Tuesday, 23 September 2014

65. Wonder: Tikal

(For the Tikal preview, please click here.)

In 557 AD, something happened to Tikal. It all went quiet. A thriving, powerful city, it was one of the largest ever of the entire Maya civilisation. The royal dynasty stretched back to the 1st Century AD, and city's history went back many centuries before. The leaders faithfully recorded all their important events and dates onto stone tablets that we call stelae, the only words we now have from a lost civilisation, a voice from the past. Loads of these stelae have been found, enabling archaeologists to piece together a handy chronology of the place. But from 557 AD, and for the next 125 years, these stelae stop. Construction appears also to have stopped. Tikal stopped speaking. But not forever. Because in 682 AD the stelae restart: Tikal's resurgence began. In grand style.



These are Temples I, II, III, IV, and V. They are only a small component of the Tikal that we can visit today, but they are certainly the buildings that stamp the site's identity, the signature pieces. Five vertical step pyramids with a temple on top and a single, very steep, stairway running up their front, they were all built in the bustling century following Tikal's quiet spell. The quiet spell is usually termed the Tikal hiatus, and before the hiatus Tikal was a booming city, built on trade and agriculture and war, but it reached its peak during one final fling lasting around a century after the hiatus. Temples, palaces, platforms, reservoirs, walls, and homes all sprung up as the population reached anything up to 200,000. Despite the hiatus, the royal dynastic line was apparently unbroken. The 26th and 27th rulers brought Tikal back to power, and made it more glorious than ever before. And only then did it go the way of every Maya city of this era - termed the Classic Period - suffering slow, steady, and terminal decline, likely brought on by (possibly self-inflicted) environmental factors. The city returned to the jungle.

Visiting Tikal these days is to go on one of the world's great walks in the forest. Like many Maya sites, Tikal was built in the jungle, but during its heyday - which was pretty much most of the 1st millennium - the jungle was pushed back to make way for the city. When the city eventually fell, the jungle crept back in again, doing what the jungle will inevitably do, crawling, growing, finding gaps between the stones and growing in there too, eventually pushing the stones apart. It took over. Buildings became rubble, hidden by vegetation. So much so that Hernan Cortes passed by in 1525 during his conquest of Mexico and didn't appear to notice anything. No-one else in the conquered land seemed to notice it either, for centuries. In 1841 the explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood - the guys who popularised Palenque - managed to entirely miss it, and they were looking for exactly that kind of thing. Considering that Tikal's overall extent covers up to 50 square miles, with thousands of significant structures, this is a pretty big thing to miss. But Tikal really was lost in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere.

It's not so lost these days. About 40 miles away, the dinky colonial island of Flores, a colonial blob of buildings on Lake Peten Itza like a pretty raindrop falling off the edge of the grimmer city of Santa Elena, offers an abundance of transport and tour options. One is the sunrise tour, involving an obscene 3am start in order to watch sunrise from Temple IV. We opted not to do that. Danielle? 3am? Not going to happen. But more significantly, I can't stand visiting Wonders as part of a tour. I'd been looking forward to Tikal, and to visit it as part of a group of fifteen tired people, listening to a guide recite his daily spiel, just didn't sound like fun. The selling point is watching the sunrise from Temple IV, something that can only be done on the group tour, but the weather during the rainy season is heavily overcast in the mornings and only brightens up later, so instead you simply see a dark world gradually become a grey world. Speaking to people who'd been on the tour seemed to confirm my fears. The guide prattled on about nature and barely talked about the ruins, they waited for two hours on Temple IV in the darkness, and the sunrise was invisible. By the time the tour had finished, they were so exhausted they were happy just to get out of there. That's no way to see a Wonder.

Instead, Danielle and I just went on our own, and roamed around freely. And Tikal was truly excellent.

Maya cities were not cities as we know them. They were sprawling entities, seemingly unplanned, without anything like streets or defensive walls, or any kind of clear boundaries. Look at Teotihuacan, with its broad main avenue and carefully positioned temples, with the greater city structured along a clear grid plan. Definitely not Maya. The Maya, as far as we can tell, built their cities any old way, like an artist abstractly lobbing paint at a canvas. That's not to say there wasn't extremely careful planning within certain structures and complexes, but the overall city plan does not appear to be a coherent one. The upshot of this is, for the modern visitor, they are tremendous fun to visit. It's an adventure. Only a small fraction of Tikal has been uncovered and excavated - less than 6 square miles out of 50 - but even this offers hours and hours of exploration, choosing a forest path and seeing where it leads. At least four hours is suggested for a cursory exploration of Tikal, but it thoroughly rewards more. Hours and days can be spent stumbling over derelict walls and clambering upon rows of temples aligned in ways that must have made sense at the time, but today just make us wonder what the Maya were playing at. And wonder is a key part of Tikal.

We largely have the 26th and 27th rulers of Tikal to thank for the impressive ruins we wonder at today. Their names were Jasaw Chan K'awiil I and his son, Yik'in Chan K'awiil. The word "k'awiil" appears to have been a god's name, and I've seen all kinds of different meanings given for "jasaw chan", from a staff for dancing to a skull bearer. Maybe his name was a clever play on words we'll never quite fathom. Yik'in Chan K'awiil's name is more comprehensible though: it means the vaguely sinister "K'awiil that Darkens the Sky". Jasaw reigned from 682 to 734 AD, and Yik'in from around 734 to 766. Jasaw broke the 125-year silence that was the Tiakl hiatus in 682 AD, with a stela recording his accession. What had happened to cause this silence? It doesn't say - stelae preferred to rave on about kings and gods rather than make life easy for modern historians. War seems a very likely reason, but possibly the sinister influence of Teotihuacan may also have been a factor. Based hundreds of miles away, Teotihuacan may not have been a Maya city, but it was rich and powerful, a colossal and almost legendary force for the southern Maya. There is a strong suspicion that way back in 378 AD, Teotihuacan had something to do with the death of Tikal's 14th ruler, which corresponded to the mysterious arrival of a figure called Siyaj K'ak, or "Fire Is Born", and also known as the "Lord of the West". A year later, a new king of Tikal was installed. Nearby Maya cities were also visited by Siyaj K'ak, it seems, and had new kings installed. Siyaj K'ak was possibly a Teotihuacan military general, and likely it was a violent takeover: most pre-378 AD stelae are found to be deliberately broken. It was a major regime change, and society likewise changed in Tikal. Art and architecture became more Teotihuacan in style, and new military innovations were adopted. Under Teotihuacan's banner, Tikal became a dominant force in the area - but this led to conflict. Tikal's neighbours didn't like this weird seemingly-militarised state, and by the late 6th Century it was surrounded by hostile city states. From stelae found in other cities, it appears that in 562 AD Tikal was attacked by a rival, Caracol, which had teamed up with another, Calakmul. It was comprehensively defeated. Buildings were trashed. All went quiet in Tikal.

When the smoke clears, later in the 7th Century, Classic Maya life went on, as though nothing had ever happened. The Teotihuacan influence was gone, purged from the area. This is roughly the time that Teotihuacan itself mysteriously self-destructed. Whatever happened in the Central American world at that time - and as they never bothered to record it, we can only guess -  was pretty big stuff.

Jasaw and Yik'in brought Tikal back to glory. They didn't build the city from scratch though; in the usual Maya tradition, they built on top of existing temples, a new layer over several old ones.But they took things further. As well as restoring old monuments, they brought a new style of architecture to the region, featuring colossal stepped-pyramids supporting temples, with an emphasis on being tall and vertical. It was a wildly ambitious vision and they pulled it off. As well as their massive building programmes, they made Tikal a fighting force again. They kicked Calakmul's ass, and went on to dominate their neighbours. During their reigns, from 682 to 768 AD in total, Tikal enjoyed a resurgence. It became magnificent. For me, Jasaw Chan K'awiil I and Yik'in Chan K'awiil are the men who put the Wonder into Tikal.

Danielle and I opted for an unassuming approach into the  city. Upon paying and entering along a forest path, the path splits into three. We opted for the quiet route, going via Temple VI, one of the many works by Yik'in. Temple VI is a little removed from the five other numbered temples, and as we discovered isn't as impressive. It's fine, but not as big, and still pretty overgrown and messy.

But it's a good introduction. During the 20 minute walk there, and for some time after, we didn't see a single soul. We were wandering the jungle alone, alone except for the calls of birds and monkeys, and the thousand eyes that surely followed us everywhere we went. Not far on, we visited the ruins known prosaically as Group G, thought to have once been one of Yik'in's palaces.

But by Tikal's standards, these are still small fry, some old ruins that the majority of visitors give no more than a glance, if they even get that far. Tikal's main attractions still lay ahead. We continued wandering the quiet jungle path, passing a few more humble ruins. And then, suddenly, through the trees and towering above me, this:

This is the back of Temple I. It's 47 metres in height, but rises sharply. It was my first "wow" moment of Tikal, though far from the last. It's part of what could fairly described as the centrepiece of Tikal, what the signposts referred to as the Gran Plaza, which means, as you'd imagine, the Great Plaza, and not the Plaza for Grandmothers. Across an open and now nicely-mown grass plaza, Temple I and Temple II face each other. Two huge temple-platform complexes called the Central Acropolis and the North Acropolis sprawl out on either side. Another wow.


Tikal was first settled in around 800 BC, but it was 200 BC when it began to take shape.That was when the Great Plaza was formed, the hub of the city for the next thousand years. The complex we call the North Acropolis seems to have been the first established. It's an enormous platform containing a series of constructions, including twelve temples, and at least 80 funeral chambers of important figures. These appeared over the centuries - mostly between the 3rd and 6th Centuries AD - as the North Acropolis grew and grew to its final size of around 2.5 acres. It's high too, almost as tall as the two pyramid temples, Temples I and II, it sits beside.

While the North Acropolis is the tall one, the Central Acropolis is the vast, sprawling one. It's not as instantly dramatic as the North Acropolis or some of the temples, but it's big, covering over 4 acres, being over 200 metres long, and containing something like 42 major buildings and six courtyards. No major burials have been found there and it's considered to have been the palace of Tikal's royalty. Again, it was built in stages, and rather like the entirety of Tikal itself, seems like an unplanned jumble. While the tourists gather around the Great Plaza and Temples I and II, with some clambering around the North Acropolis, few seem to pry very deeply into the Central Acropolis. Which is a shame. Because it's tremendous, a labyrinthine network of structures, like a child set loose with a box of Lego.

Of course, the two standout attractions, the visual highlights, of the Great Plaza are Temples I and II. They are funerary temples, built by Jasaw for himself and his wife. At their core, they are just rubble, with blocks of limestone built over that, and both were built upon older, smaller temples. Across the plaza, the two temples face each other, and once the king and queen's images would have been carved into them, gazing at each other into the afterlife. Jasaw's Queen's body hasn't been found, if it's there at all, but in 1962 Jasaw's body was discovered in an ornate tomb below Temple I, filled with riches and carved bones.

Temple I is out-of-bounds for clambering tourists, but Temple II satisfies the urge, with an elaborate wooden stairway winding round the back.

On top of Temple II, from the rear, the heads of Temples III, IV, and V can also be seen, peeking through the forest.

The name "Tikal" is a 19th Century one coined by locals, meaning "the place of spirit voices", and that's about as adventurous as the naming system in Tikal gets. Except to archaeologists, the names don't offer much. Temples I to VI are simply named in the order that the archaeologists got round to dealing with them, not in order of construction or height or anything actually useful to the casual visitor. In fact, some of them do have alternative names - Temple I is also called the Temple of the Great Jaguar, and Temple II is called the Temple of the Masks - but these are virtually never used except in this "also called" context. There are a whole bunch of other significant complexes in Tikal simply designated a letter of the alphabet. There's nothing as fun as Palenque's "Temple of the Skull" or Uxmal's "Pyramid of the Magician" here. Just numbers and letters, there's nothing here to stoke the fires of the imagination; instead, they just confuse: on more than one occasion, Danielle screwed up her face and said something like "Wait, which one's Temple III again? Is it the one I thought was Temple V?" But while the names might be on the plain side, the constructions aren't. They are distinct, they are monumental, and at up to 70 metres tall, poking above the top of the jungle canopy, they are certainly big. The largest, Temple IV, was the tallest man-made building in America from its 8th Century construction right up until 1846, when New York's Trinity Church built an 86-metre spire.

The Great Plaza might be Tikal's Times Square, the hub around which the city seems to orbit, but Temple IV is the Empire State Building. For me, it has the biggest wow in all of Tikal. It's a Yik'in construction, built around 741 AD to mark his reign. If it's also his funerary temple, his tomb has yet to be found. Approaching it from the Great Plaza it can be seen, very clearly, poking above the jungle, the narrow peak of Tikal's tallest isosceles temples. Bushes and trees still run rampant upon the lower sections. Once upon a time, the select few would have accessed it from the front, climbing up the steep stone stairway that wouldn't have been at all forgiving of any clumsy moments. Today, as with Temple II, a wooden contraption of stairs, with railings, are attached to the side, like a fire escape: safer, though less exciting. Climb it, and suddenly find yourself on top of the world.

Trust me, that photo cannot begin to do it justice. It's a sensational moment of revelation, on a par with the greatest moments that Wonders can bring. Standing over the world, looking over the jungle, with some of Tikal's other temples for company. We can see Temples I and II facing each other, the scaffolding-clad Temple III a little closer, the more distant Temple V, and the black sheep of the family, the Lost World Pyramid.

Temples I and II are the most striking. I wonder if Jasaw and his wife are sick of each other yet.

It fires the imagination, this lost city and vanished civilisation, that was clearly developed and ambitious, but equally clearly thinking along entirely different lines than we do today. Different beliefs, different social structures, different motivations, different counting system (they used base 20 rather than base 10). They even had a different sense of time, with it being cyclical rather than linear. It's fair to say that Maya were both a deeply mathematical and deeply superstitious people, combining the two rather elaborately. They had 20 days with names, which for some reason they combined with the numbers 1 to 13 to create a 260-day cycle. Each day had its own distinct identity and set of omens. With priests keeping tally and dictating the meaning, the cycles dictated how people lived. It was very precise and went a lot further than 260-day cycles. All kinds of combinations of 13 and multiples of 20 were concocted. Famously, a Great Cycle lasted about 5128 years, or 1,872,000 days (13x20x18x20x20), and by our calendar this works out as December 12th 2012 being the final day of the cycle. A few people panicked and thought this must surely mean the end of the world, but no, it was just the end of a cycle. It's not even the biggest cycle: the Maya had something called an alawtun, which corresponds to just over 23 billion days, or a little over 63 million years. Wasn't that when the dinosaurs went extinct...?

(Just to melt your mind a little, the Maya archaeological site of Coba has an inscription that implies a start time of 28 octillion years ago, that's 28 with 27 zeroes after it. It also implies we have another 44 octillion years remaining...)

In Tikal, the leaders were more concerned with a unit of time called the k'atun, a period of 7200 days, or roughly every 20 years. Every k'atun, they would clear a squarish area of land and build a special complex in its honour - or the relevant deity's honour more precisely. This complex featured two identical pyramids, with steps on all four sides leading to the top, on either side of the space, with a nine-doored building and a walled enclosure with a stela on the other sides. With the exception of a few examples at other Tikal-influenced sites, these are only found at Tikal, but there are loads of them there, nine currently known, scattered all around. Many are just mounds in the forest, but some have been restored well. They are the meat-and-potatoes of Tikal. Their simplicity is striking, and by the time you've seen the third one, they are even more striking in their repetition.

I could go on. Tikal offers a lot of walking, and a lot of ruins. Dare I say it, it's a lot more impressive than Palenque. It's more exciting. And I've still not touched upon huge areas of the ruined city, such as the Mundo Perdido, or "Lost World," Complex - ha, the Tikal naming commission finally got something right! It's pretty anomalous to the rest of Tikal, dating from way before the majority of the city was even conceived. Some of it goes back to 500 BC, before Tikal was really even Tikal, and centuries before the royal dynasty began. It was rebuilt many times, but the focus was always the Lost World Pyramid, which reached its final height of about 31 metres by 250 AD. Among other things, it was an observatory, and clearly had great significance for the people of Tikal - it was the first complex to be built in the city, and the last to be abandoned when the city eventually went into decline. It doesn't quite fit in with the rest of Tikal, being so much older and not being a pointy temple. This is the Tikal that existed before Jasaw and Yik'in got their hands on it.

And there's more. Just next to it, more temples, temple complexes, ball courts, walls, and other buildings. Lost without fanfare in the jungle, with only the occasional stray tourist wandering by.

And yet, this is still just the tourist part, the area that has been excavated and prepared for visitors. There's so much more. Deeper in the jungle, there are mounds everywhere, mapped but untouched by archaeologists, containing unknown secrets. Just like Palenque, but the bigger, more stretched out, more massive version.

We stayed at a hotel very close to Tikal, and for my second visit I went early, at the 6am opening time. A little too late to catch sunrise - it was entirely grey anyway - but hours earlier than the vast majority of tourists. I had the city to myself. I clambered up the North Acropolis alone. I stood upon Temple II alone. I climbed to the top of Temple V - you're not really supposed to, but nobody else was around. 57 metres high, a sheer drop, and with a somewhat lethal set of steps, I can see why they don't want crowds of tourists going up.

It was all very, very special. A fine mist hung in the air, and birds and animals hollered unseen in the trees. The epic ruins of Tikal, an enormous statement of power and piety by one of the Maya world's greatest ever forces, were all mine. As the hours went by, the morning mist turned to blue sky and brightness, and the mysterious lost city turned into magnificent sunlit ruins. Yes, I thought to myself, this is a Wonder.

Criteria then.

Size: The overall site is about 50 square miles, or twice the size of San Marino. Temple IV is the tallest structure, at about 70 metres high, and the largest structure covers 4 acres. The grandeur of Tikal is in having these structures and many other comparable ones put together, clustered in a rough city centre of about 6 square miles. 
Engineering: We know next to nothing about the construction process, but can guess that a lot of people moved a lot of stone, especially during the post-hiatus renaissance. The biggest complement you can give the builders is that with just basic technology they managed to build gigantic structures that despite a thousand years of neglect and aggressive jungle, still stand.
Artistry: With most of the fine details lost to time, it's the ruins we're seeing, the crude version of what was intended. It's still a striking image.
Age: The Lost World Pyramid goes way back 2500 years, although we see a version "merely" 1750 years old. The majority of what impresses us today goes back about 1300 years.
Fame/Iconicity: It should be so much more known. Chichen Itza is the headline grabber of the Maya world. 
Context: A lost city of ruins in a jungle. Enormously evocative.
Back Story: Letting it down a little, Tikal perhaps lacks any kind of focussed story. It lacks an exciting discovery tale. The finer details of the ancient history remains tantalisingly out of reach - what influence did Teotihuacan have, what kind of rulers were Jasaw and Yik'in? The upside of this is that it contributes to a large part of the overall appeal of Tikal, the sense of mystery.
Originality/Distinctiveness: It's certainly Maya, but the five vertical pyramid temples definitely give Tikal its distinctive looks. Nowhere else has these.
Wow Factor: Yes, and more than once. First stumbling upon Temple I, admiring a view of the Great Plaza, and especially climbing Temple IV to appreciate the view over the treetops. Tikal is packed with breathtaking visions.

Tikal is one of a great number of Maya sites, with Palenque being the most obvious reference point so far in my Wonder hunt. In my concluding passage in my Palenque review, I cited my reasons for it and for all ruined cities being so appealling: the vision, the mystery, the sheer effort involved, and the enigmatic motives behind it all. The same applies for Tikal, but moreso. There's no question it is one of the world's premier ruined cities, even if it doesn't quite get the headlines of Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza. And likewise, to date, there's no doubt it's one of the best prospective Wonders I've visited. Unfortunately for Tikal, I'd place it just below Teotihuacan - 1300 years on and Teotihuacan still reigns over them - but the good news is that still places them at 6th on my list, ahead of Mont Saint-Michel. Tikal is pretty damn fantastic.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Teotihuacan
6. Tikal
7. Mont Saint-Michel
Other Wonders
The Colosseum
The Eiffel Tower
Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Golden Gate Bridge
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Hoover Dam
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Verona Arena
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

Does Not Qualify/Exempt
Thiepval Memorial (I'm still troubling over this one)
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom


  1. A very enjoyable and interesting read, and great photographs too (the mist really adds to the overall effect. Generally it's not a good thing when taking photos - it this case it certainly is).

    A few thoughts:

    - the Mayan calendar. I was aware of the 5,000+ year cycle due to the whole hoo-hah about 2012 being the end of the world, but not of the rest (the octillion thing was particularly mind-boggling - I've only just managed to unboggle my mind enough to be able to comment). What strikes me about that, is that it seems - to me - that perhaps the Maya had a very long-term view of the world, and indeed the universe. It's interesting to contrast that with the beliefs of, say, some Evangelical Christians, who believe that the Earth (indeed the whole of "Creation") is only about 6,000 years old, and that the end of it is just around the corner (Second Coming, Rapture, Apocalypse, etc). It just seems to me that the mindsets of the Mayans regarding their place in space and time was the complete polar opposite of many "mainstream" beliefs today. Although as we know so little of the Maya who can tell.

    - regarding your list of the current 7 Wonders: I notice that 6 out of the 7 (the exception being the Taj Mahal) are largely solid structures. By that I mean there is in great part an impenetrable element about them, be it those that are built mostly of solid stone (Great Wall, Pyramids in Teotihuacan and Tikal), or the rock formations surrounding/being the foundation to Macchu Pichu and Mont Saint-Michel respectively, and the rock statues of Easter Island. The Taj Mahal is the only structure that is a hollow building with no solid element (having said that it's at the top of your list). Could that be the main extra ingredient, the je-ne-sais-quoi that edges a great structure towards being an actual World Wonder?

    1. That's an interesting observation about the solid structure bias of the current top 7. I'm inclined to think it a coincidence, although the remaining big candidate is the as-yet unseen Petra, which is also solid. It could also, in part, be that ancient structures that were solid have simply stood a better chance of surviving the centuries.


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