Sitting Atop Tikal in Guatemala
In the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, hidden by lush vegetation stands Tikal – an impressive Mayan complex just waiting to be explored while travelling around the world. As you approach the towering pyramids, you will probably first encounter the sheer noise made by the local community of howler monkeys that have made Tikal their home. You will then notice exotic birds taken flight above the jungle canopy before stumbling on your first towering pyramid.
Tikal means “place of voices” and as the largest Mayan site known and studied, it offers enough history and archeology to spend a day at leisure. The most-striking features of this Mayan complex is by far its towering steep-sided temples that rise to heights of more than 45m.
One of the most-impressive sites within the complex is the Major Plaza, which is surrounded by Temples I and II, the North and Central Acropolis as well as a series of altars. Others include the Temple I, also known as the Big Jaguar Temple which rises 45 meters high above the Major Plaza and the Temple IV, where you will be able to climb until the crest base to have an aerial view of Tikal. While you sit atop Tikal, take a moment to listen to the noises emanating from the jungle beneath – it is nothing like the city.
You can easily visit Tikal as a road trip from Flores or El Remate, or if you are in Belize, from either San Ignacio or Hopkins Bay. The road from Belize to Tikal will give a glimpse of the beauty residing in Guatemala. Although the grounds are large enough never to feel crowded, you might want to consider exploring Tikal at sunrise to see this Mayan site come to life alongside nature. Tikal Guatemala should definitively be added to your ultimate bucket list.
Four Great Kings and a Queen of Tikal
The state is a reflection of the leader of every company or institution. To make a city unbelievable great, like Tikal, whose history started as far back as 900BC it had to have great leadership. There was failure certainly, but for the most part, the city was embellished with much success over the years. It defeated Calakmul, a super power and contemporary of Tikal. This defeat alone gave it abundance in the world of bragging rights. These leaders were called kings; living gods who managed the middle of the tripartite world of ancient Maya cosmology.
Epigraphers, archaeologists who literally know to read the writing on the walls of the ancient Maya, have made great strides in the interpretation of royalty and their activities throughout the Maya area. They have also been able to read the names of great men and women and the dates of their accession to their thrones and death. Some of the names, when translated to the English language, are quite unusual and at least, interestingly funny!
A King of Tikal, engraved in wood
Below are the names and accession of four great Kings and a Queen of Tikal.
Yax Ehb Xook: “First Step Shark”
This gentleman was perhaps the first in the dynasty at Tikal. The date he first appears on the “writings on the wall” is at 292AD. He was the first to be called an AJAW (holy lord) and according to Martin and Grube, great epigraphers, the title will hold for 600 years throughout the dynasty.
Sihyaj Chan K’awiil 1: “Sky-Born K’awiil” or “Great Claw”
This king was the 11th in the dynastic line to rule over Tikal. He, like his father, “Animal Headdress” carried the Ehb glyph (of the founders name) suggests that his brother was the ruler before him. Both were, none-the-less, rulers.
Chak Tok Ich’aak 1: “Great Jaguar Paw”
This king is the 14th in line of the dynastic rule at Tikal. He accessed the throne on the ancient Maya long count date: 220.127.116.11.2 a date that refers to August 7th, 360AD according to the epigraphers. His name was found on a lidded vessel, a vase that had mythological drawings all over it and it was found in the Central Acropolis, downtown in the palaces of Tikal.
X-Kalo:M(te’) ix-? K’in?: The Lady of Tikal
The problem with the ancient Maya hieroglyphic name above is the fact of its difficulty to read and parts were undecipherable but the experience of the epigraphers made it possible to make educated guess on what it perhaps meant. The glyph (word) “ix” reflects female in this case.
She was born on September 1st, 504AD (18.104.22.168.3) and she accessed the throne on April 19th, 511AD (22.214.171.124.4). Wow! She was queen at age 6! She did not only rule, she left her mark in the form of 3 stelae, stelae 6, 12 and 23. Archaeologists believe that she was without a doubt the daughter of Chak Tok Ich’aak second. Ceratinly, she wouldn’t have been able to rule politically or economically on her own so one can safely surmise that she was helped by the wise men (and women) in her court.
Jasaw Chan K’awiil: “Ah Cacao” or “Sky rain”
After violent years before him and through his father’s rule (Nuun Ujol Chak), “Lord Chocolate referring to “Ah Cacao” was perhaps the greatest King in Tikal’s history. With him came a huge change in the political, economic and social history of the city. He was the king who oversaw the defeat of Calakmul in 695AD, the long time nemesis of Tikal. He was such a bold king that instead of necessarily creating his own mark, he revived the mark of a once absolutely powerful dynasty Teotihuacan. In accessing the throne he is seen in the dapper ornamentation and “suit” of a Teotihuacan style that certainly threw many archaeologists rethinking the dynastic lines of Tikal.
The temple within which “Ah cacao” was buried, Temple 1
He was so impressive a ruler that he did not only move away from the architectural monuments in honor of the dead kings – the North Acropolis – he built his own massive temple, Temple 1, in front of the ancient necropolis and made a second pyramid a little shorter than his across from it. His tomb excavated in 1962 blew the imagination of the archaeologists who found it. Apart from being an amazingly rich tomb fit for a king, his jewelry alone which he was probably using when buried weighed a massive 8.5 pounds – all jade!
Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s death eventually brings his son unto the scene on December 8th, 734AD (126.96.36.199.8), his name was Yik’in Chan K’awiil (“k’awiil that Darkens the Sky”)…
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE GRAND PLAZA AT TIKAL
Photo Credit, Joe Awe: Temple 2 in the Grand Plaza at Tikal.
What an incredible recognition to digest that the ancient Maya, the people who built those overgrown cities in the jungles of Mesoamerica and abandoned them at the end of the classic period (900AD), were still living in and around the great city of Tikal in Peten, in the 18th century! Guatemalan archives have this information. What we know historically contemporary is that a group made an expedition to find this site in 1848 and they introduced to the world their findings in 1853. The Governor and the commissioner of El Peten, Francisco Tut and Modesto Mendez were the ones who brought the attention to the site of Tikal.
After the information came out on the city, everyone wanted to touch the walls of what we now recognize as “the place of voices”; one of the most magical ancient Maya Cities in the Maya world that rivalled cities such as Copan in Honduras, Palenque in Mexico and Caracol in Belize. If you have never been there, allow us to introduce this City to you by offering 5 things you should know of what is the “downtown” of the “place of voices”.
- The most impressive temple in the grand plaza of Tikal is called the Temple of the Giant Jaguar in reference to the motif on one of its carved wooden lintels above its doorway.
Photo Credit: Joe Awe – Temple 1, Tikal.
2. Temple 1 was built in 700AD and it rises 145 feet above the plaza floor and it has nine sloping terraces, the number referencing one of the most sacred places in Maya mythology – the underworld3.
3. Directly across from Temple 1 sits the second largest temple in this grand plaza, Temple 2. This temple rises 125 feet above the plaza floor and it dates about the same time as temple 1, 700AD.
4. There are 13 stelae and 5 altars found in the plaza between temple one and temple two. The earliest stela dates to386AD and the earliest altar dates 744AD. The latest stela and altar date to 869AD (stela 11 and altar 11); more than likely all the stelae had accompanying altars, as that was normally the organized way the ancient Maya organized these monuments.
Photo Credit: Joe Awe – Stelae and Altar in the Grand Plaza in Tikal
5. The North Acropolis sits to the Western side of the grand plaza. This area is an enormous bulk of limestone buildings that were built with the full style of superimposition the ancient Maya used architecturally to organize space. There are probably over 100 buildings with the earliest dating to about 200BC. Many kings were buried within this mass of limestone temples and many elaborate jade and ceramic pieces have been found alongside burials within this area of Tikal.
Photo Credit: Joe Awe – The North Acropolis, Tikal
The Necropolis of Tikal
Photo Credit: Joe Awe – The North Acropolis, Tikal
Many who visit ancient sites want to know how the people lived in the particular cities and they also want to know what truly made the people who lived within them great. While people will find a multitude of great stories of how the people of the ancient cities lived, they may probably ask where those people who built those cities go. At Tikal, the truth is, while the ancient Maya descendants are still alive and scattered all over Mesoamerica, the people who collaborated to make the ancient city what it was are still there – not only in spirit but interred in some of the most beautiful tombs ever designed for kings anywhere. The entire North Acropolis in “downtown” Tikal is evidence of this.
The North Acropolis earliest date goes back to c. 350BC. This was located on a platform that hosted a few temple buildings early but it eventually became the resting place of many kings in the classic period (250AD-900AD). Archaeologists have uncovered that this particular area was redecorated with beautiful tall pyramids around 400AD. Building after building, one over the other have been uncovered suggesting that the ancient Maya used a process of superimposition as a way to use the tight spaces within particular plazas and the North Acropolis at Tikal is a shining example of that.
Later, just before the death of Jasaw Chan K’awiil death, the North Acropolis saw no other burial of royal blood. Temple 1 was commissioned and organized to be the resting place of one of Tikal’s greatest kings, “Lord Chocolate” as the afore-mentioned King was affectionately called because of the cacao glyph found on a chocolate drinking cup that was interred with his body in c. 734AD.
Photo Credit: Joe Awe – Temple 1, Tikal