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Lost King of the Maya

Carved stela at Copán.
Map of the Maya World

In its 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 paper. Using the labels on or below the map below, visit 15 of the better-known Maya sites.

Bonampak | Sayil | Uxmal | Yaxchilán | Tikal | Seibal | Quiriguá | Copán. | Caracol | Altun Ha | Uaxactún | Toniná | Palenque | Tulum | Chichén Itzá

Chichen Itza
Chichén Itzá's Temple of the Warriors, with the Pyramid of El Castillo in the background.

Chichén Itzá
Chichén 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 A.D. 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.
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An ancient building at Tulum, on the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Tulum was 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 toward Earth.
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The ruins of Palenque rise above the surrounding Chiapas plain.

Distinguished 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 A.D., including the 75-foot-tall Temple of the Inscriptions. The temple was dedicated to the great ruler Pacal, 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.
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The great Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal.
Contemporary 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.
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Continue: Bonampak

Map of the Maya World | Incidents of Travel
Tour Copán with David Stuart | Reading Maya Hieroglyphs
Resources | Transcript | Site Map | Lost King of the Maya Home

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