Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Visit to Tikal

The city of Tikal, Guatemala. Photo: Daniel Loncarevic

In the 8th century A.D. the ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, embarked on a massive building campaign resulting in the construction of two of the largest temples at the site, a large palace and residential compound, and much of the grand architecture that awaits visitors at the central plaza at Tikal. These stone temples would have been covered with a fine plaster made of limestone and painted a brilliant red, blue, and yellow, while the surrounding plazas would have gleamed a brilliant white. Temple 1, the most imposing structure in this central plaza and the eventual tomb of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, was topped by a large limestone and plaster image of the king himself looking down upon the assembled populace. At its peak, the population of Tikal would have exceeded 100,000 souls and the city itself would have been a colorful oasis in the unrelenting green of the Petén, itself dotted with small farms to the distant horizon.Our group walked the 2 kilometers from the entrance of the Tikal National Park in Guatemala to the central plaza along the same route that ancient travelers and visitors might have arrived when Tikal was a thriving urban center over 1,000 years ago. Now, rather than temples, houses, and gardens greeting the visitor, the path was lined with mahogany trees, breadnut trees, and chicle trees, the sap of which is still used to manufacture chewing gum. Howler monkeys growled in the distance, and the calls of chachalacas and motmot birds echoed through the high branches. Our guide pointed out a line of leaf-cutter ants carrying small leaf pieces back to their nest to later be used to grow a fungus that is the ant’s main food. Although less than ¼ inch in size, the relentless march of the ants created a visible trail that emerged from the dense underbrush on one side of the trail and back into the jungle on the other.

Drawing closer to the main plaza, more and larger temples and structures came into view as we approached the religious, political, and economic center of the site. Faces of gods gazed out from the limestone walls of the temples, moss-covered and silent. Some of the temples hinted at an early construction of the site. Although much of the visible construction at Tikal was from the 8th and 9th centuries, numerous temples appeared to have been built in the 4th and 5th centuries when the massive site of Teotihuacan, over 500 miles to the west in central Mexico, exerted its influence. In fact, settlement at Tikal began in the first millennium B.C. when small groups of farmers settled on the edges of the nearby swamps. The city grew to its height in the first millennium A.D., only to be abruptly depopulated after A.D. 900. Small groups of settlers continued to occupy the site over the years, including Lacandon Maya villages and chiclero camps, the temporary encampments of the men who harvested the chicle from ancient trees to make chewing gum. Even today, Maya still come to Tikal to take part in rituals hearkening back thousands of years.

The imposing 154 foot high Temple 1 appeared suddenly in our view as we rounded a bend in the forest; even the largest structures often materialize unexpectedly as the dense forest obscures many of the ancient remains until you are nearly right upon them. As we rounded the corner of the temple we emerged into the large central plaza, flanked on the east and west with pyramid shaped temples and on the north and south with the houses and governmental offices of the kings, queens, nobility, and priests. Now, rather than brilliantly painted plaster, the grey limestone walls, heavy with age, seemed to breathe with history.

In the year A.D. 692, Jasaw Chan K’awiil presided over a ritual marking the end of a k’atun, a roughly 20 year period of time that held great importance for the ancient Maya, similar in many ways to a decade in our calendar. At the completion of this and other k’atuns, temples were constructed and rituals were enacted to mark the end of the previous period as well as welcome the upcoming k’atun. Jasaw Chan K’awiil likely ascended the steps of these very temples, resplendent in his quetzal feather headdress and kingly garb, to perform sacrifices to the deities dwelling in the heavens.

We could only imagine what occurred here 1200 years ago. As it was, we witnessed a different kind of Tikal than the people who lived here in the past. Our Tikal was populated only by the ghosts of the past and visitors from the present, and bustling activity of an urban center was replaced by the flora and fauna of the ever-encroaching rainforest.

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