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Tikal, the mightiest of the Maya cities, had languished in decadence for a century and a half. No new great temples had been built, no new history carved into the ageless gray stone. The wars had continued, battles and skirmishes with competing Mayan city-states such as Quiriguá to the south, but there had been no grand victories, nothing that would attract the attention and favor of the Gods. The ruler of Tikal, Hasaw Chan K’awil (“Double Moon”) commissioned a mighty temple: a pyramid that would reach the sky. Thousands of workers were brought in from the countryside: stonecutters, artisans, laborers. They built a magnificent temple out of stone—it eventually became Hasaw Chan K’awil’s tomb: he was laid to eternal rest alongside his wife, Twelve Macaw.


Temple I at Tikal was built around 700 A.D, kicking off a period of construction known as the Late Classic period, when Tikal reached its cultural, social and military apex. Once home to 100,000 Maya, Tikal was one of the most important cities in the Maya empire.


Tikal was “rediscovered” in 1848, when it was visited by the first of several archaeological expeditions (the locals had always been aware of the ruins, so it was never truly “lost”). One of the largest and most important of the ancient Maya sites, the area of the city is estimated to be roughly 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) and may contain over 4,000 structures, the oldest of which date back to around 800 B.C. The most interesting features of the ruins are the central plazas, which have been unearthed and, in some places, restored. The tallest temple is Temple IV, which stands at an impressive 72 meters (230 feet) and towers above the surrounding rainforest (you may have seen it in the first Star Wars movie, where it was featured as the exterior of the rebel base).


Tikal is also known for its impressive stelae, or intricately carved standing stones. There are over 200 of them at the site, the oldest of which has been tentatively dated to 292 B.C. There is a museum which features ceramics, jade and wood carvings and other artifacts discovered at the site.


An advantage for the traveler is the natural surroundings. The archaeological site at Tikal is only part of a large national park which is home to spider and howler monkeys, parrots, toucans, macaws, and other varied and spectacular wildlife. In fact, it is the only place on earth declared by UNESCO to be both a world culture and nature heritage site.


The stern Gods of the Maya did look with favor on Hasaw Chan K’awil and his new temple: they blessed the city with 200 years of prosperity, a time which saw great accomplishments and the construction of magnificent pyramids. But what the Gods give, they can take away. Around 900 A.D., the stones of Tikal fell eerily silent. The city vanished into the immortal rainforest and the inhabitants scattered like leaves in the wind. The unexplained fall of the Maya is one of the great mysteries of our age. Perhaps it was disease, or strife, or angry Gods. The ageless jungle will never tell.

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