The Great Pyramid of the Jaguar or Temple I of Tikal is one of the largest buildings in the former Mayan city of Tikal. The Tikalcomplex is on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. The city of Tikal was and is one of the largest Mesoamerican cities located in the northern lowlands of Guatemala, in the department of Peten. The pyramid of the Great Jaguar Pete was built in the style which is characterized by a steep tiered base topped with a smaller temple. The temple was built in the classical period around the year 730 AD.
The temple was probably founded by Jasaw K'awiil Chan, a Maya Ruler of the classical period and member of the dynasty who reigned from 682 to 784 of Tikal. The tomb of this ruler is located by archaeologists in the temple, although it is unclear whether the temple is built for this purpose or that it was a later adaptation.
The temple is about 44 feet high and spread over nine levels. At the foot of the temple measuring only 30 by 34 meters. The main room is dedicated to Kukulcan, an important god. The temple is characterized by a striking dakkam, a typical feature of the Mayan architecture.
During the Middle Preclassic period (900-300 BC), ancient Maya farmers in the Petén region of northern Guatemala settled a series of low rainforest ridges at Tikal overlooking swampy bajos. After playing a secondary role in the Middle and Late Preclassic to neighboring Maya centers at Nakbé and El Mirador, Tikal became an Early Classic center in league with Teotihuacan, then peaked as one of several regional capitals in the Late Classic of AD 600-850 (along with Calakmul, Palenque, and Copan), before being abandoned for unknown reasons by about 900 AD.
Today’s visitor to Tikal sees impressive Early Classic structures such as the recently restored Lost World Pyramid and portions of the North Acropolis. The site's dominant character, however, comes from its Late Classic architecture in the Great Plaza and adjoining areas. Here tall pyramidal structures reach over the top of rainforest foliage (fig.1), flanked by extensive, lowlying palace structures of limestone with corbel vaulted rooms.
There are two museums at Tikal, the Stelae Museum and the Sylvannus G. Morley Museum, located within a few minutes’ walk of each other near the Visitor Centre. We visited both on the morning after our “grand tour” with Miguel, while waiting for him to pick us up for our transfer to Belize. There are both pros and cons to visiting the museums either before or after your visit to the ruins. Come beforehand and you will get some useful context for your exploration of the park, although a knowledge of Spanish will help as most descriptive signs are only in that language (a shame when you think how many foreign visitors the park receives). Come afterwards as we did and you will have a better appreciation of what you are seeing and be able to imagine the various artefacts as they were when first discovered.
The contents of the Stelae Museum, which was the first that we visited, are obvious in the name. You can get a close look here at a number of stelae found on the site, and there are also some interesting “before and after” photographs of many of the temples, showing how they looked when first discovered, largely buried under centuries of forest growth. Rather sadly, many of the photos are worn and badly kept so it’s not as easy to make out the images.
The Sylvannus G. Morley Museum has cabinets displaying a number of objects found in various tombs and pyramids on the site, nicely arranged around a small courtyard. In one corner is the most interesting exhibit, a reconstruction of the tomb of Jasaw Chan K'awiil (aka Ah Cacao or “Prince Chocolate”) as it was when first discovered by archaeologists. The bones, seashells and ceramics are the originals, whereas the jade artefacts are reproductions (the originals are in the National Museum in Guatemala City). This was the one exhibit that was well labelled in English. There is also one stela here, rather than in the museum dedicated to them: the famous stela no. 31, which is carved on all four sides. Two sides show spear throwers, each wearing a large feathered headdress and carrying a shield in his left hand; on the front is a complicated carving of an individual carrying a head in his left arm and a chair in his right.
Admission to both museums costs 10 Q – pay in either and keep your ticket to show in the other. Opening times are 8.00 AM to 4.30 PM daily.
Photography is not allowed but I’m afraid I did sneak a couple of shots, as you can see, though was of course careful not to use flash.
A small ball court lies between Temple I and the Central Acropolis. This has the same design as most of these structures, with a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces (we were later to see a variation on this design in Lamanai in Belize). The location and small size of this one has led experts to conclude that it was largely ceremonial in nature
The rules of the ball game are not fully known, but it is thought that the aim was to keep the ball in play using only certain parts of the body (hip and possibly forearms). In later versions iron rings were mounted on the walls and goals could be scored by shooting through them, much as in modern-day basketball.
Although similar games were played in all Mesoamerican cultures, it is among the Maya that the association with sacrifice is at its strongest. Losing players would be sacrificed to the gods (although the rewards of sacrifice were thought to be such that this was an honour rather than a punishment). Captives were often shown in Maya art, and it is assumed that these captives were sacrificed after losing a rigged ritual ballgame. But it is the Aztecs rather than the Maya who are thought possibly to have decapitated losing players and to have even played using a human head in place of the ball
The whole of the north side of the Grand Plaza is occupied by the collection of buildings known as the North Acropolis. Unfortunately this is the point on our tour where I began to run out of steam (a combination of the longest walk I’d done in over a year, and the heat of the midday sun), so I didn’t explore as fully as I might have done – and as I now wish I had done, of course!
The North Acropolis area was built and occupied over a period of time, beginning in the Preclassic Period around 350 BC, as demonstrated by more than a dozen successive construction levels set one on top of the other. It developed into a funerary complex for the ruling dynasty of the Classic Period, with tombs and temples being added for each royal burial, some on top of older structures. A large number of stelae and altars were erected around the site, and many are still in situ, protected by little thatch roofs, although others have been moved to the on-site museum (see separate tip). Various tombs have been excavated here, including those of Huh Chaan Mah K’ina (or Curl Nose) and of K’awil Chaan (Stormy Sky) and members of the nobility such as a woman from about 100 BC, buried with several paintings, jade, and other rich items.
The North Acropolis is also important archaeologically because it contains evidence of the first settlers in Tikal, who came to the area about 800 BC. Studies have revealed that along with the foundations of the Lost World, those of the North Acropolis are the most ancient areas where the first settlers of Tikal established themselves.
Facing the North Acropolis across the Grand Plaza is the smaller Central Acropolis, a complex of residential and administrative palaces where the Royal Family of Tikal and their relatives lived. It consists of 45 buildings and 6 courtyards, linked by passages and stairways. Many of the chambers contain built-in beds of rock, over which skins and mats were placed to make comfortable beddings, and their stone doorways have holes where curtains would have been hung, for privacy and/or warmth.
Unlike Temple II which it faces across the Grand Plaza, Temple I cannot be climbed. Also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar, it was built around 730 AD and was the tomb of Jasaw Chan K'awiil (aka Ah Cacao or “Prince Chocolate”) who ruled from 682–734 AD. When archaeologists uncovered the tomb in 1962, they found the former ruler's skeleton lying on a woven mat and surrounded by some 180 pieces of jade (including an enormous necklace with 114 beads), human bones carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions, numerous pearls, and objects in alabaster and shell. There is a reproduction of the tomb in one of Tikal’s two museums (see separate tip) and it’s well worth checking out.
The temple rises in nine stepped levels, which may be symbolic – the Maya believed that there were nine levels to the underworld and a further thirteen levels to heaven. Temple I could thus be seen as a portal to the Underworld. Incidentally, young men who were offered (or offered themselves) for sacrifice were believed to have been able to bypass the nine levels of the underworld and proceed straight to the thirteen of heaven, hence the acceptance of human sacrifice as both an honour and reward.
It is 47 metres (154 ft) high, its pyramid topped by a funerary shrine with finely carved lintels of sapodilla wood, the execution of which probably was overseen by Jasaw Chan K'awiil as part of his plans for his own funerary monument. Two of the lintel’s planks were shipped to the British Museum, where they now are kept in a warehouse. Apparently this was done with permission, but it seems a shame to move them to a country far from their origins, and adding insult to injury not even to then display them to the public!
This is another of the temples that can be climbed, but by the time we reached here the heat and long walk made me glad instead of a rest in the shade while Chris went up. The ascent is again by wooden staircase – shorter and steeper than that of Temple IV, but not the vertical ladder-like structure of Temple V (see photo 2). The view that rewards you is of the Grand Plaza immediately below, Temple I opposite, and Temple V off to the right.
Temple II faces east towards the rising sun and stands 38 metres (125 ft) high (although it would have been more like 42 metres originally). It is also known as the Temple of the Masks and was built around 700 AD by Jasaw Chan K'awiil (aka Ah Cacao or “Prince Chocolate”), probably in honour of his wife, Lady Kalajuun Une' Mo'. The temple had a single wooden sculpted lintel bearing the portrait of a royal woman who may well have been Kalajuun Une' Mo’, but excavations have so far failed to find her tomb, if ever it was here.
The temple is constructed in three large stepped platforms, with the shrine built on the uppermost and the now partially-crumbled roof comb above that. On the sides of third platform, either side of the stone staircase, it is just possible to make out the badly-eroded masks that give the temple its alternative name.
All the temples of Tikal were built to face towards each other, and that is most evident here at the Grand Plaza, where Temples II and I face each other across its expanse. They fill its shorter sides (Temple II to the west, Temple I to the east), while the longer ones are occupied by, on the north, the extensive ruins of the North Acropolis, and on the south the Central Acropolis and a small ball court. At the centre of the Plaza is a stone hollow for sacrifices, and dotted all around are numerous stelae and altars.
The Plaza was carefully designed to provide great acoustics, so that priests on the temples could easily be heard by all the people on the ground below. Miguel took us to its centre and clapped his hands so that we could hear the resulting echo, part of the amplification effects.
It was very hot when we were here and the ruins are exposed, so you’ll be glad of your hat and a bottle of water. There are some welcome benches on the side below the Central Acropolis, shaded by trees – a lovely vantage point from which to take in the scene, including the oscillated turkeys that parade here hoping for scraps from tourists (don’t feed them however).
Our next stop was Temple III, which lies between Temple IV and the Grand Plaza. Also known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest, this was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal, dating from about 810 AD. When intact it stood 55 metres (180 feet) tall. It is believed that it may house the tomb of Chi’taam or “Dark Sun”, the last major ruler of Tikal, but if his tomb is here, it has not yet been found.
The dedication to the Jaguar Priest comes from the (damaged) carving on the wooden lintel, which shows a figure (thought to be Dark Sun) performing a ritual dance dressed in a jaguar skin. You are not permitted to climb this pyramid.
In front of the pyramid is an altar, one of the better preserved ones in the park (photo 3). It shows the head of a deity resting on a plate. The crisscross pattern used in the background represents a woven mat, a symbol of authority to the Maya.
The so-called Bat Palace lay on our route between Temples IV and III. This structure is built around a central courtyard and was originally two storeys high – the top storey collapsed but has been partially restored. The lower floor has a double row of rooms; one reaches those at the back through the entrances on the first row. Many openings, resembling windows, on the back of the building give it its other name of Palacio de las Ventanas or Window Palace.
From the Lost World area we made our way to the furthest western edge of the ruins, where one of its most impressive and best-known structures is to be found. This is Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent from a carving found on it. The pyramid has not been fully restored, and all but the temple itself and its roof comb are covered in foliage, making it easy to imagine how most of Tikal’s structures looked when first discovered.
This is the tallest structure in Tikal at 72 metres (almost 231 feet) and another that you are permitted to climb. Although tall, the ascent is easier than that of Temple V as the wooden steps form a series of staircases rather than a near-vertical ladder (see Chris descending in photo 4). This therefore was the structure I chose to climb, and I was really thrilled by the view that awaited me. Please click on the photo to see what I mean. Immediately in front of you Temple III rises above the surrounding greenery, much as the temples must have first appeared to Ambrosio Tut when he came across Tikal while collecting gum. Further away and to the left are, in order, Temples II and I, although there is no indication from here of the Grand Plaza that lies between them and the many other structures that surround it. The “hill” to the right of Temple III is in fact the South Acropolis, yet to be properly excavated. Beyond and all round lies jungle, as far as the eye can see ...
This is not a place for anyone with vertigo, or for young children, as there is nothing between you and the almost sheer drop – as the photo of me on the top (no 3) makes clear.
Temple IV is the largest pyramid built anywhere in the Maya region in the 8th century, and as it currently stands is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas. It was built by Yik’in Chan Kawil (also sometimes known as Yax Kin), who came to the throne on December 12th, 734 AD, and archaeologists believe that he was buried here. It is
We had come across other visitors at Temple V and in the Lost World complex, but not too many. This was the first point in the park where we started to encounter a lot (unsurprisingly as it’s one of the “must see” sights of the park), including a large tour group who ascended at the same time as we did. As elsewhere, the staircase has a side for going up and one for descending, and there are plenty of places to pause for a rest so that slower climbers don’t block it for others. It would have been great to find ourselves alone at the top and able to soak up the atmosphere but that was unlikely to happen – and at least one of the other tourists was able to take a good photo of the two of us! We lingered a while and soon this group was hurried away by their tour guide, leaving just ourselves and one other person up on what seemed, just briefly, to be the top of the world.
This 30 metre high pyramid dates from the late Preclassic period and was completed in the 4th century AD, although the structure that stands here today was built over four other pyramids, the oldest of which was constructed in 600 BC. It has a flat top that may have once had a wooden or similar structure on it, but was never crowned with a temple. It was decorated with stucco masks of the sun god and such was its significance to the Maya that it was preserved during later building periods when others were destroyed or built over.
Nearby is another pyramid, known simply as Structure 49, which also dates from the 4th century AD and, like Temple V, features balustrades on either side of its central staircase, relatively rare in the Maya world (photo 2).
Elsewhere in the Lost World complex are several residential palaces, some still very overgrown – see photo 3.
Next to Temple V and on the same limestone ridge lies the South Acropolis, although to the uninitiated this still overgrown complex looks like little more than a wooded hill – we would certainly have not known what we were looking at had Miguel not pointed it out. Beyond this is the Plaza of the Seven Temples, part of the Lost World, or Mundo Perdido, complex. This is the oldest area in Tikal and contains 38 structures, arranged in a harmonious pattern associated with the observation of the stars, including the cycles of Venus and the Sun, and the solstices and equinoxes.
The group of three temples on the east side of this complex were used as a visual reference for the observation of stars and the marking of time – the one on the left (and on the left in my photo) marks the alignment of the sun at the winter solstice, the one to the right of that marks its alignment at the time of the two equinoxes, and the one on the far right (not seen in my photo) that of the summer solstice. In these three temples six tombs were discovered, belonging to children and adults. They had been buried at the same time and were members of the dynastic lineage of Jaguar Paw, who lost their power in the year 378 AD due to internal strife among heirs to the throne.
This is the second highest of Tikal’s structures (59 metres or 190 feet high) and is one of several that can be climbed. Access is by steep wooden ladders (see photos 2 and 3) and I’m afraid I decided that they were just a bit too much for me, so I left it to Chris to make the effort while I sat and admired his endeavours from below. He was rewarded with a great view of Temples I and II.
The temple has been dated to about AD 700 in the Late Classic period, so it is about 200 years older than Temple VI. Unusually for Tikal’s temples it faces north, making photos something of a challenge. It is built in seven 4 metre steps as you can see in my main photo. The stairway projects over 12 metres from the pyramid base and has about 90 steps; the balustrades of the stairway are 2.6 metres wide and rise the whole height of the stairs – a design feature more common in earlier periods. The shrine at the top is the smallest of any in Tikal, and above it the roof comb was decorated with masks of the rain god Chaac, traces of which can still be seen (look above Chris in photo 4).
Because of these masks there is a theory that the temple was dedicated to Chaac, reinforced by its placement facing directly on to one of the main water reservoirs of the city. Others however believe it to be the temple of the eldest son of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I who is presumed to have died shortly after taking power in AD 734.
From Temple VI we went to the nearby palace complex known as Group G, the Palacio de los Acanalduras, passing a family of lively spider monkeys in the trees above us. We were still the only people in the area. This was a noble family’s residential palace of the Late Classic period, around 900 AD. Part has been excavated but other parts lie still largely buried as you can see in photo 2. The name means “Palace of Grooves or Channelled Walls” – it is thought that the channels were designed to collect water for Tikal’s reservoirs, although there doesn’t appear to be a clear point at which water was channelled out of the palace.
Access to the central part of the palace is through a winding tunnel. The outside entrance is framed by a carving of the head of a serpent so that you appear to be entering through its mouth. You emerge into the central courtyard, with a number of rooms opening on to it, many of which have built-in stone beds. It’s an interesting contrast to the mainly ceremonial buildings that you will visit in Tikal, as here it is possible to imagine how people (well, the richer people) lived in the city.