Maya 2012: Honduras
I first arrived in Copán on a Friday afternoon, traveling with a group of university students on a service-learning summer program. We pulled into the town of Copán Ruinas in a drizzle. We were excited to tour the famous site in the morning, but first we gathered on the flat roof of our guesthouse to watch the sunset across the Valle de Copán.
For an hour, the sky eased through pastels and we took it in, trying to imagine 20,000 Maya walking in this valley 1,000 years ago.
As we softly talked, the sky darkened and someone pointed out Venus, one of the most important sky deities, especially in Copán. We would see Venus depicted on carved masks in the morning and would learn how the Maya timed their wars with Venus’s cycles.
But for now, we could only look at the planet from our perch on that rooftop. Before even setting foot in the ruins we felt their importance, in the sky and in the warm evening air.
The next morning we wandered the ruins, stunned not only by the carvings, tunnels, and layered dynasties, but also by the tranquility. Neatly trimmed lawns connected clusters of ancient attractions, which we climbed and inspected.
Honduras’s slice of the Mundo Maya is miniscule compared to the other countries, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for with one word: Copán.
Copán’s history is concisely documented on Altar Q, the famous lineage monument in front of the Acropolis with 16 kings in a row, each handing power to the other down the line. The area had been inhabited for centuries, but never consolidated under a strong, single dynasty the way it was when K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or Great-Sun First Quetzal Macaw, arrived from the nation of Tikal. His ascension to the throne coincided with the ending of the 8th b’aktun and beginning of the 9th, giving Yax K’uk’ Mo’ supernatural powers in the eyes of the people.
That his dynasty lasted 16 generations—400 years, another complete b’aktun—further strengthened the importance of long-cycle endings to the Maya. An excellent PBS/NOVA special called Lost King of the Maya tells the story of the discovery of Yax K’uk’ Mo’s 1,600-year-old, 130-foot-deep grave.
Copán collapsed with the end of the Classic Period in A.D. 900, consumed by the jungle, known only to locals and wildlife until gringo explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood recorded some of the longest lasting descriptions and images (Catherwood made fantastically detailed line drawings) ever produced of the place.
Stephens wrote of their approach, their guide slashing with his machete until they reached “fourteen monuments of the same character and appearance, some with more elegant designs, and some in workmanship equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians; one displaced from its pedestal by enormous roots; another locked in the close embrace of branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth; another hurled to the ground, and bound down by huge vines and creepers; and one standing, with its altar before it, in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the woods, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people. The only sounds that disturbed the quiet of this buried city were the noise of monkeys moving among the tops of the trees.”
In Copán, this mood still stands. The city’s last Long Count date was A.D. 822. The rest is history.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012