Saturday, March 6, 2010


February 19th to 24th

Glowing beacon of the Mayan civilisation. The numbers are impressive. In it's heyday at the end of the late classical period around 850AD it was alleged to have been home to over 25000 people all supported by the lush farmland of the Rio Amarillo (Yellow River) valley. Then came disaster and collapse, the people fled and these great buildings were quickly abandoned.

Times tide washed over them. Dust blew in and caught between the cracks. With it came tiny seedlings - micro agents of destruction. Dust turned to soil and finally a seedling took root. Tiny at first, then burrowing inexorably through gaps in the close fitting stone. Time passed and the years turned to decades, the decades to centuries. Those tiny seedlings became the trunks of fully grown trees and finally, tortured stone came crashing down. The great temples and stairways crumbled....

Few people were left to bear witness and Copan passed out of common knowledge. When it was first rediscovered by the Spanish in 1576, it's population was reduced to just 5 families living simply amongst the ruins of former splendour. They could shed no light on Copan's history, Spain's king took no notice and the story was forgotten once more.

It was not until 1841 when 'Travels in Central America', a book by 2 American explorers was first published did the world turn it's attention back to the Yellow River valley.

After the site was uncovered, Copan was not spectacular temples like Tikal and it was not an imposing fortress like Monte Alban. Those places are the expressions of religious and military might. Copan is more a display of the mind, of beautiful sculptures and intricately carved hieroglyphics, an early style of writing depicting tales and dates of the great events of the day. It is a place of ancient artistry....

This is what has attracted armies of archeologists to the site over the last 150 years – the lure of unravelling the code of hidden meaning behind the glyphs and deciphering these ancient writings.

They tell of a dynasty of kings stretching back to 426AD when a great leader 'Quetzal Macaw' came to the area with a host of men and subdued the current king and took over the valley. Despite there having been a settlement here since around 1200BC, he is credited with founding the city and was revered as semi divine with direct affinity with the gods. Great banquets and sacrifices were held in his name.

Tradition dictated that the early kings of Copan built on the foundations of previous kings and their monuments and achievements were largely covered up and lost to history. However their fame was immortalized when the 16th and final king Yax Pac created an alter depicting carvings of previous rulers. This showed his ancestry stretching all the way back to Quetzal Macaw, probably to strengthen his legitimacy as king whilst Copan's power began to wane....

Central America's 2nd largest ball court is built on the foundations of 2 previous ones and there are other smaller 'training' ball courts outside the main site where players would practice and dream of the centre stage. The ruined stairway leads up to the 'Temple of Inscriptions'....

Stone carvings of Macaws at the top of the sloping walls were probably significant and placed in honour of the cities founder Quetzal Macaw who may have been named for the birds that inhabit the surrounding jungle....

The most famous surviving monument is the 'Hieroglyphic Stairway' – 63 steps made up of thousands of stone blocks each carved with glyphs describing the glorious history of the Royal House. The story is still unfolding as more glyphs are translated, a task not helped by the fact that many blocks had fallen from their original place and lay in a jumbled heap. A rather difficult jigsaw puzzle made from delicate and priceless pieces, in 3D and with no diagram on the box....

There is the magnificence of the carved 'stelae' or statues depicting individual kings after a big event but everywhere you look there are smaller carvings on the blocks that make up the walls and when you consider it would all have been colourfully painted it must have been an incredible sight.....

In total, about 3500 structures have been discovered around the principal site which is what archeologists base their estimates of population on. Ironically it was only as recently as the 1980's that the modern day Copan could boast over 25,000 people and you have to question whether that number could ever have been achieved without the enduring mystery of the ancient city drawing people back to the Yellow River Valley.

Today Copan is an attractive cobble stoned streeted town that nicely balances normal day to day life with it's influx of tourists. There's a museum about the site with many of the original carvings and interesting explanations of the Mayan culture. We spend a couple of days around the central plaza with it's collection of bars and restaurants.

Taking time out from all that history, we visit a butterfly reserve just outside of town and while away a couple of hours in beautiful tranquility watching colour flutter by....


Anonymous said...

Totally fascinating - what a beautiful place. I'm this close to getting a bike and paniers and joining you (you don't know how far my hands are when I'm saying "this close" though!). Your blog is great.


Sween in SAmerica said...

Cheers W - my number one (only?) fan. I just met a guy here who cycle toured and then had a baby - so no touring for a while.
Want me to ask about buying his gear. Should be able to get a good deal for you...
We can wait here for a day or 2 for you to catch up.

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