By Candice S. Ofulue
In the heart of Guatemala’s Petén region, the crumbling Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent looms over the rainforest, an imposing pyramid structure, built by over 60,000 Maya more than a thousand years ago. It’s the tallest pre-Colombian building in the western hemisphere, standing 65 meters (213 feet) tall. It’s also an ineffable relic from fallen city Tikal – the mighty metropolis that dominated the ancient Maya civilization.
Tikal National Park is among the most important archeological zones in the region, helping archeologists paint a picture of the Maya as they lived during the Classic (AD 292 – AD 889) – the period considered the apogee of culture and politics. Its earlier history, beginning around 7th century BC has sadly perished. Most ruins on site date from the Late Classic when urban development feverishly swept through the Maya lowlands, and which archeologists attribute to a process of stratification that transformed Maya villages into a hierarchical civilization.
Tikal itself evolved into a city-state. By the time it peaked, around AD 700, it dominated surrounding cities. In fact, it was among the most densely populated areas of the preindustrial world, with a population between 60,000 and 120,000. Most citizens were peasants living on their ‘milpas’ (or fields) in its greater territory, but the aristocracy also thrived. Inscriptions decorating sculptures, and palace and temple walls recount tales of military victories, festivals and celebrations from the reigns of 39 rulers across a thousand years. No other Maya center matched Tikal’s prestige and strength, except rival superpower Calakmul. Their struggle for domination shaped politics in the region from 7th century.
By 9th century, however, Tikal gradually declined until it collapsed. The last dated stela on site is placed around AD 889. Archeologists believe Tikal and the other lowland cities including Calakmul exhausted the land of its fertility, thus inducing their own deterioration.
Over 3,000 structures and 250 stelae have been recorded in Tikal. The ruins visible on site today cover approximately 2.5 square kilometers (1 square mile), while 15.5 square kilometers (6 square miles) have been surveyed. Significant discoveries include ‘stela 29’, inscribed with the earliest Long Count date known in the Maya region: AD 292, which archeologists consider the beginning of the Classic period.
The Great Plaza was the core of ancient Tikal. Its construction spanned centuries – the earliest plastered floor was laid around 150 BC and the latest in AD 700. Most of it is currently covered in grass. Framing the plaza are temples I and II, built around AD 700 by order of Ha Sawa Chaan-K’awil, following a hiatus of nearly 150 years. Ha Sawa Chaan-K’awil is Tikal’s most celebrated ruler, who restored the city to glory in AD 695 through a series of military victories, including against Calakmul. He lived for approximately 60 years – considerably long by ancient Maya standards.
The Great Jaguar Temple (temple 1) is his tomb; construction completed by his son after he died. It’s 44 meters (144 feet) tall. The Temple of the Masks (temple 2) was built to commemorate the ending k’atun, which according to the Maya calendar is a cycle of 7,200 days. Plus, it’s believed it was built to honor the ruler’s wife, Lady Twelve Macaw. Its sculpted masks, which are terribly eroded, paint a haunting portrait of how this structure has weathered time.
You could explore Tikal for days. However, its prize is the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent (temple IV), mentioned in the introduction. This iconic temple was constructed around AD 740. It wasn’t until 20th century that taller building existed in the western hemisphere.
Adding exotic character to Tikal’s mystery is the surrounding ecology. The national park sits in the Maya Biosphere reserve, a critical habitat for both endemic and migrating wildlife. As the largest protected natural habitat in Central America, it still contains undisturbed tracts of rainforest and forms part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which extends from Mexico to Panama. With more than 2,000 plant species, there is abundant wildlife around the site including howler monkey, deer, and the occasional jaguar (which you’re unlikely to see). The biosphere contains over 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Owing to this archeological and biological significance, Tikal National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
Tikal National Park is open from 6am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday. In the past, if you entered the site after 3pm, your ticket was also valid for the following day. This is no longer possible. It costs approximately US$20 ($150 quetzales) to enter the park. There are two museums: the Stela Museum and the Morley Museum, and several gift shops. The main entrance leads off El Remate. Exploring Tikal involves a lot of walking, often on uneven surfaces, so wear sturdy shoes and plenty of ‘biodegradable’ bug repellent.