Often thought of first as the folk who allegedly predicted the end of the world in 2012, thus inadvertently inspiring one of the worst films ever made, the Mayans are definitely deserving of a rebrand.
Mayan culture is probably one of the most mysterious of the world’s ancient cultures. Western notions of the Mayans have tended to portray a brutal, savage culture through exaggerated retellings of beheadings and graphically violent films like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. What’s certainly true is that the ruins they left behind and the few writings that survived the Spanish conquests indicate a highly advanced literate culture with an advanced understanding of astronomy and architecture. Like the Egyptians, many of their temples and pyramids are aligned to various celestial events. Sadly, very few of their writings survive, as most were ordered to be burned by Spanish priests. A few still survive, along with writings that were committed to the walls of temples and found engraved on burial pottery.
Some of the most important sites include Teotihuacan, Palenque and Chichen Itza in Mexico, Copan in Honduras and most especially Tikal in Guatemala, considered to be the greatest city of the ancient Mayan world. Located deep in the rainforests of Guatemala, Tikal was home to some 100 000 people around 1200 years ago, a major city in a civilisation that stretched across most of modern-day Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico. Today, Tikal’s only inhabitants are birds and wild animals, but the ruins give us some idea of the scope of this great civilisation.
Even today it isn’t quite clear exactly what brought about the downfall of this great culture, who by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century had dwindled to a fraction of their former numbers. No-one really knows why Tikal was abandoned, but it’s generally thought that it was some combination of disease, warfare, migration, over-farming or even drought. Whatever the reason, the ruins of the Mayans are fascinating places to visit, set amongst some stunning natural scenery and providing the ideal gateway to the rest of the continent of South America. Visit these sites and more on our tours to Central America.
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