A major city of the Mayan civilisation


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Parque nacional Tikal, Tikal, Guatemala

GPS: 17.222310394585, -89.623501998729

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Tikal is one of Guatemala’s major archaeological sites, along with the ruins of Quiriguá, the forgotten city of Naachtun and the remains of Iximche. Meaning “at the waterhole”, this flourishing city has established itself as the largest Mayan metropolis in all of Central America and is one of the most important pre-Columbian cities. Under the cultural, artistic and architectural influence of the powerful Teotihuacan (Mexico) from the end of the 4th century onwards, Tikal was the regional capital of the Maya Lowlands.

The pre-Columbian site of Tikal is located in a remote area of the department of El Petén. It is lost in the middle of the tropical jungle of the Tikal National Park, a protected natural area of great biological richness, created in 1955 on an area of 570 km². As the regional capital, this Mayan city is a religious, economic and political centre of a vast kingdom. It participated in many military conquests of other Mayan city-states between the 3rd and 9th centuries. At its peak, the city of Tikal covered a considerable territory. It had an influence on the neighbouring regions of Yucatán (Mexico), Honduras (in its western part), Belize (within the Maya Mountains) and El Salvador (in the centre and west of the country). In the middle of the 10th century, Tikal was inexplicably abandoned and its civilization collapsed and then disappeared. Deforestation, drought, depletion of resources, the collapse of trade or an uprising of the people against its rulers could be the cause of its brutal fall. There followed a long period of vacancy of the site for about 1,000 years before Tikal was rediscovered in the mid-19th century (even though the local people had known of its existence for a long time). Completely buried under a sumptuous vegetation, the city quickly earned its nickname of the “Lost World complex”.

The British explorer Alfred Maudslay, the Austrian-German archaeologist Teobert Maler and the Swiss botanist Gustave Bernoulli were the first Europeans to study the Mayan remains of northern Petén at the end of the 19th century. The archaeological heritage of Tikal contains several thousand structures including fortresses, pyramids, acropolis, temples, palaces, residential areas, water reservoirs, squares and ballcourts of great historical interest. The main purpose of these constructions is to honour the ancient Mayan kings (a total of 33 rulers have succeeded each other in the dynastic history of Tikal). At the time of their construction, some monuments such as Temple IV and V represent the tallest buildings in the Americas and the New World (they are over 60 metres high). Numerous remains such as shrines, tombs, stelae and burials underline the importance of this ancient ceremonial centre for the Mayan civilization.

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  • The largest Mayan city in history; thousands of archaeological remains, a large part of which are still buried (the oldest buildings date from the 2nd century BC); the gigantism of the constructions combined with the finesse of Mayan art; the grandiose temples reaching beyond the canopy and the treetops; a flourishing and intact natural environment
  • The Great Plaza, the Mundo Perdido ceremonial complex, the Plaza of the Seven Temples and the Twin-Pyramid Complexes (9 in number); the innumerable temples, palaces, esplanades and great stepped pyramids (including the Temple of the Great Jaguar, the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temple of the Mask); the numerous stelae, wall paintings, tombs, carved stones and engraved hieroglyphic inscriptions; the several ballcourts
  • The palace structures in the Central Acropolis; the great ceremonial centre of the North Acropolis (burial place of the ancient Mayan kings)
  • The panoramic view and the observation of a sunset at the top of the pyramid-temples
  • The two archaeological museums of Tikal
  • The network of dams, water reservoirs, roads, pavements and canals linking the different parts of the city over tens of km²; former residential areas; terraced agricultural crops
  • The location of the city deep in the Guatemalan jungle dotted with swamps; the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) teeming with wildlife
  • The rich fauna of the Tikal National Park (howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, coatis, ocelots, anteaters, wild pigs…); the varied avifauna (toucans, multicoloured parrots, Latin American forest eagles…); the diversity of flora evolving in a tropical forest (wetlands, wooded savannahs, dense forests of deciduous, sapotilla, mahogany and palm trees, giant trees, 2,000 species of plants…); the kapok tree (or yaxché), the sacred tree of the Incas…
  • The abundance of archaeological sites in the vicinity of Tikal, including the ruins of Yaxha and Nakum (to the south-east) or those of Uaxactun (a little further north); the old town of Flores erected on a small island in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá (this place was once occupied by Tayasal, the last Mayan village conquered by the Spanish in 1697)
  • The first human settlements in the Tikal area date back almost 1,000 years before our era. During the classical period, Tikal symbolized the last Mayan Kingdom, one of the oldest civilizations in America (pre-dating the Incas and the Aztecs). According to archaeologist Peter Eeckhout, the Mayas numbered two million people at its peak, spread over 40 or 50 city-states that were never unified. In the 8th century, an estimated 90,000 people lived in the site of Tikal.
  • Although it was not a peaceful city, Tikal sought to establish its territorial supremacy by extending its domination over neighbouring city-states and rival capitals. According to French researcher Philippe Nondédéo (a specialist in the archaeology of the Americas), this place was regularly challenged by the other regional superpower Calakmul. Indeed, these two cities had been fighting for centuries for hegemony in the region. According to inscriptions found on site, Tikal would have established regular links with the rival cities of Teotihuacan in Mexico (more than 1,000 kilometres away) and Copán in Honduras (270 kilometres away).
  • In the 4th century, the city dominated much of the Maya world. But the year 378 probably marked a turning point in the history of Tikal. The city was conquered by Teotihuacan (with whom it traded) and a new dynastic and architectural era began with the construction of ever more massive structures. It was during this period that the most eminent temples were built in the city.
  • The Maya used the foundations of old constructions built on the Tikal site to build new structures without the use of advanced tools (such as metal objects, wheels or animal traction). This architectural superimposition was likely to give the new king of the city greater powers than those of his predecessor.
  • The monumental temples of Tikal, which were used for religious and political purposes, were once covered with stucco and red coating. Temple IV is the largest Mayan building ever built on the continent (almost 70 metres high). In addition, the Mayas had great mathematical and astronomical knowledge, being able to predict lunar and solar eclipses (by using two different calendars) as well as equinoxes and solstices. According to the archaeologist Vilma Fialko, Tikal is the oldest Mayan astronomical centre, which was also used as a place of religious worship and a site for human sacrifice. Great public ceremonies were organised by the kings of Tikal depending to the solar calendar to carry out bloody rituals in order to communicate with the deities and ancestors. Their favourite animal was the jaguar because this predator symbolised both the strength of the earth and the power of the gods. Steles were made to mark and commemorate the most exceptional events. This astronomical skill, reserved for the high Mayan dignitaries, allowed the kings of Tikal to predict celestial events and at the same time reinforce their power over their people.
  • The Maya created an important network of trade routes linking the various regional capitals of Mesoamerica over several hundred kilometres. Between neighbouring cities, they exchanged agricultural goods (corn, cocoa, beans, squash, peppers, avocados, tomatoes…), handicrafts (fabrics, pottery, leather, sculptures…), raw materials and local resources (semi-precious stones, jade, obsidian blades, salt, shells, ceramics, dried fish, chocolate, cotton, animal skins…).
  • In 1524, the conquistador Hernán Cortés and Spanish missionaries landed in Guatemala, in the region of Petén and Flores. They faced fierce resistance from the Mayas, who would stand up to several series of attacks for 150 years. Guatemala also means “many trees” in the Mayan language.
  • It was in 1848 that the Mayan ruins of Tikal were discovered by Ambrosio Tut (in search of sapotillium gum used to make chewing gum), accompanied by Modesto Méndez Guerra (Guatemalan military and politician).
  • Archaeologists recently discovered that the inhabitants of the city of Tikal had developed an ingenious system of water storage and management to optimize this resource in times of drought (including water run-off systems on buildings, canals, dams and reservoirs). Water reservoirs were designed to capture seasonal rainwater in the absence of groundwater sources, rivers or lakes within reasonable walking distance.
  • In spite of the numerous discoveries already made, only a small part of the city of Tikal has been the subject of in-depth studies by archaeologists (the site could extend over a much larger territory, beyond the 50 km² area). Countless Mayan ruins and remains continue to be discovered by archaeologists in the geographical area of Petén. The use of technological tools such as lidar has revealed the existence of more than 60,000 individual structures hidden by vegetation and scattered around the archaeological site of Tikal, which was protected by a moat and ramparts. In particular, a new pyramid some twenty metres high has been uncovered (it is currently being excavated). This construction could correspond to a distinct quarter to the south of the city of Tikal, which seems to have been built and occupied by foreigners from the metropolis of Teotihuacan, a thousand kilometres away. According to the first surveys and research work, this architectural complex would have been built a little before the year 378, a date that coincides with the capture of Tikal by the dignitaries of Teotihuacan.
  • The Tikal site was the setting for the first film of the Star Wars trilogy (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) directed by George Lucas in 1977. It is one of the few places listed on the Unesco World Heritage List for its rich biodiversity, cultural heritage and archaeological importance.
  • The ancient city of Tikal is located in the north of the department of El Petén, within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It is about 50 kilometres from the city of Flores, which has an international airport (there are companies flying to and from the capital of Guatemala). Several agencies offer excursions from this charming city with its colourful houses and cobbled streets on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá.
  • Use a local guide, preferably of Mayan culture, to help you discover the many archaeological treasures that Guatemala has to offer, given the limited information available to visitors on the spot.
  • Entertainment and special visits are organized in Tikal on full moon evenings.
  • Plan a stay of several days to take the time to explore in depth the architectural heritage of Tikal as it is extremely rich and spread over a wide area.

Where to eat

  • Caffee Ital-Espresso
    (revigorating coffee)
  • Hotel Mon Ami
    (full of energy)
  • Restaurant Jungle Lodge Hotel
    (A little paradise in the jungle)

Where to go

  • Laguna del Tigre National Park
    (large forested wetland)
  • El Mirador
    (titanium pyramid complex)
  • Cerro Cahuí Protected Biotope
    (wildlife and butterfly sanctuary)

Where to stay

  • Youth Hostel Los Amigos
    (jovial and cosmopolitan hostel)
  • Hotel Isla de Flores
    (former colonial house)
  • La Lancha Lodge
    (surrounded by howler monkeys)