Map of the Maya World
heyday from about A.D. 300 to 900, the Maya civilization boasted hundreds of
cities across a vast swath of Central America. Now archeological sites, these
once-flourishing cities extended from Chichén Itzá in the northern
Yucatán to Copán, about 400 miles to the south in modern-day
Honduras. Each bore ceremonial centers where theocratic rulers practiced a
complex religion based on a host of gods, a unique calendar, and ceremonies
that featured a ball game and human sacrifice. The ancient Maya also mastered
astronomy, mathematics, art and architecture, and a glyph system of writing on
stone, ceramics, and bark paper. Using an interactive map, visit 15 of the
better-known Maya sites.—Peter Tyson
Chichén Itzá's 79-foot-tall Pyramid
Itzá, "the mouth of the well of the Itzás," was
likely the most important city in the Yucatán from the 10th to the 12th
centuries. Evidence indicates that the site was first settled as early as the
fifth century A.D. but was apparently abandoned thereafter. Then, in 964, the
Itzás, a Maya-speaking people from the Petén rain forest around
Tikal, moved into the city. Archeologists have fully explored only about 20
or 30 of several hundred buildings on the four-square-mile site. El Castillo
(The Castle), a 98-foot-tall pyramid, dominates the city, while the Temple of
the Warriors features murals of battle scenes and village life.
Tulum's El Castillo towers over the Caribbean coast.
the largest Maya coastal city and the only Maya city known to have been
inhabited when the Spanish arrived. Its buildings exhibit classic Maya
architecture. The Temple of the Frescoes, for instance, which retains faint
traces of blue-green frescoes, has a vaulted roof and triangular architecture.
Other structures of note include the Castillo, the largest and most renowned
building, which stands at the edge of a 40-foot cliff; and the Temple of the
Descending God, named for a carving over the doorway of a winged god plunging
The ruins of Palenque rise above the surrounding Chiapas
by its highly expressive relief sculpture, Palenque comprises temples,
terraces, plazas, altars, burial grounds, and a ball court. It was discovered
accidentally in 1740, when a Spanish priest named Antonio de Solis struck a
buried wall with his spade while planting a field. In its heyday, the city
encompassed an area of almost 50 square miles. The most important buildings
date to the sixth to ninth centuries, including the 75-foot-tall Temple of the
Inscriptions. The temple was dedicated to the great ruler Pakal, who has been
called the "Mesoamerican Charlemagne." His tomb, found by Mexican
archeologists in 1952, lies at the bottom of a set of steps leading 80 feet
down from the top of the temple.
Tourists atop an intricately carved temple at Uxmal
with Palenque and Tikal, Uxmal is an architectural gem whose buildings
reflect a renaissance of Maya building that took place in the seventh to nine
centuries A.D. The architectural style epitomized here is known as Puuc, which
means "low hill" in Maya. Puuc blends ornate stone mosaics and
cornices with vaulted arches and rows of columns. The archeologist Victor von
Hagen called one of Uxmal's buildings, the House of the Governor, the
most magnificent edifice ever erected in the Americas. Covering five acres, the
palace features a façade frieze consisting of no fewer than 20,000
individually cut stones.
A well-preserved fresco scene decorates a tomb at Bonampak.
explorer Jacques Soustelle called Bonampak "a pictorial encyclopedia of a
Mayan city." Built along the Lacanjá River in the seventh and
eighth centuries and eventually abandoned to the jungle, the city remained
undiscovered until 1946. Even now it remains more difficult to get to than most
other Maya sites (save for Yaxchilán, which still requires a one-hour
jungle boat ride to reach). Bonampak means "painted walls" in Maya,
and the site is known for just that: beautiful murals depicting the life of the
ancient Maya. The three-roomed Templo de las Pinturas has remarkably
well-preserved murals still bearing ochre and faience colors.
The pierced roof comb of Temple 33 is characteristic of
Yaxchilán's striking architecture.
on the western bank of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilán ("the place
of green stones") lay along the trade route between the two great Maya
sites of Palenque and Tikal. But today it stands in a remote, little-visited
jungle setting. Known for its handsome temples and exceptional carvings, this
white-stoned city reached its peak during the Late Classic Period, from about
680 to 770. Two acropolises with temples, grand staircases, and a palace
dominate the site. Legend has it that a headless sculpture of the god Yaxachtun
at the site formerly terrified the local Lacandon people, who feared that the
world would end when the head was replaced.
A Maya masterwork, Temple I overlooks Tikal's Grand
plethora of palaces, altars, shrines, and soaring temples, Tikal may be the
premier Maya site. For over 1,100 years, the Maya built here, expanding the
site until it covered an area of 25 square miles. In its prime, the city may have
had 100,000 residents, and it was ruled by a single dynasty of over 39
successive rulers. The heart of the site is the Grand Plaza, which is
surrounded by the Central Acropolis, the North Acropolis, and Temples I and II.
In the North Acropolis alone, 100 buildings lie piled atop one another. Temple
I is 145 feet tall, but it is dwarfed by Temple IV. At 212 feet, Temple IV,
built around 741, is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Western
Stela carved from reddish sandstone, Quiriguá
is known for its many finely sculptured stone monuments. The site boasts the
largest carved Maya stela, a 65-ton behemoth known as Monument 5. Dating to
771, Monument 5 stands 35 feet tall, with fully eight feet underground. Its
sculptors worked in the local sandstone, which has a close and even grain that
allows for highly intricate carvings. Beginning in 725, Quiriguá came
under the power of Copan; in that year, Copan ruler 18 Rabbit named Cauac Sky
as ruler of Quiriguá. But 13 years later, Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit
in battle and sacrificed him, bringing Quiriguá independence and a rise
to prominence that lasted until at least 810, the city's last recorded
The ruins of Caracol in the jungle of southwestern Belize
in what is today southwestern Belize, Caracol, Spanish for "snail,"
rivaled anything in Belize today. At its peak between 650 and 700, the city had
a population estimated at 150,000. (Belize's entire population is only
about twice this today.) Caracol's largest structure, the 138-foot Caana
("Sky Place"), is the tallest building in either ancient or modern
Belize. All told, in its prime, the site covered almost 15 square miles, had more
than 36,000 occupied buildings, and included over 22 miles of sacheoh, or "white roads," made of blocks topped with
crushed stone and plastered. A tomb found beneath a bench in the front room of
Structure A3, a temple rising 52 feet above the Main Plaza, contained a single
skeleton with 18 pounds of obsidian and 88 pounds of chert.
Altun Ha's magnificent Temple of the Sun God
Found on the outskirts of the
Maya area, Altun Ha, which means "rockstone pond" in Yucatec Maya,
is known for the fabulous jade that has turned up there. Dating to 550-600, the
Temple of the Green Tomb earned its name after archeologists discovered nearly
300 jade objects sequestered within it. (The temple also contained a smashed
codex or Maya book, whose paper had disintegrated but whose painted stucco
surface remained in fragments.) The finest jade piece turned up in the Temple
of the Masonry Altars, at over 58 feet the tallest structure at the site. In
1968, while archeologists excavated a tomb within the temple, they found a
large, full-rounded sculpted head of Kinich Ahau, the sun god. Weighing almost
ten pounds, it was the largest Maya carved jade object found until that time.
features elegant Puuc-style architecture.
A classic example of Puuc
architecture (see also the Uxmal entry), Sayil was established in the eighth
century. Before that time, few Maya apparently lived in the region, probably
because they had no efficient way to access the water table, which lies at least
200 feet belowground there. Only when local Maya learned to store water by
digging chultunes, or small underground
cisterns, were they able to expand their numbers significantly in the region.
Each Sayil household had at least one chultune—a fact that has helped
archeologists determine that by the ninth century, Sayil boasted about 17,000
urban and suburban residents. The site today features a platform for stelae, a
ball court, and a number of palaces, including the magnificent Three-Storey
Palace with its rounded columns.
Uaxactún lies just 16 miles from Tikal, its rival city in ancient Maya
Uaxactún, which means
"eight-stone" in Yucatec Maya and is named for the earliest stela
found there (dated to A.D. 328), is one of the most intensively studied Maya
sites. The ceramic sequence that came out of early work there provided the
basis for the entire Maya lowland chronology. One of the most notable series of
buildings at the site is that formed by Structures E-1, E-2, and E-3, which are
aligned north-south and form an astronomical observatory, the first found in
the Maya world. From an observation point on a nearby pyramid, the early Maya
could watch the sun rise behind these buildings and mark the summer and winter
solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) as well as the vernal and
autumnal equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length).
Stela 10 at Seibal portrays an elaborately clothed lord.
Spanish for "place of the
ceiba tree," Seibal had a checkered history. First inhabited in the
Middle Preclassic Period around 800 B.C., the city grew until about the time of
Christ, when it began a long decline. It was apparently abandoned between
roughly A.D. 500 and 690, when it was reoccupied. In 735, Ruler 3 from the Maya
city known today as Dos Pilas, which lies southwest of Tikal, captured the
ruler of Seibal, Yich'ak Balam, and his city, leading to about 60 years
of foreign rule. Around 830, a non-Classic Maya group settled in Seibal, which
witnessed its greatest florescence over the next century, its population
reaching about 10,000. The city was permanently abandoned in 930 and not
rediscovered until about 1890. Today, it is noted for its beautiful carved
stelae sculpted from high-quality limestone.
Ball court A-III (center) and the Hieroglyphic Stairway
(under awning) at Copán
The first description of
Copán appeared in a letter to Philip II, King of Spain, dated March 8,
1576. Since then, innumerable archeologists, tourists, and other visitors have
descended on this spectacular Mayan city in northern Honduras. Among a plethora
of renowned buildings, stelae, and other artifacts, arguably the most famous is
the Hieroglyphic Stairway. The longest text in Precolumbian America, the
stairway provides a history of Copán written in stone. Each of 2,200
blocks that form the risers of more than 70 steps bears carved glyphs that
record the history of the 16-ruler Copán dynasty formed by Yax
K'uk Mo'. The site's stelae, carved in greenish andesite in
strikingly high relief, are equally fascinating. One of the most renowned,
Altar Q, shows Yax K'uk Mo' passing the baton of office to Yax Pac,
the 16th and final great ruler of Copán.
lightly inhabited valley spreads out below the ruins of Toniná.
The wave of mysterious
abandonment that swept through Classic Maya cities ends at this remote city in
Chiapas, Mexico. The wave seems to have begun along the Usumacinta River, which
today forms northwest Guatemala's border with Mexico. The last recorded
date at Bonampak is 792, at Piedras Negras 795, at Palenque 799, and at
Yaxchilán 808. The wave then moved east into the heart of Maya
civilization in the Petén region of what is today modern Guatemala and
south into Honduras. Quiriguá fell silent in 810, Copán in
822, Caracol in 859, and Tikal in 889. The very last Classic Maya
date—909—appears at Toniná. Strangely, no record of
impending doom appears anywhere in Maya iconography. Scholars have advanced
many possible causes of the collapse—among them plague, famine,
earthquake, invasion, and peasant revolt—but the enigma remains.
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