Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tikal: Good Place for Rock, Bad Place for Rain

I took a trip into western Belize and Guatemala recently and visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The extensive ruins sit within dense forest. This particular Mayan city was unusual in that one of the kings (an especially long-lived one--they only built new temples every 20 years) decided that a two-temple design was better than the traditional one-temple set up. Thus, there are many plazas where two temples face one another. The temples are tall in order to be close to the heavens, but they have a cave-like entrance at the top that served as a connection to the underworld. OK. So I'm a little fuzzy on the details. I was looking at toucans, coati and monkeys. We decided to go into the park late one afternoon, so that we could use our pass the next morning. We planned to get up at 4:30AM to see the sunrise from Temple IV (an especially tall one). Our guide for the afternoon trip was great. He was a cowboy that went to a school to become a tourist guide for all of the parks in Guatemala. It sounded pretty intense (most of his class flunked out). In the slow cowboy season, he is a guide in Tikal. Our first walk through was especially pleasant because everybody was leaving the park as we were going in.(View from temple IV looking at the Gran Plaza Temples facing one another, three pictures from the Gran Plaza) We went up on the highest temple and had it to ourselves.

The next morning we woke up at 4am for a special, peaceful observation of sunrise from the top of a Mayan temple. Apparently, about 500 other people had the same idea. It was also overcast. Oh, and it was raining. But we did it anyway. Then I ditched the group and sat on top of a temple (number V -- named because it was the fifth one discovered) in peace an quiet (picture of the view, Gran Plaza in the distance again),

except for the spider monkeys that were making a racket below me in the tree tops. Three things to know about temple V: 1) the "stairs" for tourists to climb up the side of the temple are really a collection of wet, wooden ladders. 2) There's NO WAY they would let people climb these ladders in the US. 3) The rock stairs of the temple itself are nearly as steep. What were those Mayans thinking? The stairs are insane. Stumble and you are D-E-A-D. (this picture picture is of a smaller, less steep temple, but it was still crazy steep)
One of the most interesting things that I learned about Tikal, was that the place used to be extremely dry. It doesn't appear to be that way now. However, the site is a great place for rock! Apparently the plan was to relocate to an area with a lot of rock so they could build temples that would be great for praying for rain (they did not use slave labor, by they way, the common folks were part of the building because they wanted rain!). It didn't work. So, this was a better idea than moving to a place with a lot of rain and praying for rock? They moved to a dry place to have a rock to build temples to ask for water. I may have heard that wrong, but that seems to be the prevailing thought on the matter. Perhaps it allowed some people to stay in power? They could take credit when it did finally rain. I'm not sure. But, I do recommend the trip. Just plan on ditching the groups to enjoy the ruins on your own for a while.
(Since we're talking ancient civilizations, this story about an ancient greek computer has some pretty cool potential)

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