping for a snack of fresh tourist toes. Floating quietly just off shore below the restaurant was a small crocodile. Like the Scarlet Macaw, he seemed well-adjusted to tourists and their cameras. Although he was probably only about 1m  (3.5 ft) long, he possessed sharp teeth and powerful jaws. In addition, there could well have been a mama croc of considerably greater heft not far away. Adults can grow up to 3.5m (11.5 ft).  His presence discouraged any random thoughts of wading in the shallows, or sitting on the dock dipping one's toes in the water.

Tikal, a city lost in the jungle

One of the trails winding through the jungle surrounding Tikal's ruins. Almost all of the walkways from one area of Tikal to another are jungle trails like this one. The atmosphere is primeval and mysterious. The Petén area, like the Yucatan peninsula that is its northern extension, is basically a flat or gently rolling limestone plateau surmounted by thick, triple-canopy jungle. Until recently, there were very few roads into Petén, making much of it almost completely inaccessible to any but those with Indiana Jones proclivities. Unfortunately, the very roads that allow tourists to visit Tikal have also opened the Petén to deforestation by timber interests and land-hungry campesinos. We saw some evidence of this on our drive from Hotel Villa Maya to Tikal, and on our daylight return trip to Guatemala City the next day. According to some estimates, in the last 25 years, as much as 50% of Petén's old-growth jungle has been converted to agricultural purposes.

The view from the trail. My guidebook on Tikal warns against wandering off the established trails because the thick jungle can easily disorient the unwary. The Tikal area was originally occupied about 600 BC. The name itself comes from the modern Maya words for "place of the water hole". What the original inhabitants called it is not clear. 1500 years later, approximately 900 AD, it was abandoned concurrent with the general collapse of late Classic Maya society. Even after Tikal was abandoned as a city, people in the post Classic era continued to come back and use some of the sites for religious purposes. As many as 3,000 archaeological sites have been identified in the immediate area of Tikal, and there may be as many as 10,000 more just under the surface of the surrounding jungle. Although Tikal is world-famous and has been the focus of archeological explorations since 1848, only a small portion of it has been unearthed. Today, even some of the major pyramids are still mostly covered by earth and jungle.

A yet-to-be-unearthed pyramid. As we moved along the jungle trail, I noticed regularly spaced conical mounds. As you can see from the one above, these pyramids and other structures are still covered with earth, trees, and undergrowth. This must be similar to what the first European explorers and archaeologists found as they fought their way through the jungle in search of rumored "lost cities." In fact, Tikal was so remote and so thoroughly covered by the jungle that famous mid-19th Century archaeologists Frederick Catherwood and George Stephenson passed nearby without ever suspecting the presence of this vast ancient metropolis.

Archaeologists' tunnel leads into a still-buried ruin. Some of the covered ruins show evidence of tunneling by archaeologists who ran test holes to discover what might be best to excavate. There is so much here that they have learned to be selective in how they spend their limited time and funds. It is estimated that a thorough excavation of Tikal might take a century or more. And why not? The human occupation lasted 1500 years, with another 1100 years for the encroaching jungle to cover it all up. A hundred years of excavation would hardly be a hiccup in that time span.

Evidence of nature's power to slowly destroy man's creations. Above you see a fallen stela (stone monument). Tree roots have grown through small cracks in the circular altar which once stood in front of the fallen stone, breaking the altar into pieces. I wondered if in some future era, our modern buildings might lie fallen and jungle-covered like this, to be unearthed by distant descendants of today's archaeologists.

Temple of the Great Jaguar (Templo I)

Back side of the Great Temple of the Jaguar (Templo I). After a sudden turn in the trail, a huge stone building could be glimpsed through the trees. We had come upon the back side of the Great Temple of the Jaguar, one of the largest pyramids in Tikal. This is typical of the Tikal experience. Thick forest all around, then suddenly a clearing with a stupendous stone temple or palace. Of course, most of the jungle would have been cleared away in Tikal's heyday. While few people live in the area today, as many as 60,000 lived in and around Tikal at its peak in 800 AD. The city covered an area that was at least 9.6 sq. km (6 sq. mi) miles, but may have sprawled as much as 75.6 sq. km (47 sq. mi). Tikal was built on a series of low hills, surrounded and separated by bajo, or low swampy areas. Apparently these low areas were agriculturally productive, and also helped provide the water supply. Water was channeled into several reservoirs in and around the center of the city. For a map of the major sites of Tikal, click here.

Repair work was under way on the Jaguar Temple's upper levels. We found scaffolding on many of the major pyramids. The government of Guatemala seems to recognize the jewels that are the Maya ruins in their country. For reasons of national pride, and no doubt with an eye to the tourist dollar, the government is making strong efforts in conjunction with foreign and local archaeologists to protect and repair these great monuments. Underlying everything in Petén is the thick limestone base. Limestone is one of nature's best building materials, and the Maya made full use of it. Major structures often have quarries conveniently nearby. Relatively easy to cut into blocks, even with primitive stone tools, limestone can also be powdered and mixed into a plaster for stucco relief designs or for surfaces such as the Great Plaza. Connecting the hills containing temples and other structures are broad, straight causeways called sacbe. Their purpose was to allow easy passage across the wet, swampy areas from one built-up hilly area to the next. The sacbes were paved with limestone plaster and had dimensions of as much as 58m (190 ft) wide and .8 km (1/2 mi) long. They were major engineering feats in themselves. Typically, sacbes were lined with parapets along either side and had exits at intervals, not unlike modern freeways.

Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Central Acropolis. This pyramid is probably the most photographed Maya monument in Guatemala. I took the shot standing on the terrace of the North Acropolis looking south. In the foreground is a stela, with its wheel-like altar in front. To the right of the Jaguar Temple is the Central Acropolis, a set of palaces, courtyards, and ancient administrative offices for the priestly elite who ran the city. Directly in front of the Jaguar Temple is the Grand Plaza. The pyramids and other buildings surrounding the Grand Plaza were built relatively late in Tikal's history, probably somewhere between 700-760 AD. The plaza itself is one of the earliest structures. It consists of multiple layers of limestone plaster, laid down over the centuries. The temple at the very top of the Jaguar structure consists of 3 rooms where priests performed rituals out of sight of the common people massed in the plaza below. On top of the temple is a structure known as a "roof comb". Many of Tikal's temples are surmounted by such combs. This particular comb originally contained a relief sculpture of a seated man, thought to be a god, or possibly the representation of one of the priest-rulers. Only the outlines of it remain today.

Central Acropolis 

Closeup of the Central Acropolis. I regret now that I didn't explore this structure because it is much more extensive, covering about 4 acres, than I perceived while walking by. That is part of the problem of one's first visit to Tikal. So much of it is mind-boggling, that it is easy to become distracted and miss important areas or crucial details. My Tikal guide book advises that a reasonably thorough visit to Tikal will take at least 3 full days. Our visit lasted less than one. The Central Acropolis was built gradually over the centuries in a rather hodge-podge, but still pleasing fashion. Many of the most impressive buildings in the complex were constructed in the Late Classic period (550-900 AD). In the left foreground, you can clearly see two of the many stelae of the Great Plaza, along with their round altars in front. Some of these once had carvings of Maya priests and rulers. Others, mysteriously, were left blank. Many of the carved stelae had their faces deliberately obliterated in ancient times. It is thought that this was done to kill the power of the figure represented on the stela.

Another view of the Central Acropolis. The green slope at the lower right is an still-buried part of the structure. The four sides of the Grand Plaza are bounded on the west by the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the south by the Central Acropolis, the north by the North Acropolis, and the east by Temple II, also known as the Temple of the Moon. For an overall look at what Tikal may have looked like in 800 AD, click here. Traces of ancient paint pigments indicate that in those days, most of the temples were painted blood-red, although some included other colors and designs.

Temple of the Moon (Templo II)

The Temple of the Moon faces the Jaguar Temple across the Grand Plaza. It is a bit shorter than the Jaguar Temple, rising to 38m (125 ft). However, when the roof comb was intact the Temple of the Moon probably stood close to 42.7m (140 ft). The temple on top contains three rooms, one after the other. A large block in front of the door of the temple was apparently some sort of reviewing stand for the priest-ruler. The roof comb still contains the outline of a gigantic face with ear plugs. Interestingly, the Temple of the Moon was built only a few years after the Temple of the Great Jaguar.

Climbing the Temple of the Moon was daunting but provided breathtaking views. The park has built sturdy wood parallel stairs, one set for climbing, one for descending. It is the best way to get a full sense of the Great Plaza and its surrounding structures. Climbing is forbidden on many of the other pyramids both to protect the structures and to avoid injuries to tourists.

Men at work. Two Guatemalan men, one with a level, examine the plaster around the main doorway into the top of the Temple of the Moon. I was glad to see the amount of resources and energy the Guatemalan government is putting into projects like this.

Maya ceremony in Plaza Central

View of the Jaguar Temple from the top of the Temple of the Moon. The head and shoulders of the figure on the roof comb of the Jaguar Temple can just be made out. Although the clouds you can see in the background appear threatening, they never actually produced any rain. Below, in the center of the Grand Plaza, I observed some interesting activity around the large cement fire pit. Apparently a couple of Maya shamen were conducting a ceremony.

Maya religious rituals have been conducted here for almost 2 thousand years. Above, a shaman drops material into the fire pit. The burning substance appears to be copal, a pungently pleasant-smelling incense used by the Maya from the earliest times, and later adopted by the Catholic church when the Spanish arrived. There is evidence that local Maya returned to the the site of their abandoned city to conduct such ceremonies for a very long time after Tikal was reclaimed by the jungle.

North Acropolis

The North Acropolis is very different from the Central Acropolis. While the Central Acropolis was probably used for administrative and residential purposes, the North Acropolis appears to have been entirely ceremonial in function. It contains many important burial sites, and the edge of the plaza along the front of its first terrace is lined with stelae and altars.

View of the North Acropolis from the top of the Temple of the Moon. The North Acropolis consists of a series of terraces filled with small pyramids and temples, getting higher and higher as you move toward the back. This area is quite old. Deep excavations have uncovered traces of occupation as early as 600 BC. As many as 100 buildings are buried here, dating back to 200 BC. The area seems to have been used for ceremonial purposes from its earliest days. Again and again, structures were either built on top of earlier buildings, or were razed entirely and then new structures, bigger and grander, were built.

Closeup of one of the several temples on the North Acropolis. Archaeologists have found numerous burial sites within or under the buildings of the North Acropolis. What was described as "one of the goriest burials" occurred when a priest was buried and then 9 retainers were killed to accompanied him. Also interred with the priest were turtles and a crocodile. Many of the tombs contained beautifully carved and painted objects of stone and wood along with the skeleton. In one tomb, the paper thin blue paint of a wood object survived, even though the wood on which it had been painted had rotted away. Using plaster of paris, archaeologists filled in the space and preserved the form of the object.

Detail of the North Acropolis. Palm-thatched palapas protect many of the carvings and stucco relief designs discovered in the temples. It appears that many of the earlier temples and their statues, stelae, and other objects were ritually "killed" before they were covered over by new temples. It is now believed that many of these temples were connected to particular priests or other high individuals. When those people died, the temple was destroyed and another built. Oddly absent at Tikal are permanent stone monuments with  records of names and dates such as one finds at other Maya archaeological sites such as Palenque in Mexico's Chiapas State. Apparently Tikal's Maya kept such records on perishable folding books. Tragically, most of the ancient Maya books of that sort were destroyed by Spanish colonial priests as "works of the devil".

What central Tikal may have looked like in 800 AD. In the foreground is the Central Acropolis complex. The tall pyramid behind it on the right is the Temple of the Jaguar (Templo I). Facing the Jaguar Temple across the Grand Plaza is the Temple of the Moon (Templo II). Rising behind those two are the complex of temples comprising the North Acropolis. Traces of paint pigments suggest that most or all of these buildings would have been painted blood red. Notice the roof combs with the carvings of gods or priest-kings.

Coatimundi patrols for treats. These appealing little critters abound at Tikal. They are not shy about leaping up on a table to beg scraps either. Coatimundi (Nasua, nasua) are related to raccoons, and were kept as pets by the ancient Maya according to Spanish priests who visited Maya communities in the 16th Century. They noted that the little animals were intensely curious and loved to root around and turn over every container in sight.

This completes the first of my two postings on Tikal. Next week I will show some of the other palaces and temple complexes, including some that show distinct features of the northern Mexico civilization of Teotihuacan, whose relationship with Tikal continues to provoke archaeological debate.

Hasta luego, Jim

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