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The 15th great warrior-king of the Mayan city-state of Copán, Smoke Shell, had brought his people back from despair. Seventeen years before, in 738 A.D., the neighboring city-state of Quiriguá had defeated his mighty predecessor, 18 Rabbit, in battle. Eighteen Rabbit himself was captured and executed, possibly even sacrificed, by Cuauc Sky, the lord of Quiriguá. During the intervening years, the city of Copán, the mighty southernmost outpost of the Maya lands, had languished in defeat, wondering why the gods had shown them such disfavor.


While kings came and went, the fertile Copán river valley remained occupied for over 3,000 years. The city itself is thought to have begun in the first or second century A.D. and it reached its peak around 400-800 A.D. Along with Tikal, Palenque, Quiriguá and others, this southernmost city was an important stronghold during the Mayan era. Despite initial despair, the reign of Smoke Shell gradually ushered in positive changes for the people of Copán: it was during this time that Smoke Shell and his people threw off the yoke of Quiriguá.


Inspired by his people’s newfound prosperity, Smoke Shell decided to complete the grand architectural masterpiece that 18 Rabbit had begun decades before: the Hieroglyphic Stairway, a mighty temple carved out of hundreds of blocks of stones that were destined to withstand time. The hand-carved glyphs—stone symbols—depicted the entire dynasty of the Copán Kings from the dawn of time. Under the rule of Smoke Shell, the stairway grew. New steps were added, and a temple was built on top. The Gods were showing Copán favor once again.


But the favor of the Gods is fickle. Although the lords of Copán ruled for 50 more years, historical records after 805 A.D. fall eerily silent. No one knows why Copán was abandoned, but it didn’t take long for the jungle to reclaim the mighty city. Within a generation, the city was lost, swallowed by the dense green rainforest of western Honduras. But like the inhabitants of Copán, the city itself refused to admit defeat: the city’s stone structures are remarkably well-preserved.


Since its discovery there has been a great deal of archaeological interest in Copán. The hieroglyphic stairway is the city’s centerpiece and one of the most fascinating ruin structures in all of Latin America. The stairway consists of a wide series of ascending steps, elaborately chiseled from massive rocks into skulls, faces and various designs. According to researchers, the stairway is a family tree of sorts, telling the story of the mighty lords of Copán. Tragically, the blocks had fallen out of place in the centuries that the city was lost, and no one knows where to put them any more. The stairway is easy to find: it is covered by a large tarp-like construction to protect it from further destruction at the hands of the elements.


Besides the stairway, the most important single piece of archaeological history found at the Copán site is known as “Altar Q.” This relatively small piece depicts all 16 of the major rulers of Copán. Visitors are often drawn to the stelae, or tall, ornately carved standing stones, that can be found in the courtyard. Most of these structures were created during the prosperous reign of 18 Rabbit.


Eighteen Rabbit and Smoke Shell faded into the green jungle and the mists of time, their city deteriorating and falling to rubble, their people scattered. Archaeologists brought them back to life so that they can speak of their Gods and their lives once more.

Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: Tela, Roatán and The Grave of William Walker.

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