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Copán

Sunday, October 8th 2000

The Maya were one of the great civilizations of the Americas. At their peak from around 600 to 800AD, they built great cities, covering them with towering temples and pyramids. They were advanced in agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, and 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 its height, 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, probably because the climate became drier and crops failed repeatedly. Cities were abandoned to the jungle, the population shrank, and when the Spanish arrived, 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. But some of the abandoned cities in the jungle survived. Today, many have been rediscovered, and 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 best preserved Mayan sites. We wandered around the pyramids and plazas, 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 carvings, a fine view over the ruins and surrounding countryside, and (on this occasion) 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 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 nothing like so dramatic. It was 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 town, and prepared to leave Honduras the next day.

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