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The central acropolis of the Maya ruin site Tikal

The Famed Ruins of Tikal

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Tikal is a spectacular place to tour if you want to see one of the most famous ruined cities of the Classic Period of the Maya. It is located in north central Petén, Guatemala, about 50 miles northwest of the border with Belize. Tikal is the largest and possibly the oldest of the Maya cities. Set in a high canopy jungle, the site encompasses at least 3,000 buildings, including a handful of impressively tall temples that loom above the forest. It consists of nine groups of courts and plazas built on hilly land above surrounding swamps (which may have been lakes in former times) and interconnected by bridges and causeways. The main civic and religious center of the city covers about 500 acres (200 hectares).

At its peak some 1,500 years ago, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya. In addition to its numerous well-excavated temples and pyramids, Tikal presents an excellent opportunity for animal and bird watching. Along the paths, spider and howler monkeys, gray foxes and red coatis are visible to the visitor.

Between 600 AD and 800 AD, for what may prove to be a multitude of reasons, the great Maya centers of the southern lowlands fell into ruin - abandoned and left to be adopted by the surrounding rainforest. Many theories have tried to explain this disruption, including over-population, extensive warfare, revolt of the farmer/laborer class, or any number of devastating natural disasters. Whatever the reason, its most severe effect was limited to the central regions and therefore the northern lowlands continued to prosper during what is called the Late Classic period.

The Maya

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, BelizeThe ancient Maya were not empire builders, like many other Indian populations. Instead, they formed independent commonwealths. Their common culture, calendar, mythology and spiritual view of the world united them as Maya - True People.

The ancient Maya had a complexity of deities whom they worshipped and offered human sacrifices. Maya rulers were believed to be descendants of the gods and their royal blood was the ideal sacrifice. The Maya vision of the universe was divided into multiple levels, above and below earth, positioned within the four directions of north, south, east and west.


Limestone structures, faced with lime clay, were the labels of ancient Maya architecture. The Maya developed several unique building innovations. Tombs were often encased within or beneath Maya structures. Frequently new temples were built over existing structures. In addition to temples, most Maya sites had multi-roomed structures that probably served as royal palaces as well as centers for government affairs.

Cultural Divisions

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, BelizeThe Maya culture flourished and continues to exist in a region of Mexico and Central America often referred to as Mesoamerica. This includes the Yucatan peninsula and Tabasco and Chiapas of present day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

The Maya Today

To say that the Maya civilization disappeared is not only an inaccuracy, but a great disservice to more than 6 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. While the city-states of the Classic period lowlands may have been abandoned in the tenth century, the Maya people did not disappear any more than the Italians when the Roman Empire fell. Modern Maya religion is a colorful hybrid of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs and rituals. Today, religious Maya worship at mountain and cave shrines, making offerings of chickens, candles and incense with a ritual alcoholic drink.

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