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.

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