Sunday, May 8, 1988


I wrote this for Travel & Leisure magazine in spring 1988, shortly after my mother's death. They published it a year later, as "Temples of Doom." Most of the photographs were by Macduff Everton, who later published his own excellent book on the Maya and became a good friend. We worked together on many assignments, in India, Mexico, Georgia, and Antigua (Guatemala). 

The past is never so remote as one imagines. The journey there was easy enough: a plane about my own age took me north from Guatemala City, deep into jungle to a town that was once a week’s trek from the ruins, beside a vast and oppressive lake. From there it was only an hour on a dilapidated schoolbus to a thatched lodge and a path. Soon I was walking slowly and sweatily through a complicated tropical forest. Above me monkeys went tumbling and tossing through the twined limbs of immortal trees; black-and-white toucans creaked in surprise, nodding their yellow beaks. Once there were gods in these jungles; once there were the Maya.

People come to Tikal, in the Peten of northern Guatemala, for different reasons. The Dutchman had come to pose sociological questions. The young American couple had seen all the Mexican ruins of the Yucatán Maya, as had the aging hippie, but he had spent two decades on them and the couple were spending two weeks. The German students wanted to climb the temples and stay up there all day, meditating out loud. The ornithologists from around the world had come because the ruins were a metropolis of rare jungle birds—not so different from Tikal’s original function as a central, sacred city. And the Belgian had come to complain; he had complained his way through the rest of Guatemala, undoubtedly he had complained all the way down Mexico, and seated in the shade, sweating and blinking at the remnants of one of the great mysterious civilizations of man, he complained about the food at his hotel on the lake. When its roof caught fire he stopped complaining.

Later the next day the group flew back to Guatemala City and the Dutchman Franz and I had Tikal nearly to ourselves, except for a few naturalists who camped out. Always the local workers were there, keeping the jungle from encroaching again or repairing a step pyramid. Their ancestors had built this place—a direct link which no modern Greek or Egyptian can claim. (Today probably 2 million identifiable Maya Indians inhabit the same territory of the Mexican Yucatán and northern Guatemala as always—one-fifth the Mayan population at its height.) And Tikal must be considered along with Pompeii, Palmyra, Machu Picchu, Pagan and Angkor Wat, as one of the great ruins of the world—the Maya’s greatest city.

To our distant eye the Maya seem deeply paradoxical. They had the axle and wheel but made use of them only in toys; the circle was sacred. Nor had they invented metals. Yet they had a complex system of hieroglyphs, they were historically-minded, they had books, a game with a rubber ball, efficient reservoirs and probably sweat baths and chocolate as well; they used vaulted ceilings and created pottery, jade ornaments, cartoony paintings and sculpted bas-reliefs of great delicacy and vibrant color. Their sense of scale was enormous. And their calendar was nearly as accurate as ours, though each day had its omens and portentous meanings. Their cycles of the year (260 days and 365 days) are still in use throughout Central America. They were great observers and interpreters of the planets. Their pantheon included figures like the Fat God and the Nine Lords of the Night. Their gods might be human, or animal, or a combination—like a snake-footed god who rules a royal family. The Maya believed the world would end every 52 years, and their lives and ideas were shaped by this central perception of time as an expression of pure force.

From time’s inevitability and power they developed a culture of pain that included frequent human sacrifices, ritualized self-mutilation, and cannibalism. (The priests themselves went through tests of pain to attain and symbolize their rank.) The victim, often honored, was spread-eagled on a round stone table before the temple and his heart cut out or his head cut off with a stone knife. Blood was smeared on the standing stelae tablets as an offering. The choicest parts of his body, now blessed by the presence of a god, were distributed to the priests, the lesser parts to the witnessing nobles and rich—for the common masses never entered the sacred centers of a Maya city except as servants. Indeed, it is a privilege to enter what we think of as Tikal, for immediately one has seen more of it than most of its “inhabitants” ever did. Incense was burned daily to purify the atmosphere from the smell of blood and decomposing bodies.

There was no united Maya kingdom; only warlike city-states. Their languages were related but mutually incomprehensible. What we call the Classic Era lasted from about 250 to 900 A.D. During this Golden Age of trade, learning, and building they were one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. But an advanced astronomy and calculation of time was put constantly at the service of superstition. The Maya never went beyond this conception of the universe as a vessel of violence, with only sacrifice as a way to offset its inevitable destruction. When the world didn’t end the long wait began again, with frequent appeasements of the gods.

The Spanish destroyed all they could of the Maya culture, burning virtually all their written history, but it was already a fallen and shattered civilization long before the conquistadores arrived. And the Maya downfall—the great Maya question—continues to exert itself. We know little, really; it is hardly surprising that so many barnacles have fastened on these people to support bizarre theories. (Even today the Mormons fund archaeological projects at several Maya sites in hopes of proving the Maya were wandering Israelites.) All across Maya Mesoamerica, it happens at the same moment; the cities are abandoned one by one, all in a single century, about a thousand years ago and following five hundred years of high civilization. For some unknown reason or combination of reasons, the culture falls, the beliefs fail.

What seems likely is that the fertility of the people rose as the fertility of the overworked soil around the cities declined; famine, a high death rate, then, and a movement away from the cities. Possibly there were massacres of the nobility and priesthood. No records survive. The cities were abandoned (hundreds still lie buried beneath Peten and Yucatán forests). They had been built to glorify and defy the gods. In the end they lasted longer than the beliefs that built them—though the gods survive in transmuted form in the Indian religions of the territory, the sacred figures of jaguars or rain gods or a celestial serpent.

In the Central Acropolis I wandered through raised courtyard after raised courtyard, with massive fragmented stairways rising off into either air or other courts and “palaces” whose function is unclear. Often these ran to several rooms, often with sapodilla-wood beams firmly in place, narrow chambers that seemed to me more in character as administrative or public offices rather than apartments of priests or the wealthy. And then, along on a high open passage, I came out over the glory of the Plaza Mayor.

It is this first view of the plaza that imprints itself so strongly on the imagination. A breeze; before you, rising, the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, (Temple 1); opening, an enormous grassy plaza, a ball court, another massive temple pyramid rising steeply on your left, (Temple 2); facing, another complicated acropolis, all with stelae and sacrificial altars before them. The complexity, the restless many levels, the sheer power of the stone, the stairs and smaller pyramids ascending and descending in all directions, the vastness of contained space and time, is fantastic and overwhelming and, finally, rather empty.

It stuns because it amounts to a smidgeon. Within the six mapped miles of Tikal, the largest Mayan site yet discovered, are more than 3000 individual buildings—from the skyscraper temples right down to the thatched huts that housed most of the farming labor. At its height Tikal’s population might’ve been 40,000. Thus the Plaza Mayor is as if Rockefeller Center were all that remained of NY after our civilization fell.

I never made it all the way up Temple 1. There was a sign at the bottom saying in Spanish and English, “You climb at your own risk,” but as Franz pointed out, “I didn’t need to be told this.” (I should mention that I was about the only sissy.) Until very recently there was a chain set in the steps and running all the way up as a handgrip, but it was damaging the stone so it was taken out. I missed, naturally, the ornately carved lintel over the doorway of the ceremonial room at the top—a favorite spot for people to sit and watch the sunset over the ruins. The Temple is similar to the Egyptian pyramids in having held the tomb of an important warrior (Lord Cacao?) and two children sacrificed to accompany his death in battle.

Temple 2 was a good beginner’s temple with wide even steps and several levels of arrival. The sense of command from on high was extraordinary, and it was easy to imagine the priests intoning the rituals that involved the sense of each day’s individual destiny, good or bad, for the city and the people. What staggers is the insignificance of human life before the labor that built this, refusing to use the wheel. Tikal has a heaviness about it that is wearying. More even than the Egyptian monuments, it makes one feel small before the gods, and its lines smack constantly of ritual.

In late afternoon the Plaza Mayor became a fine and private place. The day cooled; the spider-monkeys began to screech and whimper from the nearby trees; the birds began to swoop possessively among the ruins, which took on a graininess as the bare sunlight calmed down. The acoustics were amazing—two people atop Temples 1 and 2 can have a conversation as if face to face and anyone below can hear them perfectly. It amplifies the monkey calls into great simian wars; no wonder the priests could address so easily the masses of believers below. Without the surrounding forest, their voices might have carried all the way down to the fields and farms of the common multitudes—and what a sight the jaguar priests must have been from far away, atop temples that were brightly painted in reds and blues and yellows.

And stone faces were everywhere. On the complex of the North Acropolis, shaded by little thatch huts erected by workmen, were two great grimacing masks. More astonishing was another mask at the end of a subterranean passage that you could only see with a flashlight and that the guides didn’t bother with. After two days I realized that a great wall by a stairway was in fact an even huger mask, but I had to see it from a distance. At one time most of the pyramids and temples had giant masks the size of two men in plastered and painted stucco. Then the city must have seemed a sequence of many faces, rulers and gods, watching always.

The guidebooks and maps were misleading in places. The East Plaza, so grandly described, is (save for a temple) mostly indecipherable forest now. The enormous South Acropolis is a massive hill in the jungle—a mezzanine of trees. When I walked around it I ran into several Guatemalan workers trying to bring down one peripheral tree with machetes.

But there was no disappointment about the Plaza of the Seven Temples, which rises majestically from thick jungle. The surfaces of the walls are surprisingly intact, for this plaza goes back centuries before Christ—one of Tikal’s earliest. The plaza itself was enormous, shaded by palm trees, with a triple ball court. Nearby rose two enormous pyramids, one with four staircases framed by remnants of huge masks, and together they made another plaza as impressive as the Plaza Mayor, but more serene and subtle.

When the Maya had built these gigantic constructions, they began with a core to which they simply added and added, using a kind of volunteer slave labor. Temple 4, the highest, is 250,000 cubic yards of building material, and took at least forty years to build. Heavily overgrown, wooden ladders have been laid end to end up its side, which isn’t very steep. As with all the temples, at the level before the true summit there is a kind of mini-plaza, with steps to an anteroom and small ceremonial chamber. At one time there were immense stone carvings around the doors and walls, but either the jungle or the early explorers have done away with these now, as on most of the temples.

The final stretch of Temple 4 was a naked metal ladder on the side of the pinnacle. (Those who don’t feel up to the ladder can content themselves that the view really isn’t much different.) The top was still spacious, with more steps and the stone wall rising ever higher; birds darted around its peak. The sense of giddiness was unnerving. Before me, past the lip of stone, the surrounding jungle stretched for miles into the lowland hills and mists. The soft light of afternoon lay on the pillars of Temples 1 and 2, thrusting above the trees like withered bookends, and on Temple 5, all alone. I was at the summit of the Mayan world—the highest man-made point in the hemisphere until the tall office buildings of the late 19th century. And 1000 years ago the jungle wasn’t here, enveloping the world—there were cultivated fields. Like lone skyscrapers these temples must have towered over the people who’d built them. They were a massive achievement designed to sate the gods and keep the commoners in their place far below.

More than anything, being up here reminded me what obsessed heros the early explorers were who hacked through the jungle, lived in Mayan ruins in great discomfort, cleared, studied, dug, sketched, and brought back as much as they could. Though Tikal was never really “discovered” because it was never really lost, the first Westerner to visit was a Swiss in 1877, who took the lintels from Temples 1 and 4 back to Basel. The great initial exploration was done by a young Britisher, Alfred Percival Maudslay, looking for adventure, and his photographs and maps of the early 1880s are one of the signal achievements in Mayan exploration. Though Maudslay’s men cleared away much of Tikal, the jungle inevitably grew back after he left, and until the U. of Pennsylvania’s massive project (1956-67) every archaeologist had to deal with the jungle anew. And even now the jungle continuously tries to take back Tikal.

Eaten by vegetation, Temple 5, (700 A.D.) has no helpful ladders or restored stairway. To me it was the easiest climb. I am traumatized by heights, and an honest hillside with plenty of roots and trees to hang onto is preferable to a steep uncertain staircase.

Temple 3 was the most difficult ascent, with precarious footholds and handholds of dry branches. It wasn’t dangerous, only steep, but there were moments it was necessary simply to stop, hang by the fingernails, and try to chart a farther few feet up. (An unusual and pleasant surprise was how easy it was to come down.) On top I was so staggered by having made it that I missed the faint but treasured carving on the wood lintel over the doorway.

Day after day I came back to that high view of the Plaza Mayor, to confirm its strength. For in the end one doesn’t know quite what to make of Tikal. Its titanic mass and territorial splendor, its grace of pure force, are balanced by the great absence one feels everywhere—like a theater after the actors have all gone home. Here one is less impressed by the supposed fragility of human things—for Tikal still stands—than by the actual fragility of entire cultures. Our temples, our pyramids outlast the beliefs that build them. Emptied of that living belief, they seem like a sport of nature—a joke that the jungle has left standing. For the great shock of Tikal is that the Maya have gone, and there is no one there but you.