Tikal

The magnificent site of Tikal lies amidst the lush rainforests of northern Guatemala in the heart of the region known as the Petén. Here, where the forest canopy today towers up to 50 and 60 meters (150-180 ft.) in height, a city of 60,000-70,000 people surrounded by verdant corn fields once bustled with activity.

Tikal has long been regarded by archaeologists as the "capital" of the Maya, although for a people whose political organization did not evolve beyond the level of the city-state, this may not be a totally accurate characterization. In any case, it does represent one of the most impressive architectural achievements of the Maya civilization, being dominated by five sky-scraper-like pyramids each exceeding 60 m (200 ft.) in height. Although its history spans the entire "Classic Period" (indeed, its earliest dated monument (A.D. 292) has often been cited as the beginning point of that epoch), its hey-day was reached in the eighth century A.D. when the five imposing pyramids were constructed, all within roughly a fifty-year span of time. Scarcely less than a century later, Tikal, like most of the other Maya city-states, was abandoned and the jungle began to encroach on its temples and palaces.

(At the right is a photograph of the 20-story pyramid which the excavators of Tikal have labelled Temple I.)

Archaeologists have speculated as to why Tikal was built where it was, especially
since it lies so near (25 km, or 16 mi.) to another older city (Uaxactún) of
like size and importance. As I point out in my book, both cities are aligned to
peaks in the Maya Mountains (located in present-day Belize) at the winter solstice
sunrise: Uaxactún to Baldy Beacon (1020 m, or 3346 ft.) and Tikal to Victoria
Peak (1120 m, or 3674 ft.) It would appear that Uaxactún was constructed first,
in the belief that Baldy Beacon was the highest mountain in the range, but with
the subsequent discovery that Victoria Peak exceeded it in elevation, the Maya
opted to build a newer and larger "capital" aligned to it. In any event, both
Uaxactún and Tikal lie atop the drainage divide between the Gulf of Mexico and the
Caribbean Sea.

If one finds it amazing that the Maya could raise such great structures as the
five "sky-scraper" pyramids of Tikal without the use of the wheel or the block and
tackle, one finds it almost as amazing that the archaeologists who excavated
the site should have failed to appreciate the significance of the pyramids' precise
spatial arrangement. When I visited the site in 1979, my principal objective was
to determine how and why they had been positioned as they were. Standing atop
Temple I, I quickly realized that Temple III lay directly west of it, marking the
sunset position at the time of the equinoxes. (In the photograph above we see
Temple II in the middle-foreground, Temple III to our left in the middle-background
and Temple IV to our right in the far background.) Conversely, of course, a priest atop
Temple III could observe the equinoctial sunrise above Temple I. Also from
Temple I, a sight-line to Temple IV (the highest of the five pyramids: 67 m, or 221
ft.) marks the sunset position on August 13 -- "the day the world began", according
to the Mesoamericans.

As one stands atop Temple IV, it is readily apparent that only one man-made structure
intersects the horizon, and this is Temple III. However, it does so only with an architectural
embellishment known as a "roof comb" (a false front added by the Maya to their otherwise
squat buildings to give them more imposing height) -- in this case, a triple roof comb whose
azimuth marks the winter solstice sunrise position over Victoria Peak, which is often invisible
in the morning haze.

At first glance, Temple II (which is slightly offset to the left, or south, across the
central plaza from Temple I as seen in the middle photograph above) might be
regarded as simply an architectural "counter-weight" to the latter. However, it is
not until one mounts Temple V, located on a hill to the south of the main complex,
that a couple of other spatial relationships become apparent. Temple I, as viewed
from Temple V, defines an azimuth of 15.5º east of north, reinforcing not only a
right-angle to Temple IV but also marking the same alignment as the "Street of the
Dead" at Teotihuacán. On the other hand, Temple II as seen from Temple V marks
an azimuth of 352º, or 8 degrees west of north -- a key alignment also observed at
the ancient "Olmec" site of La Venta and whose significance is explained in my book.
Thus, all five of the great pyramids at Tikal form part of an ingenious "astronomical
matrix" with which the city's priests could calibrate all the major dates of their ritual year.

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