Located in the tropical rainforest of the Petén province in northern Guatemala, Tikal was one of the largest cities of the ancient Mayan civilization during its Classic period, which ran from approximately 200 A.D. to 850 A.D. Archaeologists estimate that, at its peak, Tikal’s population ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. It was a religious, political and trade center due to its favorable geographic location, being bounded by rivers on both the east and west.
Although Tikal reached its height during the Classic Period, some of the architecture at the site dates back to the fourth century B.C. At times, rulers of Tikal would be replaced by others, but the city continued to flourish. It was the dominant city in the region, and ruled over other small city-states. Because of the availability of the tombs of the past rulers as well as other monuments and palaces to study, Tikal is one of the best understood of the large Mayan cities.
Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, the Mayans abandoned the city around 900 A.D. Due to the growth of the jungle, archaeologists did not rediscover it until 1848. The portion of the city now excavated is quite impressive. Approximately 3000 sites have been uncovered and nearly 10,000 still need to be revealed.
At the center is the Great Plaza, a large area with a plaster-like floor. In time, other structures were built surrounding the Plaza. These include the North Acropolis and the Central Acropolis. The North Acropolis holds seventy slabs of stone, called stelae, that stand in a double row with altars set in front of them. Some are carved with images of rulers and hieroglyphs. The Central Acropolis encompasses 700 feet of long buildings with many rooms, often called palaces.
There are six temple pyramids, with the tallest one, Temple IV, standing 65 meters (212 feet) high. Visitors can scale it by using protruding roots and wooden ladders. Temple VI has an immense display of hieroglyphics that narrate the history of the city. Temple I and Temple II lie to the east and west of the Great Plaza.
In addition to the towering temples and other unique architectural works, Tikal is well known for the carved inscriptions and exceptional polychrome ceramics found there. Water conservation was important to the Mayans at this site, and they engineered reservoir and culvert systems to help with the storage and usage of water. Another innovation used by the Mayans were sacbes, which were raised causeways paved with lime-based cement, connecting Tikal’s ceremonial nodes.
The last recorded date on a monument in Tikal is 869 A.D., and historians believe that by 950 A.D. the city was abandoned. Scientists are not sure whether war, disease, famine or some other reason caused the Mayans to leave Tikal. However, they left a part of themselves behind in the ruins. The city and surrounding area is now a protected national park, and visitors are welcome to explore the ruins. Much can be learned through seeing, touching and exploring this ancient city once inhabited by the Mayans.