The Maya City of Tikal (1999)

For centuries the Maya city of Tikal was completely covered under jungle, one of dozens of large cities scattered through present day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Southern Mexico.   The Maya civilisation collapsed fairly rapidly around 1000 AD; it's thought that over-population or ongoing wars between the cities hastened the end.   It wasn't until around 1850 that this city was explored and became known to the wider world, partly because of the difficulty of reaching its location in North-Eastern Guatemala.  When explorers did arrive, all that was visible was huge mounds such as the one below, covered in undergrowth and large trees.   Under the vegetation, however, the ruins were still in good condition, with even some wooden door lintels still well preserved.   Excavation and well thought out restoration work now gives a good balance between how the structures looked when rediscovered and how they looked when the city was still inhabited.

circular sacrificial altar engulfed by a tree

archaeological tunnel dug into the side of a temple


After walking along broad paths under the shady jungle canopy, past a number of low pyramids and stone dwellings, visitors arrive at the Grand Plaza.   Walking out of the jungle into a large grassed area, the first view of the Temple of the Grand Jaguar is enough to blow your socks off, even if it is a view of the rear of the building.

The spectacular architecture is even more impressive when you learn that the Maya never developed the wheel as a tool.   This is surprising, since they were remarkably skilled in mathematics and astronomy.   They understood the concept of zero while Europeans were still painting themselves up and running around in the mud, and the temples are all constructed precisely enough to be aligned with all sorts of astronomical events, with accuracy to fractions of a percent.

Impressive as it is, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, at 44 metres (143 feet) isn't even the tallest temple at Tikal.   Temple III, which is unexcavated, is 55 metres (179 feet), temple V is 58 metres (189 feet) and temple IV is 64 metres (208 feet).   In case you have a strange feeling that you've seen this temple somewhere before, maybe that's because these temples were used near the very end of the first Star Wars movie as a rebel base!

Like the pyramids in Egypt, these temples were built over the tomb of the kings of Tikal, and precious burial goods were entombed with them.

The Temple of the Masks, more prosaically known as Temple II, is directly opposite the Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the Grand Plaza.   Many of the temples at Tikal are arranged in pairs like this. 

The steps up the temple are uncomfortably large, but the rooms at the top under the giant "roofcomb" are very small, because despite their mathematical prowess, again the Maya didn't manage to come up with the idea of the arch, which allows large enclosed spaces to be built from stone.   Instead, the rooms rely on very thick load-bearing walls to carry the fantastic weight of the stones above them.

Side view of the steps of the Temple of the Masks. The steps are much steeper and trickier than they look, especially when looking down from the top!   In this photo, a woman in turqoise shorts is climbing slowly down backwards, holding onto the steps with her hands, even though she's fairly near the bottom.  Sensible too - at least two people have died falling down the steps of the temples.

Temple of the Grand Jaguar from the top of the Temple of the Masks, with the Grand Plaza in between.   The area on the left is the North Acropolis.   The row of standing stones to the right of the lowest set of stairs in the middle of the picture are "stelae", with sacrificial altars alongside (see closeup photo below).   Additional stelae and altars are on the far left of the picture, and at the base of the steps up the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.

Temple roofcombs.  On the left is a roofcomb undergoing restoration, and on the right is the roofcomb of the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.   The horizontal indentation above the door of this roofcomb originally held a carved wooden door lintel, which was still in good condition when the nice folks from a Swiss museum took it home with them, in 1877.

The North Acropolis from the top of the Temple of the Masks.   Under the largest of the straw roofs in the photo is a giant 10 foot high wall mask of the rain god, shown on the right.

Closeup of the stela under the A-frame grass roof in the North Acropolis photo immediately above.   The glyphs or characters written on these stelae recount battles and other significant historical events during the reigns of the different Maya kings.   The glyphs have been translated, and the Maya calendar system has also been discovered, which allows archaeologists to date the events of the stelae to the exact day and year of the European calendar in which they occurred, thanks to the remarkable precision with which the Maya plotted time.


In the photo above, the guy in the middle of this group, facing the camera, is our guide.   He spoke English with a strong Caribbean accent, which made me think that he must have come from Belize, but in fact he originally lived on the East Coast of Guatemala.   He was very professional and articulate, as was the Spanish speaking guide who took other members of our group.  My guide was also extremely tolerant towards yours truly as I constantly lingered behind or wandered away to get yet another bird or insect photograph, temporarily losing the party on a couple of occasions.

The structure inside which everyone is standing is another Maya innovation, a ball court, this one being on the edge of the Grand Plaza, with the Temple of the Grand Jaguar on the right of this photo.   The Maya used these courts to play sports with rubber balls, and these games had strong religious significance.   The lucky winners of the games were tied up and sacrificed on the round altars shown in the photograph on the left.   The Maya considered this lucky because anyone who was sacrificed was believed to get a better afterlife.   I suspect that for the average Maya any sort of afterlife would be better than the life of hard work, heavy construction and warfare which they endured.

If you enjoyed visiting Tikal then you might also enjoy visiting Teotihuacan in Mexico.