Friday, 4 October 2013

Preview: Tikal

Depending on what you call the actual beginning, the Maya civilisation was a sprawling beast taking up much of Central America for anything up to 3500 years. Indeed, the people from the civilisation live on - around 60% of Guatemala's 10 million population is Maya, and there are still over 7.5 million Maya living today. But the heyday, there is no doubt, has passed. Typically, with slightly vague boundaries, the civilisation is broken into three easily digestable chunks: Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic, before the Spanish sailed in during the early 16th Century and slowly finished off the remnants of what was already a lost and faded civilisation. Never being one single entity, the Maya civilisation was more a series of competing city states, which flourished and fell over the centuries, but for the absolute heart of what we generally regard as Maya, we don't need to look much further than the Classic period. Spread across what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, from roughly the 3rd to the 9th Centuries, this was the time and place that elevated the Maya civilisation to something special. Truly, it was the heyday. And probably the greatest part of this heyday was the city-state of Tikal.

Now found in northern Guatemala, Tikal is your archetypical "lost city". One of the biggest of all the Maya cities, up to 60,000 people once lived there, spread across an overall area of 121.75 square miles - the same size as Malta - with a core of 6 square miles. That's pretty big. Yet, by the time the Spanish had arrived, they entirely passed by the ruins, not noticing the grand city that had once been. Many other European explorers right up till the mid-19th Century failed to find it. Tikal was lost in the jungle, given back to nature, and forgotten by the world. It was only formally rediscovered in 1848 by regional officials.

It is from this time that the name "Tikal" comes from. Although not yet known to recorded history, it was known to small-scale local settlements who knew there was something spooky about the place. In their language, they called it the "place of spirits" or "place of spirit voices", or possibly more mundanely "at the waterhole". The real name, subsequent deciphering of texts has revealed, was Yax Mutul. "Mutul" is thought to relate to the style of gathering the hair into a top knot, with deeper symbolism associated to the hieroglyph also, with the Yax meaning "first" to distinguish the city against others in the area that might assume the same name.

So, what do we have then? Tikal is just one of hundreds of ruined towns and cities buried under centuries of tropical forest growth, but its ruins are the grandest. There are over 3000 structures there, mostly simple dwellings, but it is the temple-pyramids and the large complexes that set it apart. Unlike its rough (non-Maya) contemporary of Teotihuacan, Tikal was not at all set to any obvious city plan. There were no streets or city walls, it seems, and no obvious city boundaries. Tikal was a sprawl. But it has a rough core, which is where we find most of the monumental architecture. This area appears to have been in place from around 200BC, after initial settlement in the area from as far back as 800 BC. But the large-scale construction came later, during the glory days of Classic period Tikal, from around 250 to 900AD. The most photographed of these are six temple-pyramids that are particularly impressive, named prosaically Temples I to VI. These are steep, vertical structures all found within the central area of Tikal.

Temple IV is the tallest, at 70m high. Like the other five temple-pyramids - probably - it is a funerary temple, possibly with an as-yet undiscovered tomb within or below. As with the others, it is effectively a series of terraces with a temple structure on top, reached by a steep stairway. The emphasis is on exterior grandeur rather than useful interior space, although small chambers can be found within. All were built later in Tikal's history - the numbers are just archaeological markers and don't relate chronologically. Two of them even have a charming romantic story behind them. Temple I and II were built for husband and wife (king Jasaw Chan K'awiil I and Lady Kalajuun Une' Mo') and the two structures at the top, called roof combs, have their respective images. Both these temples sit at the heart of the city, facing each other, so that the roof combs face each other and thus the king and his wife can gaze at each other for the rest of time.

And this is where, I must admit, things get pretty bewildering. Tikal has a lot of ruins, and I've not got my head around it all yet. I could list buildings, estimated dates, measurements, and kings, but it would just be a muddle. This is a place I think I need to visit to begin to get some order. The temples are obvious focal points, but there are many other substantial ruins. Many are elaborate complexes for royal burials, others are large palace-like structures, and there are a series of twin-pyramid complexes which were built to mark the passing of time at 20-year intervals in what was kind of a superstitious ritual.

Most - but not all - of the impressive remains of Tikal date from later in its history, at around the 8th Century. Partly, this is because it was common to build over existing structures, thus things got bigger over time. But it's also the time that Tikal was at its greatest, exerting the most influence over its neighbours, both culturally and militarily. But then, just a century later, after many centuries of existence and centuries of the ups and downs you would expect from any city or civilisation, Tikal was abandoned. Along with most the surrounding Maya world.

It's a mystery that has yet to be cleared up, with the answer seeming to lie in over-population. The strain put upon the surrounding environment lead to social unrest. It's tempting to imagine a sudden cataclysm - it makes it seem all the more dramatic to imagine the city burning and the mobs rampaging - but more likely it was gradual, over a few generations. A modern day parallel might be Detroit, which since the 1950s has seen the loss of industry, a steep increase in crime, a population decline from 1.85 million to 0.7 million, and the city recently declared bankrupt. This hasn't been a single moment of drama, just steady decline and a future that looks pretty bleak. Perhaps in 50 years, nature will be reclaiming Detroit.

Of course, the people of Detroit haven't all vanished, they've just moved elsewhere. The same goes for Tikal. The population dispersed and the civilisation faded. Classic period Maya came to an end. In its place? Post-classic Maya, of course. And the prime example of Post-classic Maya happens to be another Wonder of mine, the more famous Mexican site of Chichen Itza.

Tikal looks like it's going to be quite a bit to absorb. An alien culture, a large site, and a lot of unanswered questions. For these exact same reasons, I fully expect it to be an entirely fascinating place to experience. Some Wonders are focussed visual moments: the Eiffel Tower or Cologne Cathedral are single entities that you can stand in one spot and see the entire thing. But some need time to explore. Ruined cities like Bagan, Petra, or Tikal can't be appreciated from a single vantage point, they need time to look around and be experienced. My expectations of Tikal are pretty high, and I expect it will compare pretty closely to the swathe of ruined temples that constitute Bagan, and thus will rate highly, probably just outside the final Seven.

I'll be visiting Tikal next year some time, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. I find these lost cities fascinating. We really don't have anything quite like that here in Europe, perhaps because Europe is a densely populated continent so there is nothing on this scale that can be abandoned and forgotten about for such a long period of time.

    "Perhaps in 50 years, nature will be reclaiming Detroit." - it already is, not jungle obviously but weeds are sprouting though the pavement, vacant lots where houses once stood are now patches of greenery. I find Detroit to be quite an interesting case actually.

  2. Detroit's very interesting. Currently, with massive population expansion, the trend across the world is growth. Cities get bigger. One day the population will have to level out, maybe even decline a little. At that time, will cities begin to shrink? Will some become derelict? Detroit might just be the first significant example of a modern city going to ruin through the simple means of population dynamics/shift (rather than war or disaster).