Copan – Royal City in the Jungle

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After it was abandoned in the tenth century, Copan lay forgotten for 500 years, claimed only by the advancing jungle. Yet even in ruins this once-magnificent city is acknowledged as the pinnacle of Mayan achievement and possesses some of the greatest examples of Mayan architecture and stone carvings.

{This is a Series of Excerpts from the book Strange Worlds Amazing Places: A Tour of Earths Marvels and Mysteries, Get it Here}

During the rainy winter of 1839, the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the English artist Frederick Catherwood reached a clearing in dense tropical forest and beheld the ancient Mayan city of Copan. Overgrown jungle concealed many of the buildings and blurred the outlines of those that still stood. The whole site had been ravaged by extremes of weather, earthquake shocks and the slow strangulation of creepers and tree roots. It had also endured a thousand years of erosion by the Copan River.

The substantial remains of this royal city lie in the heart of the Copan River valley in Honduras, a few miles from the Guatemalan border. Here, throughout the Classic Maya era, from about AD 250 to 900, a succession of at least 16 kings, with a court of priests and nobles, ruled over a large population of artists, merchants, craftsmen and farmers.

Stephens and Catherwood were not the first visitors to be intrigued by Copan. In the 16th century, more than five centuries after the city had been abandoned, Spanish colonists made mention of it in their writings, and in 1834 the Guatemalan government financed a study of the ruins. But it was the work of these two men that brought Copan to the attention of the Western world. They bought the site for 50 dollars from the farmer who owned the land and set about exploring the ruins and recording their findings. Catherwood, frequently ankle-deep in mud and wearing gloves to ward off the ubiquitous mosquitoes, spent his days sketching the ruins. His exquisite, detailed drawings fired the imagination of Western academics, and archaeologists have since excavated and partially restored Copan’s plazas, buildings and monuments.

Copan’s ball court is in the city’s ceremonial centre. Here, using hips, knees and heads (but not hands and feet), teams vied to strike a large ball of solid rubber against one of the three projected markers, carved in the shape of macaw’s heads. The game was more of a ritual than a sport.

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One of the 3 Ball Courts at Copan City

In its heyday, Copan was a wealthy city, trading widely throughout Mayan territory. The pyramids, temples, courts and other structures of the main complex are grouped around a series of four wide plazas plazas, which were originally floored with smooth white plaster. The buildings were fashioned from andesite – a greenish volcanic rock – and were often decorated with painted stucco reliefs. Traces of paint on walls and carvings indicate that Copan’s entire main group of buildings and plazas and its sculptures must once have been vividly coloured.

From the four major plazas rise stepped, pyramid-like palaces and temples. Long, steep staircases ascend to the temples perched at the summit of the pyramids. The most famous of these, known as the Hieroglyphic Stairway, consisted originally of 72 steps, each 52ft (16m) wide and almost 18m (45cm) high. Detailed carvings on the riser of each step tell the stories of Copan’s rulers, from the first of the warrior kings to the builder of the staircase, known as Smoke Shell, who came to the throne in AD 749. The continuous inscription of some 1800 stone pictograms or ‘glyphs’ is the longest found in any of the Mayan remains of Central America. The Hieroglyphic Stairway collapsed in the 19th century, leaving only 30 risers in their original place; today the carefully restored steps total 63.

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The Famous Hieroglyphic Stairway

Scholars have succeeded in deciphering the names and dates of Copan’s rulers by closely examining carvings on the main stairway, walls and altars, and they have found further clues in the sculptured, staff-like stone pillars, or stelae, that the kings of Copan erected as monuments to themselves. These portray larger than life-size royal figures clad in robes of state and adorned with symbols of power Seven stelae, each about 11ft (3.4m) high, originally stood in the Great Plaza.

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One of the 36 Stelae at Copan City

The earliest stelae at Copan are dated AD 465 and 485. Altogether there are 38 stelae in and around the site, some of which are arranged in astronomical alignments – important for the Maya, since they used the positions of the stars and planets to guide them through life. The complex and sophisticated calendar systems the Maya used, based partly on the cycles of the planet Venus, allow the dates in their carvings to be read to the year, month and day with perfect accuracy. Numbers in these calendar systems are represented by horizontal bars, dots and shell symbols.

After about AD 900 the city was abandoned from half-finished carvings that have been discovered t appears that this occurred quite suddenly. Although the royal city fell into decline, the Mayan people continued to live in the surrounding valley in simple settlements, growing maize, squash and beans, as they do today. Historians are still trying to work out why the population of the city moved away. Copan’s agricultural system may well have been too fragile and inadequate to support the demands of a large population, causing the disgruntled city dwellers to rise up against he kings and priests.

With the departure of its people, the once-magnificent city was left to the mercies of the encroaching jungle, the river and the elements. Today, descendants of the Maya live in the nearby town of Copan Ruinas, so the old and new worlds exist side by side.

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