Copan Maya Ruins, Honduras

Copan is a great Maya archaeological site in western Honduras. Today, the setting is just a small village, now in a jungle valley of hills and nearby mountains, quite different than it was in 1,400 BC, when it was a capital city of many thousand people. The Copan Maya site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only 25 % unearthed of the 47,000 structures of this ancient capital. It is an experience to walk through this setting, with its tall trees, spider monkeys, and macaws, and to imagine what life was like in this ancient empire.

It is best known for the excavated hieroglyphic temple staircase, a well preserved ball court, and beautiful stelae (free-standing statues or monuments carved in the image of a ruler, with information about his life). In 1895, a group from Harvard and the Peabody Museum began excavating the site. Since then, it has been taken over by other funded groups. Also on the site is the Copan sculpture Museum and inside is an exact replica of the original temple that existed on this spot. It is elaborately decorated with carved macaws, animals, and symbols, and painted in bright oca red with gold and green. Many of the artifacts, including beautifully carved stone benches, are in rooms of the museum.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Copan ruins are on the banks of the Copan River. The valley was divided into two zones, one rural and the other urban. The urban zone was very populated and the ceremonial center was connected by two raised causeways. There was the royal residential compound and another for noble families. The remains exist because they were made of stone and grand in stature. In the metropolis were masons, carpenters, weavers, jewelers, and tradesmen. There was plumbing and potable water in the acropolis and royal dwellings. There were mosaic and detailed carvings representing their world of sacred mountains and paths to the supernatural realms to communicate with ancestors and to influence forces of nature. There were funerary temples and temples where astronomers studied the moon, Venus, sun, and earth.

The ball court was part of the central plaza, well decorated with macaws, which were designed for the playing ball to go through to score. The game was called poktok and was partly a ritual that reenacted the Maya myth creation revolving around the maize crop and fertilitia. Poktok was played with two teams on a playing field. The players used a hard rubber ball, but they could not touch it with their hands; each side had to get the ball into rings on the stone macaw heads sculpted into a sloped wall on each side of the court. There were three of these goals on each side of the two walls for scoring. The ball player who caused the loss of the game would be offered as a sacrifice to the gods.

The macaw, with its bright plumage, was a messenger to the sun and a link to the vital maize crop and agricultural cycle. This ball court had four renovations over time, and each time, new macaw markers were carved and inserted into the wall. The old, broken markers were found in an ancient construction site.

The temples were grand, and the hieroglyphic staircase tells of warfare with carved shields, lances, ropes, and sacrificial implements. It took years to unscramble just the pieces of this one temple staircase and now it is all reproduced inside the Copan Sculpture Museum. Patricio (my travel guide), a local Copan guide, and I went though several tunnels built several thousand years ago. These connected temples and central royal buildings.

After walking all day along the paths of the ancient ruins, Patricio and I spent time walking around the small village of Copan. There were stelae in different places in the village, even amongst the stores, since the stelae must be preserved and not moved. The food is native dishes and fresh. The coffee is from the nearby mountains and the cacao is from the trees in the village.

(posted August 29, 2017)

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