The Maya were one of the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. The civilization began to emerge at least 4,000 years ago, was advanced by 300AD, and reached its peak (the so-called Classic Period) from around 600 to 800AD. During this time, they built great cities at a prodigious rate, covering them with towering temples and pyramids, and in many cases spectacular stone carvings. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and quite independently of the Arabs (who generally get the credit), they invented a positional numbering system and the concept of zero. They also had a literary tradition, though much of the hieroglyphics have yet to be deciphered, and an accurate calendar, which was adopted by the Aztecs and is still used in more remote parts of Guatemala.
At the height of the Classic period, the Mayan empire spread across the southern Mexican states of the Yucatán peninsula, the whole of modern-day Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. Around 900AD, though, the whole of Mayan civilization went into dramatic decline, many cities being abandoned to the jungle. After something of a renaissance around the 1200’s, Mayan civilization was again in decline when the Spanish arrived, and they conquered the Mayan lands rapidly.
In their religious zeal the Spanish razed to the ground most of what they conquered, destroying the ‘pagan’ temples and pyramids and the idols inside. Fortunately, the decline of the Maya meant that there were many cities which were now abandoned and totally covered in jungle. Today, many have been uncovered, and every year more are discovered. Just before we left the UK, we heard that a huge new set of ruins had been found deep in the jungle in central Guatemala.
Copán is one of the most famed of the Mayan sites of Central America, and we were certainly impressed when after a short walk down a forest path we emerged into its Great Plaza. With a low pyramid in the centre, carved pillars (stelae) scattered around, and larger pyramids visible further off, it was quite a sight.
Copán was founded by 1200BC at the latest, and started to become a great city in 426, when a king called Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw came to power. He and his descendants began Copán’s great tradition of recording their achievements on stelae, slabs of rock about eight feet tall, great numbers of which can be seen today at Copán. Copán’s most productive king in this respect was Uaxaclahun Ubak K’awil, the thirteenth king, whose name sounded very fitting for a powerful king until its meaning was deciphered. Somehow a king called 18 Rabbit hardly seems destined for greatness, but under his rule Copán came to dominate many surrounding cities, including Quiriguá, which today lies across the border in Guatemala. 18 Rabbit’s rule lasted nearly 45 years, during which time many of Copán’s finest structures and stelae were built and carved, but unfortunately the people of Quiriguá had never accepted their subjugation to Copán, and in 738 they captured the unfortunate King Rabbit and beheaded him.
Copán’s fifteenth king, Smoke Shell, was another great builder, and started the Heiroglyphic Stairway, the longest inscription known in the Maya lands. But the following two kings oversaw Copán’s terminal decline, as its ever-growing population finally outstripped its food production. Skeletal remains from this late period show evidence of malnutrition and disease, and most of the people had left by the year 1000. A few stragglers remained for a long time, but by about 1200AD the site had been completely abandoned to the jungle. It was found by a Spanish explorer in 1576, but then not visited again until 1839. At this time it came to the attention of archaeologists, who have been working at Copán ever since, uncovering ever more structures (3450 are now known, covering an area of 24 square kilometres) and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics.
We wandered around, admiring and appreciating the art and architecture, and trying hard to really believe that this was once the centre of a great city. We climbed the Temple of Inscriptions, at the top of which you find walls covered with intricate carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion at least) a Honduran television crew, asking visitors to give their impressions of the place. Always eager for 15 seconds of fame, I happily told them what I thought of the place. Moh was media-shy, and hid behind a wall until I was finished.
After we had spent a good long time exploring Copán, we walked further down the road to one of its suburbs, today known as Las Sepulturas. This was a residential part of the city, and though it is certainly less dramatic than the main site, provides a greater insight into how the Maya lived. It’s also much quieter than the main site: we didn’t see anyone else while we were there.
We were lucky with the weather – it didn’t start raining until after 4pm, when the ruins are closed for the night. This meant we only got soaked once we’d seen everything, which was good. We squelched back to the town of Copán Ruinas, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.