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Information on the Ancient Maya
The Maya World defines the geographical
boundaries of the ancient Maya empire which spread through the countries
Salvador, western Honduras and the five
Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas.
The total area is around 500,000 square kilometers.
Who Were the
The Maya were one of the most brilliant
and powerful cultures known to Mesoamerica, indeed their civilization spanned
a period of 3,000 years. They had a written language, were skilled architects,
adventurous traders and gifted artisans. They lived in an agrarian society
and had a well-developed religious system which venerated the cosmos. Royal
dynasties spawned rulers who built the exotic temples and commanding ceremonial
centers which still stand today.
Maya civilization is divided
into three different time periods. The Pre-Classic spanned the years 2000
B.C. - 250 A.D.; the Classic the years between 250 A.D. - 900 A.D. and
the Post-Classic dated from 900 A.D. - 1500 A.D., just prior to the arrival
of the Spanish conquistadors in the New World. The Maya reached their peak
during the Classic period when they produced some of their most extraordinary
works. By the time the Europeans arrived, the empire had mysteriously disintegrated
and what was left of it was weak and in disarray. Many Maya groups, however,
continued to defend their homeland against the invaders and refused to
give up their ancient beliefs. Indeed, centuries of Spanish rule could
not eliminate their language, traditional
dress or religious ceremonies,
and today visitors have the opportunity to meet the modern-day Maya.
Now considered one of the most
advanced civilizations ever to exist in ancient America, the Maya are credited
with a series of astonishing breakthroughs. Their civilization endured
for more than 3,000 years, from around 2,000 B.C. to 1521 A.D. Mayan history
is divided into three periods: Pre-Classic, from 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D.,
Classic (when the Maya reached their peak), from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. and
the Post-Classic or period of decline, from 900 A.D. to 1521 A.D. when
Spanish rule of Mexico began.
They were characterized by:
Apart from social and political
policies, the most dramatic achievements of the culture included a calendar
which was infinitely more accurate than the Gregorian in use today, the
invention of the "zero" in their mathematical system and the development
of astronomy and astrology to a high science by charting the movements
of the sun, moon and stars.
monumental-style architecture set
in urban and ceremonial centers.
an empire controlled by a network
of city-states with dense populations.
a well-ordered social class system
with defined occupations and trades.
a system of hieroglyphic writing,
the use of codex ( bark paper books) and a calendar.
development of arts and sciences
such as medicine.
trade carried on within a wide sphere.
Commercial routes extended from the Maya World north to Central Mexico
and south as far as Panama.
an agrarian society based on the
cultivation of corn. Irrigation was practised in some areas.
a well-defined religious system
based on the cosmos and nature which required honoring the god of the sun,
moon, rain and corn, for example.
The Maya were also very creative
and excelled in sculpture, painting, pottery and other arts. The carved
facades of their temples and palaces rival those of ancient Greece and
Rome and the jade artifacts, polychrome ceramics and bone carvings found
at sites throughout the area are eloquent testimony to their skills.
The northernmost department of
Guatemala, was once the center of the ancient Maya people. Reminders and
remains of this civilization are found in over 200 distinct archaeological
sites within an area covering more than 125,000 square miles and five countries.
Today, we still call this "El
Mundo Maya" (the World of the Maya). The area encompasses not only Guatemala,
but parts of Belize, Mexico, Honduras
and El Salvador.
The development of the Maya culture
cover three periods: (1) Pre-classic from 2000 BC to 300 AD, (2) Classic
from 300 to 900 AD, and (3) Post-classic from 900 to 1500 AD.
The sciences of mathematics,
astronomy, agriculture and architecture were astutely developed by the
Maya who also made great strides in the complex areas of socio-politics
and economics. The hieroglyphics they developed to convey their thoughts
have not yet been totally deciphered and are found in their codex, stelae
and monuments as well as in the evolution of their ethical, aesthetic and
Many of the Indian dialects presently
spoken by the different ethnic groups in Guatemala have a common linguistic
root: the Maya.
The park covers 222 square miles
amidst the thick, tropical jungle of El Petén
and is the only place in the world designated by UNESCO as both a cultural
and natural heritage.
The easiest access to the park
is by air. It is just a 20-minute flight from
City to the airport of Santa Elena. From there you can reach Tikal
in 45 minutes over an excellent highway.
There are more than 4,000 structures
or constructions in Tikal. The oldest date from the Pre-classic period
(800 BC), and the most recent from the Post-classic period (900 AD). It
was during this period that the Maya attained their artistic, architectural,
mathematic, agricultural and commercial heights.
This site is located in the southwestern
part of El Petén on the shores of La Pasion River. The most beautiful
and best preserved stelae of the Post-classic period can be found here
along with ceramic pieces and anthropomorphic pottery figurines. The origin
of the founders is still unknown, but the first settlements date back as
far as 800 BC.
These important sites are nestled
in a small lagoon that is reachable by water craft. For the Maya enthusiast
and nature lovers, a tour of one or more of these sites is a must.
The city is comprised of two sectors
of rectangular structures laid in such a manner that they form streets
and plazas. Yaxhá is located 50 miles from Flores. The hieroglyphic
inscriptions indicate that it was inhabited sometime between the Pre-classic
and Post-classic periods.
The oldest of the Maya cities, it
is believed that this is where the Maya consolidated their culture; here
their writing system was perfected and where their calendar started. Located
about 16 miles north of Tikal, it is
accessible from Flores. Discovered in 1916, it bloomed during the Classic
period. A beautiful painted mural was discovered in one of the structures
and here you will also find the oldest Maya stelae dated about 328 BC.
Located near Puerto Barrios, in
the Motagua Valley, this is a site noted for its spectacular stelae, large
zoomorphal stones and a temple.
Located just over the border in
is reached either by road or air from Guatemala
City. The small town adjacent to the ruins is lovely and has a full
range of accommodations.
Less than an hour southwest of Guatemala
City is located the famous and fabled town of La
Antigua Guatemala in the Department of Sacatepequez. Some of the town
has been restored to its colonial splendor while other parts show the devastation
of the earthquake which destroyed the town in 1773. Handicraft and jade
shops abound in the town also notable for its Holy Week celebration held
the week before Easter. Indian villages of interest surrounding Antigua
include San Felipe, San Juan del Obispo, Santo Maria de Jesus, San Antonio
Aguas Calientes and Santa Catarina Barahona.
The town of Rabinal, located in
this department, is known for its pre-Hispanic ceramic production as well
as for the beauty of its hand-painted calabash gourds using the "nij" technique.
San Miguel Chicaj is known for the quality and the beauty of its textiles.
This town is located in the highlands
84 miles from Guatemala
City. Market days are Tuesday and Friday, and it is the major market
in the area. Its major festival, Nim Ajij Solola (Grand Day of Solola),
is celebrated on August 15th.
The main tourist center of this
region is Panajachel, located on the shores of Lake
Atitlan. The town dates back to pre-Columbian times, and today is a
lively resort community of hotels, restaurants and shops. It is also the
hub where visitors can travel by boat to other villages around the lakeshore.
The main attraction in this village,
located about two miles from Panajachel, is the
colorful costumes worn by its inhabitants. The women's dress consists of
three pieces, all woven on a backstrap loom. The "huipil"has colorful embroidered
geometric patterns which are repeated, in the design of the men's trousers.
Located five miles from Panajachel,
the village of San Antonio Palopo can be reached by either boat or car.
The inhabitants, of Cakchiquel origin, are mainly involved in agriculture
and the production of mats and fiber goods which are woven from reeds harvested
directly from the lake.
This is the largest and most traditional
of the lake towns. It is reached by boat from Panajachel.
The inhabitants are of Tzutugil origin with a demonstrated talent for the
arts: oil and water painting and carved sculptures. The women wear a distinctive
halo-type headdress created by winding a long ribbon around the crown of
Other villages on the lake shore
are San Lucas Toliman, San Pedro, San Juan, Santa Ana, San Pablo, San Marcos
and Santa Cruz La Laguna. The inhabitants of these villages engage mostly
in agriculture and fishing as well as the production of textiles and woven
Santo Tomas Chichicastenango, known
for its Indian market held every Thursday and Sunday, is only 87 miles
from Guatemala City.
It is the commercial center of the Department of Quiche.
Indigenous people from throughout
the region stream into town on market days to buy, sell, socialize and
worship. Add the tourists attracted to the market from all over the world,
and you have the colorful outdoor spectacle which has made Chichicastenango
one of the world's popular tourist destinations.
While buyers and sellers bargain
for items such as produce, flowers and handicrafts, Mayan-Christian rites
are practiced by devout Indians on the steps of the Santo Tomas and Señor
Sepultado del Calvario churches which face on either end of the market
The Department of Totonicapan is
due west of Chichicastenango. The capital, San Miguel, is located 135 miles
northwest of Guatemala
City. Over 40 textile, wooden toy and pottery factories are located
there. The nearby town of Momostenango is a major producer of woolen blankets
and the famous Momosteco poncho. The village of San Francisco El Alto also
has a number of attractions. Friday is the market day in this village.
Other towns of interest in Totonicapan are Andres Xecul, where the church
has a facade that reproduces the design in the huipil worn by the local
women, and San Cristobal, where the church is richly decorated with 17th
and 18th century religious objects.
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second
largest city, is 128 miles northwest of Guatemala
City. Situated in a large valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes,
this highland city maintains the traditions of its Mayan-Quiche cultural
heritage together with its colonial past and dynamic modern life.
Two principal Indian towns in
the region are Salcaja and Zunil.
Further north, atop the Cuchumatanes
mountain range, is the Indian village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan. Located
about 31 miles north of Huehuetenango, the village is known for the brilliant
colors in its costumes and the traditions centered around its annual festival
held around November 1st.
Thirty-five miles northwest of Guatemala
City, Chimaltenango is located in the highlands of the Sierra Madre.
The surrounding terrain is broken with deep ridges, beautiful valleys and
The villages here are of Cakchiquel
origin. Santa Apolonia is a center for the production of pre-Hispanic type
ceramic. Comalapa is an important center for popular Indian painting. Patzun
is known for the Corpus Christi festivities the first week of June.
The department of Alta Verapaz is
about 134 miles due north of Guatemala
City. The descendants living there are of the Maya-Kekchi group. The
towns of Tactic and San Pedro Carcha are famous for their silver jewelry.
The textiles produced in San Juan Chamelco utilize the "tzu 'bil" technique
of braiding or twisting. The designs feature figures of ducks, pineapples
and butterflies. Coban is the capital of this department.