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Towering pyramids overlook Mayan ruins of Tikal

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 23rd, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Tikal is an ancient Mayan city that flourished around 700 AD in modern-day Guatemala. The ruins today are best known for its five towering pyramids and the rich flora and fauna of the surrounding rain forest.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The beginnings of Tikal canbe traced back to the Middle Formative Period, or 900-300 BC of Mayan history, when it was just a small village. It was during the Late Formative Period from 300 BC-100 AD when it became an important ceremonial center and numerous pyramids and temples were constructed.

Tikal flourished in the Mayan Late Classic Period from 600 to 900 AD, reaching its peak around 700 AD when about 10,000 people lived in the city center and 50,000 more occupied outlying areas. The great ceremonial center began to decline after 800 AD, with rapid depopulation and decline in artistic quality. The decline was probably related to climate changes including a major drought. By the 10th century, Tikal was abandoned.

The Mayan city became engulfed by the encroaching jungle and was mostly forgotten, save for some local legends among the native people. It was rediscovered by chance in 1848 by Ambrosio Tut, a collector of chiclero, and scholarly investigation began shortly thereafter.

Tikal was designated a National Monument in 1931 and a National Park in 1955. It stood in for a rebel base in the original "Star Wars" movie in 1977 and became a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Tikal National Park holds an astonishing 3,000 structures, many of which remain to be excavated. Every visit to the area must include the central area where the main pyramids are located.

The heart of the ancient city is the Great Plaza, an open grassy space covering 1.5 acres and enclosed by impressive monuments. The oldest part is the North Acropolis, which dates from as early as 250 AD; the two large pyramids (I and II) date from the 700s.

The Jaguar Temple (Pyramid I) was built shortly after the death of King Hasaw Chan K'awil (r.682-721) to contain his tomb. The pyramid was built by his successor but probably planned by the king himself before his death. It gets its name from a jaguar sculpture on its door lintel, which is now in a museum in Basel, Switzerland.

The architecture of the Jaguar Temple represents a significant departure from most other Mayan pyramids. It is exceptionally steep and vertical in appearance, which draws attention to the three-roomed temple and roof comb at the top. Originally, the comb was brightly painted in cream, red and maybe green. While Climbing Pyramid I is now prohibited, it's still possible to climb Pyramid II, known as the Temple of the Masks for the weathered masks that still flank the central stairway.

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