Living Mayans: At Its Height, the Maya Civilisation Encompassed Numerous City-States Housing as Many as Ten Million People. Then, It Suddenly and Mysteriously Collapsed. Dominic Hamilton Sets out along the Popular Ruta Maya to Sample Its Spectacular Archaeological Legacy and Finds an Ancient Culture That Is Still Very Much Alive

Article excerpt

Sunrise. The eastern horizon glows mauve. The forest slowly surfaces upon an ocean of mist, the upper branches of the canopy stretching their fingers through an indistinct purple-tinged swell. To the east, two limestone islands begin to appear, the structures' pyramidal sides becoming more distinct as the minutes pass. The forest is alive with birds, squawking and crying as the sky to the east turns amber, until, finally, the sun appears above the thin ribbon of cloud that slumbers on the horizon.

I'm perched on the second-tallest ancient structure in the Americas, the 46-metre-high Temple IV at Tikal in northwestern Guatemala. Here, during a brief flourishing that shone most brightly during the eighth and ninth centuries, the Maya reached one of their apogees, building a series of temples, acropolises, courts and palaces that continue to reveal the sophistication of their civilisation.

I clamber down the temple's side over fig roots as thick as my thigh and walk southeast through the forest to Temple VI. A gang of spider monkeys crashes through the canopy above, making far more noise than their skinny frames would appear capable of. As quickly as they appeared, they move on, searching for fruit in the cool morning air.

We reach the temple and climb its steep steps, slowly rising above the canopy of the surrounding jungle. We're the only tourists there, and sit in silent contemplation, gazing out as the morning light throws Temple IV's combed roof into sharp, glowing relief. Taller trees loom out of the diaphanous haze, their branches and trunks mobbed by lichens and mosses. Gradually, the jungle around us becomes ever-clearer, its echoes and cries wafting up to our perch, surely one of the world's greatest canopy towers.

The greatest of the great

Tikal, rediscovered in 1848 by a Guatemalan expedition and extensively excavated by Alfred Maudslay in 1881, is among the greatest of all the ruins left behind by the Maya. Certainly, its location in the jungles of lowland Guatemala and its impressive temples make it a site that no traveller should miss on a tour of the 'Ruta Maya', or the Maya Route, as the sites of ancient Mesoamerica have become known. The route covers the Yucutan Peninsula and Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, E1 Salvador, Belize and Honduras, taking in both the vestigial and contemporary culture of the Maya. The wonders of these regions only came to the attention of the world with the epic expeditions between 1839 and 1842 of John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The latter's lithographs of the ruins of Chichen Itza Uxmal, Copan and Palenque were published throughout Europe and North America. The route as such, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon, with visitors scared away from Guatemala by its civil strife until well into the 1980s. It's making up for lost time, however, with growing numbers of visitors visiting the sites of the Maya from all corners of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

Of all the American continent's great civilizations, the Maya are often regarded as the greatest. Classic Maya society blossomed between 200 BC and 900 AD as a series of more than SO city-states ruled by living gods. The states developed through trade, religion and statecraft, leaving behind a legacy of beautiful artwork in clay, stone and jade, and stunning monumental architecture imprinted with intricate hieroglyphic texts that are only just beginning to be deciphered. Such a bequest would be enough to satisfy even the most curious, but in the case of the Maya, there's more. Their city-states, which are thought to have encompassed as many as ten million people, collapsed in around AD 900. Virtually from one day to the next, they ceased to be inhabited, and many have since been engulfed by their jungle environments. No-one is sure why. The most plausible reason, corroborated by recent research at Copan in Honduras, indicates that over-population and environmental disaster were to blame. …