The Lights Go Out in Copán

Monkey god representing the underworld.

Living in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, puts us within reach of many fascinating ancient ruins. Quiriguá is only about 30 miles away and has some of the tallest stelae in the Mayan civilization. Beyond it there are 60 principal Mayan sites stretching from southern Mexico through Guatemala and Belize to western Honduras and El Salvador. The ruins at Copán, Honduras, are particularly rich but somewhat confusing.

Visitors and the authors of at least one guidebook like to quip that if Tikal, Guatemala, was like New York City, Copán was like Paris. What they’re trying to say is that Tikal features many tall structures. They rise from the floor of the jungle in a mystical, otherworldly fashion. Copán, in contrast, resembles Paris because its residents produced art in great quantity and complexity.

A young man portrays Great Quetzal Macaw in a video.

For many years, historians believed that Copán’s stone carvings recorded the activities of a ruling class of priests. Other believed that the carvings honored gods. Later experts in anthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, ecology, art and writing studied the ruins and reached a different conclusion. They agreed that an elite class of rulers governed the community. Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, the 16 rulers honored themselves with temples, stelae and other structures that recorded births, anniversaries, deaths, conquests and rituals. These carvings date from 250 to 900 A.D., the Classic Period or Golden Age of early Mayan civilization.

The layout and architecture of the heart of Copán echoed the Mayans’ view of the spiritual and natural world. The giant pyramids or temples mimicked the surrounding mountains. They were a jumping-off point for heaven. The portals atop the temples had large, decorated entrances marking the route to the underworld. The wide expanses of the plazas represented the surfaces of valleys or lakes and lagoons. This was particularly evident during the rainy season, June through November, when the Mayans intentionally flooded the plazas.

A model of Rosalila stands in the museum.

During their brief history, the Mayans typically tore down the temples of deceased rulers and erected newer, more elaborate structures on top of them. Rosalila was an exception. The Mayans considered it such a remarkable structure that it was preserved with great care and ceremony before building over it.

Rosalila is the nickname, chosen by the archaeologist who found it, of a beautifully decorated temple honoring the Sun God, K’Inich Ahau. The nickname comes from the rosa or red color used on its exterior, and another hue, lilac, that also was used.

When archaeologists discovered the temple, they realized they had quite a treasure on their hands. They knew that further excavation could permanently damage the structure so they set about preserving it. They constructed a long tunnel interspersed with two large windows that allow visitors to look closely at the temple. The construction of the tunnel and viewing area, begun in 1989, took four years to complete.

The famous stairway and nearby plaza.
©2012 Kathy Chevalier

Visitors may appreciate Rosalila in its entirety in the park’s museum where a fully developed model has been constructed. The temple sits in a courtyard that opens to the sky with the remainder of the museum surrounding it.

The condition of many, original ruins inside the park have deteriorated due to constant exposure to weather. Roofs and tarps have been erected over some, shrinking unobstructed views of the treasures. The hieroglyphic stairway, for one, is covered by an eyesore, a long awning that obscures the longest text in Mayan civilization.

The early historians were mistaken also about the general population. Copán was not considered a large urban center until mounting evidence indicated that 28,000 people once lived in the city—where up to 3,450 buildings are registered—and the surrounding rural area. They inhabited an area of a little more than nine square miles.

Meditating before an ancient temple.
©2012 Kathy Chevalier

Its size and the demands on the environment probably ended the Mayan civilization at Copán. Studies indicate that malnutrition and infectious diseases ran rampant through the population. Children between the ages of nine and 15 simply could not survive and therefore could not replenish the population.

Copán’s residents scoured the adjacent hills and mountainsides for wood to use in construction and cooking. Once they stripped the land of trees, the soil eroded and washed away the nutrients necessary for growing food. A severe drought laid waste to what remained of the land.

The last ruler of Copán could not complete the monument that he had commissioned in 822 A.D. in his own honor. There were no resources left.

In August 2012, the entrance fee to the park was $15US and valid for three days. The entrance fee to the tunnels also was $15US. 

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About Cheryl Crockett Lezovich

Mom, first mate and writer aboard a 40' Manta catamaran, S/V Happy Times.
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