TIKAL, Guatemala — Dark, leaden clouds hang low over the treetops, dripping lacy tendrils like a gray Spanish moss. Perhaps the threat of rain is a belated answer to the imprecations--and sacrifices, human and otherwise--of ancient Maya priests.
Almost obscured in the mist is the forest of northern Guatemala, the region called the Peten. It's the part of this Central American nation that's on the lowland plain of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Hidden deep in the foliage is the grandest of all Maya ceremonial centers in Mesoamerica. Behind the towering ceiba trees, sacred to the Mayas, and among the cedars and Spanish mahoganies, intertwined by thick, snake-like liana vines with their needle-sharp spurs, is the ancient city of Tikal.
At its peak, the Maya society created engineering and architectural marvels. Well before the birth of Christ they had mastered time and astronomy to devise a celestial calendar accurate within seconds of the best we can do with our atomic clocks.
Pyramids tower 20 and more stories high, crafted from hewn limestone blocks, plastered and painted. Erected without the use of draft animals or metal tools, they were engineered soundly enough to have lasted more than 1,000 years.
Eroded by Time
Walk along the dirt road from the primitive Jungle Inn, in the center of the 222-square-mile Tikal National Park, to the Great Plaza. Looming high above the trees are two facing pyramids, eroded by time and weather to a dull gray, but once alive with brilliant contrasting colors--reds and blues and hues of cream.
Marvel at the effort, the talent, the dedication that went into designing and building them and thousands of other structures. Marvel even more at the agility of the Maya priests when you climb the narrow, high-rising, awkward steps. They trod these stones clad in ornate robes, burdened with elaborate headdresses and jeweled ornaments, carrying the weighty staffs and symbols of their high office.
The pyramid at one end of the Great Plaza has been designated Temple I by archeologists, who mapped and reclaimed the six-square-mile center of Tikal from the ravages of the rain forest, and from human predators. A massive stone structure, it is topped by an elaborately carved roof comb that towers 145 feet above the plaza floor.
Facing it across the expanse of the plaza is the Temple of Masks, so-called because of its richly embellished facade. It is almost a matching structure, but a little more squat and massive.
Between them is the plaza floor, four superimposed layers of plaster laid on the limestone bedrock, covering more than 2 1/2 acres. The first of these floors is believed to have been laid in about 150 BC, the top layer in the year 700.
Across the plaza to the right of Temple I is a small ball court, the scene of a game believed to have had great religious significance.
The players, clad in protective hip and knee pads, tried to coax a rubber ball through a vertical hoop mounted on the wall without using their hands. Scholars still argue whether it was the captain of the winning or losing team who was ritualistically beheaded.
Positioned on the plaza floor, in rows and groupings, are more than 70 stelae, vertical stone monuments resembling tombstones. Many have matching altars--round, thick, drum-like stones placed flat on the ground. Most are elaborately inscribed with complex hieroglyphics.
As you marvel at the structures, don't let the massive nature of the pyramids deceive you. When you reach the top of Temple I, the true architectural and engineering genius of the Mayas becomes increasingly apparent.
Number Nine Was Sacred
It's not just a huge pile of limestone blocks, but a skillfully designed structure with nine terraces (the number nine was sacred to the Mayas), complicated insets, decorative moldings and a stairway from the plaza to the peak. At the top, a building platform supports a three-room temple.
From atop the pyramid, you can look out at the broad expanse of jungle and at the six-square-mile center of Tikal that is partially excavated and restored.
To one side, Temple IV, the highest standing Mesoamerican structure, soars 212 feet from its base to the top of its roof comb. To the right lies the West Plaza, North Acropolis and other groupings of what once were remarkable temples and palaces and plazas. To the left is the temple reservoir, South Acropolis and a complex of structures and ball courts.
In Central Tikal, more than 3,000 constructions--temples, ceremonial platforms, palaces, shrines, residences, causeways and a ritual sweat-bath house--have been mapped and unearthed. As many as 10,000 earlier constructions are believed to underlie the surface, buried by succeeding generations of Mayas and by the encroaching forest.
The Tikal project, begun by the museum at the University of Pennsylvania in 1956, unearthed only the tip of the Tikal iceberg.