The name “Tikal” has always held an air of exotic adventure for me, and rightly so. It is the name of one of the most famous and best understood of the ancient Mayan lowland cities, featuring some of the most iconic pyramidal structures in the world. When visiting Belize a few years ago, I took a rather adventurous day trip across the border into Guatemala to see this World Heritage Site.
The city’s original name is Yax Mutul. The modern name, Tikal, is from the 1800’s. The city is no small place. It stretches over more than six square miles and features over 3,000 individual structures from small rooms to the numerous massive pyramids, some taller than 200 feet. Six such pyramids form the main complex, rising sharply out of the Petén jungle like broken stone teeth. Tikal boasts six of the famous Mayan ball courts.
Tikal was home to as many as 90,000 people during its prime. It was established around 2,400 years ago and was abandoned about 1,100 years ago.
[Click on photos for a larger image.]
“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Over-soul, from Essays: First Series, 1841.
The idea of the “axis mundi” or world axis, represented by a “world tree” was important to ancient Mesoamericans. In Mayan lands, it was called Yaaxché and was believed to be a ceiba tree like the one in this photo. This amazing tree is only found in the tropics. No temperate zone tree looks like this! It has such a fantastic form and color, it almost seems like it must come from an alien planet – plus, it is simply huge. Whitish gray bark is topped with lines of dark red brush-like leaves and blooms. It is believed that the Maya planted four ceremonial ceiba trees at important sites like this: one at each cardinal direction. They are still highly regarded and respected by modern Mayans and other tribal people throughout the tropics.
The world tree reaches from the underworld realm through the human dimension and up into the spirit dimensions, connecting mankind with these esoteric realms in a directly shamanic manner. Some also understand the tree to represent the band of the Milky Way.
“All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man… the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”
– Chief Seattle
With the end of the Mayan calendar cycle coming up soon, I thought I’d share a few images from the Mayan lands. This temple complex is in the edge of Belize, only one mile east of the border to Guatemala. The little town of San Ignacio is nearby and makes a good base for exploration.
[Click any of the smaller photos for full-size.]
Xunantunich (“Stone Woman”) is a more modern name, referring to a ghost woman who sometimes appears at the pyramid. The complex is from pre- to post-classic periods, lasting until up to about 900 CE. El Castillo, the main pyramid rises about 130 feet and has several carved friezes, some of which are eroded and others covered with plaster molds that echo the carvings beneath. Importantly, this acts to protect them while giving us a sense of how they look in situ.
Xunantunich (pronounced “zoo-nan-too-nich”) is particularly easy to get to, plus, I believe it is one of the most picturesque of the Mayan complexes in Belize. There is a little ferry that takes your vehicle (taxis are plentiful) across the Mopan river. You’ll probably see some very big iguanas sunning themselves on the road.
All the Mayan sites in Belize and surrounding areas are extremely interesting to visit. Caracol is within reach of San Ignacio, but requires a long drive over sometimes rough roads. I’ll post some photos of that site later. Also, one can book a day trip across the border into Guatemala to see the incomparable city-site of Tikal. This is an adventurous trip, as well, but very worth the effort and time to see this world-class site. Tikal photos soon, too.
This is the account of how
all was in suspense,
and empty was the expanse of the sky.
-Popol Vuh (The Book of the People)