An artist's rendition of the ancient city of El Pilar
El Pilar flourished as a Maya garden city for nearly 2,000 years. It was the largest urban area in the Belize River region, housing at its peak more than 20,000 people in a mosaic landscape of city houses and gardens, surrounded by forest and agricultural fields.
The city had what is rare in the Maya area, an abundance of water (the name is derived from the Spanish word for watering basin). The venerable Tikal, 30 miles (50 km) to the west, had none.
El Pilar was more than three times the size of nearby Baking Pot and Xunantunich but was unexplored by Western archeologists until 1983.
The site (detailed map) has more than 25 identified plazas in an area of about 100 acres (38 hectares) and is composed of three main sectors named Xaman, Nohol, and Poniente. Two ball courts are found in the Nohol and Poniente sectors that are connected with a causeway. The H’mena acropolis is secluded in the northern Xaman sector. The tallest buildings are 17-20 meters high, offering spectacular vistas of the Maya Forest.
Through ceramic analysis, archaeologists have determined that major construction at El Pilar began around 800 BCE, in what is known as the Middle Preclassic Period. These early monuments predate those of Tikal and relate to the early growth of settlements in the Belize River Area. This is the time when the Olmec of the Gulf Coast of Mexico were flourishing and the time of the rise of the large center of El Mirador.
In the Old World other events were underway:
- India was in the Vedic period
- Egypt was in the Third Intermediate Period
- Babylon was on the rise and the hanging gardens were a century away
- In Greece the first Olympic games had just been held
- Italy’s Etruscans were expanding
- Ireland was into the Iron Age and Tara was the seat of kings
Back in Mesoamerica, the Maya transitioned into the Late Preclassic Period. Beginning 250 BCE major public centers were known in the entire region from northern Belize into the interior of the Petén. Populations were growing, settlements were fully established, and the path to civilization was underway.
At El Pilar the major plazas had been defined and established. This is noted particularly with
- the establishment of the large expanse of Plaza Copal,
- the first construction of the ball court, and
- the “E” group thought to be astronomically oriented.
By 250 CE in the Early Classic Period there were major public works and a significant population around El Pilar as well as the region. The growth of the core area foreshadowed the preeminence of Tikal. This period saw the start of the tradition of magnificent carved stela commemorating regal events of succession, marriage, and conquest. Population was expanding but would not reach its height until the Late Classic period.
The Late Classic from 600-900 CE marks the pinnacle of the Maya civilization, witnessing some of the greatest cities and largest populations. El Pilar, situated in the upland ridges within a two-day walk of the major power of Tikal, was the largest civic center of the Belize River Area.
El Pilar’s dominance in the local area is evident; El Pilar is only 10 km from the Belize River and its numerous minor centers, yet the magnificent city center Naranjo is about 20 km away.
Monumental construction continued at El Pilar with the last major remodeling completed in the Terminal Classic Period (1000 CE). This is a time when formerly important centers, such as Tikal, were in their decline.
This long sequence testifies to continuous and methodical development in the area.
After almost two thousand years of occupation, the monuments at El Pilar were left unattended approximately 1000 years ago, but the Maya forest was never abandoned.
The Maya Forest Alliance