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Lost King of the Maya

A well-preserved painted battle scene at Bonampak.
Map of the Maya World
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The 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.

Perched 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 striking carvings, this white-stoned city reached its peak during the Late Classic Period, from about A.D. 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.

The Temple of the Masks stands atop a remarkably preserved stepped pyramid at Tikal.
With its 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 heyday, 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 Great 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 A.D. 741, is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Stela carved from reddish sandstone, Quiriguá.

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 A.D. 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 date.

The Canaa ruins at Caracol in southwestern Belize.
Located in what is today southwestern Belize, Caracol, Spanish for "snail," rivaled anything in Belize today. At its peak between A.D. 650 and 700, the city had a population estimated at 150,000 (Belize's entire population is only about 50,000 more than 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.

Continue: Altun Ha

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