Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Travel Story

Copan, Honduras: cultural hub of the Mayan empire

Travels in Central America, Part 3

No one remembers his name so I will call him Yax Pasah, after the 16th king of Copan. He was a young ball player, a superb athlete who was right at the top of his sport. The game had lasted for many hours but, ignoring his fatigue, Yax Pasah overtook the opposing player, caught the hard rubber ball on his padded knee and sent it flying through a hole high on the side of the ball court. The crowd cheered. The game was over and, as most valuable player, Yax Pasah was escorted to the alter and beheaded.

Bizarre! Outrageous! Unthinkable! - a testament to the power of religion to skew even the most fundamental human instinct. And, according to our archaeologist/guide to the ruins of Copan, it was a scenario that played out hundreds of times a thousand years ago, when most of Central America was ruled by Mayan kings, their priests, and the complex pantheon of deities whom they worshiped. In the year A.D. 900 the ritual ball game had deep religious and political significance and players like Yax Pasah could hardly wait to take their place of honour among the gods.

The land of the Maya encompassed the Yucatan region of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador, a total of more than 300,000 square kilometres. During the classic period, A.D. 250-900, there were 60-70 city-states, such as Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Copan, within this vast region. Each city-state controlled a small surrounding area and, despite the fact that the Maya had neither the wheel nor any beasts of burden, commerce between these far-flung centres was accomplished by human bearers, many of them slaves, following jungle paths on foot.

At times several city-states united into larger units governed from seats of power in one of the principal centres. Traditionally Tikal, in the deep jungle of northern Guatemala, has been considered the largest of these cities. With an estimated 70,000 people it had nearly three times the population of Copan but, according to our guide, Copan surpassed all other Mayan cities in the development of the arts. As William Fash and Ricardo Fasquelle put it in their guide to the ruins: "If Tikal was like New York, Copan was like Paris."

From the ball court, still feeling a bit queazy from his graphic description of Maya-style admission to the Sports Hall-of-Fame, we followed our guide to the Hieroglyphic Stairway. What appear to be decorative mosaic designs carved into each step are actually glyphs and pictographs used in cuneiform Mayan writing. With dates tied to the accurate Mayan calendar the stairway contains the longest inscribed text in the New World, a 300-year record of the political and economic history of Copan.

After the formal tour Betty and I spent another hour wandering around, comparing the ruins to those we had previously visited in Chichen Itza and Tulum (Pique, March 28, 2003). Although Chichen Itza, in the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and Copan, in western Honduras, are separated by more than 700 km of jungle and mountains, the style of architecture is remarkably similar. Typical Mayan pyramids with square bases and broad stairways leading to small temples or alters at the top are the most obvious similarities. But the detailed renderings of serpents, jaguars, and eagles that adorn the stone alters and temples of both ruins suggest that the sprawling Mayan world shared a common culture and religion.

The most obvious difference between visiting Chichen Itza and Copan is the number of sight-seers. Chichen Itza, during our visit a year ago, was a hive of bus-borne tourist activity, whereas we saw hardly another soul as we strolled through the ruins of Copan. And, even to our untrained eyes the superb artistry of the high relief sculpture on the stelae and alters of Copan was superior to anything we had seen before.

Copan is more compact than Chichen Itza but its urban nucleus, the Principal Group, is one of the largest in the Maya area. Consisting of the Great Plaza, and the Acropolis the Principal Group was the political, civil, and religious centre. Its construction, without benefit of even the simplest machines, represents a prodigious human effort. The three hectare Great Plaza, where thousands of people once gathered for public events, was originally paved and it is still adorned with massive, intricately carved stelae and alters. The adjacent Acropolis, the main precinct of political and religious power, is built on top of a terraced, man-made platform that rises 30 metres above ground level. And surrounding the Principal Group are the remains of residential zones where more than 4,000 smaller structures have been discovered - the ruined homes of the 27,000 people who once lived here.

Despite the less savory aspects of Mayan culture, such as human sacrifice and ritual blood-letting, their achievements in architecture, urban planning, mathematics, and astronomy were remarkably advanced. Along with the Aztecs and Incas, the Maya are recognized as one of the three great civilizations of pre-Columbian America.

But long before the first Europeans blundered into the New World the elaborate Mayan cities had been abandoned. By the time the Spanish Conquistadors discovered them the pyramids, observatories, and temples with their intricately carved deities had already been overgrown by the jungle. Even the memory of the grandiose Mayan city-states had faded from the minds of its descendants who were reduced to scores of isolated tribes.

The collapse of Mayan civilization remains one of the great historical mysteries of all time. Some archaeologists and sociologists have speculated that the population was annihilated by disease, others have argued that the ruling elite was overthrown by a revolt of the lower classes who lacked the knowledge to govern and maintain the cities. But a recent archeological study of the Copan ruins suggests that the reason may have been environmental degradation and consequent inability of burgeoning urban populations to feed themselves.

Corn was the basis of the Mayas' food supply, supplemented by beans, sweet potatoes, and herbs. But despite their sophistication in so many other areas, their agriculture was based on primitive "slash and burn" - the cutting and burning of trees, then moving on to new forest after the exposed soil was depleted, choked with weeds, or eroded away. Over the centuries the once rich agricultural land of the Copan Valley was laid waste by erosion and the sources of food and fuel for cooking became ever more distant from the urban centre.

Archaeologists now know that in the decades preceding its collapse the urban population of Copan increased dramatically. They also find evidence that thousands of deaths resulted from malnutrition or related disease, and that many of the skeletal remains are those of children and young adults. As the food supply diminished and became more distant the city was gradually abandoned. Those who were able moved to the fringes of the forest and continued their lives as individual subsistence farmers. The ruling elite, the kings and priests, were no longer relevant. Their influence declined and much of their knowledge was lost among the vine-covered ruins of their once great cities. But the people who left took with them their language and much of their cultural ideology.

Today more than six million Maya continue to live in the area once occupied by the great civilizations of their ancestors. Many of them still speak one of the Mayan languages, wear traditional dress, and cling to their cultural and religious traditions. But discrimination against indigenous people is deeply ingrained and though some Maya have been assimilated into modern ladino society the vast majority live on the fringes of poverty. As travellers we bargain with them in the markets of the cities, admire their superb craftsmanship spread out on sidewalks, and get fleeting glimpses of their rural shacks where families still subsist on slash and burn agriculture.

But more than a thousand years after the collapse of their great culture the Maya have still not found a niche in modern society. In the words of Rigoberta Menchu, activist for indigenous Guatemalan people, and winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize: "We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism."