Learning Maya History at the Most Impressive Maya Ruins

Posted on August 31, 2015 by

A rchaeologists trace the origin the Maya to as far back as 1800 B.C. Mayan culture peaked between 600 AD and 800 AD. When the Spanish arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula in the 16th century, they made a point of burning the Maya’s writings. It was only when archaeologists deciphered their hieroglyphs did we learn about their religion and complex astronomical calendar.

To truly understand the Maya history and culture, you have to make your way to Central America and visit these impressive Maya ruins. They’ll give you an idea of the sheer scale of their ancient civilization and how powerful they must have been back in those days. For me, visiting Maya ruins serves as a reminder of the impermanence of our own culture.

All of the artifacts found at these sites – incredible, stylized works of art made from jade and gold – have found new homes in museums. But the hieroglyphic-studded temples and palaces remain, and you can still climb the steps that form the walls of these temples to get a closer look at the intricate carvings that tell the story of the Maya’s rise and fall.

These sites often sport hieroglyphs of the same figures from Maya iconography – like the Jaguar God of the Underworld, the Maize God and the jade-toothed bird monster. You will see their images carved into the stepped temples and large stones called stelae. The curling tendrils of these stylized depictions echo the dense, curling undergrowth of the rainforest that makes these areas so difficult to excavate. We can only guess what Maya artifacts might still be obscured by centuries of plant growth.

Here’s a look at some of the best places to uncover Maya history and see the remnants of Maya architecture:

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal Guatemala

Tikal is one of the most impressive ancient sites in the world; part of the ancient city has been restored, allowing visitors to get a sense of what it may have looked like in its heyday. This city lasted through many phases of Maya history – it was founded around 900 BC and lasted until the 9th century AD.

Tikal’s most recognizable structure is Temple IV, the largest pyramid in the site and one of the largest in any Maya city, standing at 229 feet (70 m) tall. It’s the most popular place to visit in Guatemala.

On some of these temples, visitors will see depictions of the Maize God on his journey out of the underworld. We know this piece of Maya mythology because of the P’opol Vuh, which is one of the few Maya writings that survived the Spanish purge.

The story goes that one day the Maize God and his twin brother were playing a ballgame, which got too noisy for the lords of the underworld. They captured the Maize God, slayed him, and hung his skull a on a tree. One of the lords’s daughters happened upon the tree, where the Maize God revealed his true identity. She gave birth to twin sons, who eventually defeated the lords and brought heir father the Maize God back to life.

He rose out of the underworld, and through the ground in form of a sprout. Elements of this story appear all over Maya ruins. It is believed to be an allegory of the harvest cycle, based on the death to rebirth of crops every year.

Copán, Honduras

Copan Honduras

Copán’s Temple 26 has a famous stairway known as the Hieroglyphic Stairway. This stairway tells the history of the city, in 2,500 hieroglyphs that span 72 steps. When Copán was discovered, the staircase had collapsed, but archaeologists are painstakingly putting it back together.

Copán has a ballcourt that was completed in 738 AD, only a few months before Copan’s king was beheaded. The ballcourt markers are shaped like macaw heads, birds that you may still see in the forest that surrounds this site.

On the north end of the site there is a cluster of stelae decorated with depictions of the young Maize God. According to an early creation myth, the gods made men out of mashed up maize, after several failed attempts with lesser materials. Just like the hieroglyphs at Tikal, these carvings emphasize the centrality of maize to Maya culture.

Altun Ha, Belize

Altun Ha, Belize

Altun Ha is a relatively small city, but its temples and burials offer evidence that it was once a wealthy site. Archaeologists don’t know what the Maya called this city because this site does not have any hieroglyphs or stelae. There are temples surrounding the grassy plaza that have given us some idea of the wealth of this prosperous trading center that flourished from 100 B.C. to 900 A.D.

Visitors can climb to the top of 54-foot (16-meter) tall Temple of the Masonry Altars. At the top of this structure is a round altar that probably served as a centerpiece for religious ceremonies, ceremonies that may have included sacrifices.

Archaeologists believe this to be a wealthy trading site because of the enormous piece of jade found buried in the Temple of the Green Tomb. The jade took the shape of Kinich Ahau, the Maya Sun God. Another ruler buried at Altun Ha was unearthed with over 300 pieces of jade.

Jade was one of the most prized materials in the Maya kingdom, and it is not found anywhere in the area surrounding this site. But flint, a material the Maya used to make weapons, was plentiful. Maya experts have speculated that this may have been Altun Ha’s most valuable asset.

Caracol, Belize

Caracol Belize

Caracol is one of the oldest Maya sites. Archaeologists believe that the Maya began construction of this site in 1200 B.C. Caracol used to rival the Maya city-state of Tikal, and some of the stelae found on the site commemorate battles Caracol won against Tikal.

This site is best known for its Giant Ajaw altars. Successive rulers in Caracol commissioned these altars to commemorate the completion of k’atuns, periods of time in the Maya calendar that equal 7,200 days (a little over 19 years).

The Temple of Canaa is the largest structure in Caracol, and the tallest structure in all of Belize. This temple housed the tombs of wealthy figures. You can climb all 139 feet (41 m) of it to get a good look at the dense rainforest that surrounds the site.

Have you been to any of these Mayan ruins? Did we miss out any important site? Share with us in the comments field below.

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

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