Tikal, Guatemala’s archaeological heart, was home to the Mayans for 1700 years. It was as sophisticated as modern ones, in architectural and urban terms.
Tikal, which is in Petén province some 300 kilometres north of Guatemala’s capital, was one of the largest cities built by the Mayans at any time in their history. The ancient city was declared a National Park in 1995 and a World Heritage Site in 1979.
The 576 square kilometres of land the Park covers are home to an incomparable variety of flora and fauna, not to mention, of course, vast numbers of outstanding architectural works that bear testimony to the Mayan leaders’ success in developing a complex society in the midst of a tropical rainforest by exploiting the deep knowledge they had of their natural surroundings.
The core site at Tikal covers an area of 16 square kilometres, which have been intensively mapped and include around 4,000 structures and edifices of different types.
Between the 4th and the 6th centuries A.D. (Early Classic Period) Tikal dominated the whole of the lowlands and much of the entire Mayan region. An important alliance was also forged with the city of Teotihuacan, which stands very near the present-day Mexico City, and at the time these were the two most powerful cities in Mesoamerica.
After suffering various defeats at the hands of its arch-enemy Calakmul (the Snake Kingdom), Tikal regained its leading position and power in the early 8th century A.D., when the city reached its maximum size in terms of both population and number of buildings. This boom was nevertheless short-lived, since by the early 9th century A.D. its power was gradually diminishing, as was that of many other cities in Petén. A hundred years later, Tikal was abandoned completely, never to be inhabited again, and it was not until 1848 that its existence became publicly known.
Walking around, we can see the Great Plaza which lies at the very heart of the entire site, and is where a truly spectacular architectural complex can be viewed, including two of the six main temples: to the east, Temple I, better known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, and opposite it to the west, Temple II, the Temple of the Mask. The Great Jaguar was built about 700 A.D. by the ruler Jasaw K’awiil I, whose tomb (burial 116) was found inside. Temple IV, known as the Temple of the Two-Headed Snake, is the tallest with a height of over 65 meters.
South of the Great Plaza is the Central Acropolis, where various residential and administrative structures and buildings with several rooms and floors can be seen, such as the Palace of Siyaj K’awiil II (also known as Stormy Sky), Mahler Palace, and Five Storey Palace. It will be seen that there are nine twin-pyramid complexes, which were built during the Late Classical Period at intervals of one K’atun (20 years). Although they vary in size, all of them consist of two pyramids standing opposite each other on an east-west axis. According to Guatemalan archaeologist Tomás Barrientos: ‘the harmony that can be seen in the way Mayan cities were planned is particularly interesting. With all the buildings, the cardinal points and astronomical phenomena were taken into account in the way they were positioned in relation to each other. Many of the temples were built as funerary monuments and observatories, and the plazas were designed according to cosmological concepts that are still used by the Mayans today’. He goes on to say that the inscriptions bear testimony to great military victories, alliances, and other achievements by their leaders, as well as details of their dynasties, with a lineage that extended to more than 30 rulers.
Water management innovations played a major part in the Tikal kingdom’s great triumph in the Classical Period, because the region would otherwise have been considered only marginal, and unfavourable for growth and socio-political complexity. The extreme variation, as far as access to water was concerned, represented not only a challenge but also a stimulus to growth. The ability of Mayan engineers to optimize seasonal rainwater collection increased the supply and ensured that water was readily available, thus contributing to population growth and economic stability.
Tikal was one of the best examples of sophisticated water management, with large reserves, which meant that supplies were available during the rainy seasons.
Due to a combination of internal political factors and climate changes, the monarchical system that ruled Tikal gradually grew weaker in the early years of the 9th century A.D. This made it harder to support all the population, with the result that people began to migrate to other regions. Tikal was not abandoned suddenly, but gradually, over the course of almost a century.
Ana Cristina Castañeda