In Mayan Guatemala: A Walk Among the Ruins

The plaza in which the Temple of the Inscriptions stands is bounded, at the edge of the surrounding forest, by a partially excavated wall. At the base of the pyramid’s great mound stand an upright stele and a round, table-like altar, on which is carved the figure of a bound captive (a persistent motif on Mayan monuments). A narrow, reclaimed portion of the stairway rises diagonally up the overgrown mound to the two-room temple building. The comb, erected on top of the building like a huge masonry billboard, stands almost as tall as the combined pyramid/summit building, with faded glyph panels on both faces and both sides. Once loudly painted in reds and yellows and umbers, this comb projects up above the tops of hardwood trees that host thorny clusters of rootless, flame-form tropical plants in the cruxes of their pale barked branches.

The Mendez Causeway, leading from the walled enclosure at the Temple of the Inscriptions, is now a dirt track rising through the dense woods towards the center of Tikal. A thousand years ago, this path was plastered at the breadth of 200 feet to parapet sides raising it above the forest floor, and ran about 3,000 feet almost straight to the East Plaza, at the back of the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, which faces onto the Grand Plaza.

Before entering the East Plaza, the causeway passes an elaborate complex of palaces called Group G. After directing a Dutch couple in glasses towards the Temple of the Inscriptions—Follow this descending pathway that I just climbed, you’ll be there in a half-hour, you’ll never forget it—and watching a thin snake (scaled in rich brick tones with scattered markings of corneal white) slither through leaves piled on the fin-like root joints of a brownskinned tree, I step across the clearing, mottled with sunlight, and into a cool dark corridor in the outer wall of this complex, entering through the gaping mouth of a deteriorated masonry monster mask.

The corridor turns at a right angle within the structure’s chill bowels.  The sunlight in the interior plaza, at the end of the corridor leg before me, appears blanched, blasted, while the light in the wood’s clearing behind me is mild and idyllic. The L-shaped corridor’s ends, in either direction from its central angle, are triangle-topped: paired phalluses of space just about my height. In exploring the quiet plazas between the initial structures in this complex, one wonders about the purposes of this architecture. Were these living quarters? Built to house a certain caste, or special families in the social hierarchy or theocracy? Almost the breath within those ancient occupants’ heads, all but the sounds of their feet tramping and padding these corridors’ and stairs’ and plazas’ past. And one notices how the recently revealed masonry of the (dwellings’? offices’?) walls disappears, within a matter of several feet, into the grasses and roots of the forest’s rapacious grip. In those few feet, the hard work of the Mayan’s millennium-old construction, and the hard work of the Tikal Project’s decade-old reclamation, become indistinguishable from the steep sided, forested “hill” that is in fact a bump in the blanket of the jungle, a bump using human construction as its pedestal. For many miles in all directions from here, the terrain has sprouted uncounted similar features, pseudo-hills and faux ridges, where tumbled-down stone buildings are wearing the rampant cloak and living stoles of the forest’s implacable vegetation.

The causeway path enters the East Plaza, where workmen lean and smoke along on the shadowed back of Temple 1, taking a break from their renovation work on Tikal’s signature monolith. Among the features of note in this plaza are a cache of severed heads uncovered at the foot of the stairs of the primary pyramid, and the probable marketplace, and the one functional sweat bath discovered thus far at Tikal: a small interior room set in the north corner of a gigantic platform more than a hundred yards square, the platform being of undetermined function other than that it housed, within a low doorway, the inset sweat room with its channel and benches and central fire stand.

Bearing north at the workmen’s tool sheds and mud-smeared vehicles, I descend from these elevated central plazas on what is now the (trace of the) Maler Causeway. It passes between a group of twin-pyramid complexes, which are lined along an east-west axis in a low, forested valley, with one complex in the woods to the left of the path, and the other two abutting one another, stretching deep into the woods to the right of the path. There are seven of these twin-pyramid complexes among the known ruins of central Tikal, built at 20-year intervals (the Katun of the Mayan Calendar) that span the Mayan Classic Period here. This architectural form is unique to Tikal; built on raised, plastered platforms as large as five acres in area, each complex holds a pair of bare rectangular pyramids, with a stairway on each side and no temple construction on top. The pyramids stand at the east and west sides of each platform’s broad plaza, with plain stelae and altars at the eastern pyramid’s west base. A roofless enclosure at the north of each plaza houses the inscribed stele and the altar (one enclosure is of special note for the smashed faces of the figures, all visages in the rich and detailed carving hacked out by subsequent generations to destroy their vilified antecedents’ powers). Opposite this enclosure stands a palace building with nine doors.

The Maya gathered on these plazas for many generations, they moved here in work crews and ceremonial entourages, with their irrigation channels paralleling the causeways, their commemorative stelae read by the priests to the populace or the populace’s representatives, the holy messages, the orders and suggestions, and their smalltalk shifting in this sultry jungle air. What are now forest paths or narrow maintenance roads through the vines and trunks and twisted underbrush were once plastered causeways, called saches, spanning the uneven land to join the major complexes, causeways that were constructed over hundreds of yards with parapet walls raising them above the surrounding land. The parapets, cut intermittently with access slopes or stairs—these processional routes were rigorously maintained for centuries against the jungle’s growth, and time’s impending deterioration.

The Maler Causeway terminates after a steep climb at the mossy pyramids, temples, and the myriad unexcavated structures massed on the heights of the North Zone. A couple lounge on the unkempt grasses of the plaza; a few others nose about among the ruins. I climb the rough stairway of the large pyramid, and then mount the shaky ladders of lashed branches to its temple’s broad roof. Lengths of loose twine, draped from upright twigs wedged in the masonry’s cracks, restrict access over the disheveled blocks at the center of the temple’s sagging roof.

Clouds drift majestically below the vast, blue sky; the view north, across the low heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, is of unrelieved jungle canopy, highlighted only by the shadows cast as the passing, vaporous monoliths slide between the jungle and the sun. Their enormous shadows pass at times over Tikal’s former neighbors and sometimes rivals at Uaxactun, at times over other huddled masses of ancient temples and structures unrecovered or undiscovered out there, and pass over little present habitation.

Daylight lengthens through the sky above the treetops as the sun settles towards the Guatemalan highlands, towards the Gulf of Tehuantepec out over the horizon and the Pacific beyond. In the woods, dusk is already here. A broad butterfly with great, pearl-lined circles under its teak wings teases past me on the forest path that was once the massive, plastered Maudslay Causeway. It lights on a vine, a shoot or twig at the pathway’s forested bank; it folds its wings together above its back, and the white circle marking looks like the Cyclops gaze of a mask. I’m amused, and I decide to photograph it. I pursue it into the embrace of the woods off the path. It lights again, then flits off as I stumble near, then lifts and slants and settles again, in further among densely wrought trunks and roots and vines. At each moment of focus, when the butterfly lands nearby in the daylight’s dim remains, the gaze of its warning camouflage seems turned towards me, a clear and shifting point of reference in towards the dark and the lost, until I give up the game and return to the fading forest path.

Monkeys lay draped high in the branches of tall cieba trees until the day, which is still bright up at that altitude, begins to cool. Their youngsters play and bound and peep and squeal out onto springing, rustling smaller branches. The adults will begin their omnidirectional, guttural howling again in the early evening, about the time the late buses are pulling out of the car park by the airfield: howling for ramon fruit, and for elevated territory, for the sex-urge, for life, its ongoingness.

A family of four humans argue, fixed on the path through the plaza of Twin-pyramid Complex N, though in their conflict-symbiosis they could be anywhere. Their points-of-view stem from instructions the parents were giving from an incident that the kids got involved in. The reasoning the parents are purporting moves centripetally from demonstration to enforced instruction. These people had been watching the howler monkeys lounging in the trees, with such adoration that the parents loop back towards the children as acclaim, as instruction or principle of enjoyment. These arguments sounds essentially like this in any species: the howlers tolerate the antics of their young until they halt them near with a deft, swooping grasp, from openness to a conformity to size. Smoothed diagonal patterns across the wide earth of the forest paths turn out, on closer inspection, to be in motion, the smoothed bands bustling with the transit of vast numbers of ants. In one direction, the tiny, powerful, short-lived creatures trundle along, clambering over and around the granules of earth in their path (granules which are eventually swept into the pressed swath that contrasts to the rougher dirt track that the ant tracks are crossing), each ant bearing a chunk or triangle of leaf, held out above and before it like a green sail clutched up in its mandibles. The wedges of leaves, bound for the granaries wherever the colony has its metropolis, is at least the size of the ant carrying it, sometimes twice as large…first one sees the smoothness of the trail, then the faint bustle of this gigantic, miniature community at work, and then the motion is ascertained by the flecks of bright green that give the motion towards the (unseen) home of the colony.

When looking at closer range, there is an approximately equal number of ants headed in the opposite direction, across the forest path to underbrush on the other side that obscures their destination, where they will chop out another enormous wedge of leaf, or pick one up that has been cut by ants whose job it is to render the leaves transportable, at which point they will lift it out before and above their oversized, helmeted heads, between their twitching antennae, and join the tiny, enormous, rumbling file back home.

Much larger, seemingly darker ants hold positions along the two-way current of workers, jostling them back into line if they stray, or some other mission that their couple of brain cells can manage. What a lot, what history, these ants. The active path, the paths they’ve left behind before rain sweeps away the trace of their (previous) industry.

I detect or presume a likeness of their industrious mission to that of the Mayans here at Tikal, and ancient peoples elsewhere, either nearby or far away, in an evidence of human industriousness. Each of us bears a hundred billion neurons in among three or four trillion brain cells (as the poetics of encompassingness posit a hundred billion stars in each of a hundred billion galaxies dispersed “around us”). Each of us is obviously driven by something that is distinctly unthinking and extraordinarily effective, or extraordinarily effective up to a point, at which point there is remission, then, eventually, oblivion.

The workers, enslaved and willing, gained their points in a systematics into which they entrust their fates?

And the leaders, ah, the leaders: especially in this expired culture at Tikal, they fomented the belief system (attitude, faith: the mental equivocation that there’s an outside motivation, nameable, the external motivator, the psychological co-attendant towards which, or should I say towards whom, one can divert perspective from the relation of the body in the world to the distinction of the body [no longer being authentically felt] from the world) that the workers longed to manifest, longed with a churning intensity, lived and labored and who knows what other fundamentals and frivolities besides.

Picture a Mayan worker coming home to where others are tending the corn and the homesteads and the children, home at last after a long day at the construction site, where he’s labored at overlaying an older temple with a fat layer of rubble hauled from condemned structures and nearby limestone quarries to fill around the base of the previous pyramid, at which stage he will labor to lay a new skin of masonry up along that low level of fill from the ground, then continue encompassing the old pyramid, disappearing it gradually until it is ensconced in the newer, larger (and more labor intensive) structure from which the priests will ceremoniously reenact the workings of the cosmos as these people construed its workings, taking them (the cosmological workings) into their own descriptions and attitudes. But first the work requires hauling stones that are cut to the precise size that they fit both the latest structure and the back of the worker (for instance the one who is just home from his job) so that he can carry the stones from the quarry to their size-appropriate place in the latest structure.

For that is how they (lacking the wheel, lacking oxen) got the stones to their locations, hauled by the people according to the orders and instructions of the leaders—ah, back again to the leaders—a leader at the end of the day, back from supervising or theorizing or administering, developing trade, planning ceremonials, plotting military campaigns, oppressing other city-states or suing for peace from whichever city-state has decimated the forces that these leaders sent out to defend futilely against their opponent’s assault. Picture them developing the complexities of beliefs that everybody wants, longs for, creates structures according to; they ferment, those structures or complexities or beliefs, they blossom, peak at high pyramidal altitudes and begin to collapse.

And the tropical forest here takes over in—what? How long does it take the forest to fill in from where it’s been cleared? Even over the steep sides of temples and up into the elaborated reaches of the acropolises, how long? Two decades? Three, or six? After centuries of construction and maintenance, by people with an innate yearning towards durability, people inherently disposing with any individuality.

Excerpted from “Palms frond over the warm, green surf and over distant, inland temples as they draw nearer;” Travel Writings, 1996


Alan Lockwood