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November 5/ 2003
- Press Releases

Sophia Foundation from Spain highlights the Maya City of Copán

• Copán: Athens of the Mayan World

Without a doubt, of all the great civilizations of antiquity, the Maya are one of the most beautiful pages written by man in the great book of universal history. This fascinating society emerged more than 15 centuries ago in the heart of the American continent, leaving behind ruins that are still standing today, blanketed in clouds of memory and oblivion. Although much of their legacy has been discovered and studied, many monuments remain hidden in the undergrowth, sleeping peacefully through history.

One of the oldest and longest living cultures of Pre-Columbian America, the Maya began to disappear at the dawn of our own era. And they left behind foundations that would support many subsequent peoples and cultures. But the Maya were not a great territorial empire whose provinces depended on a centralized government as did the ancient Egyptians and Romans. Instead, they more closely resembled the ancient Greeks, who embraced geopolitical diversity. They were a multicultural society and although they shared the same religion, cosmic vision, mentality and values, and had similar customs and traditions, they were a diverse collection of autonomous city-states that enjoyed political, economic and social independence.

From an archeological point of view, the “Mayan civilization” is actually a rich mosaic of monumental cities. The better known of these include Tikal, Palenque and Chichen-itza, but here our focus is a lesser-known metropolis that shined with its own special light for many centuries: the city of Copán, considered by archaeologists to be the Athens of the Mayan World.

Copán is located in western Honduras and covers some 120 hectares. It was home to a legendary dynasty of 16 governors who ruled for nearly four centuries (426-820 A.D.) during the height of the Mayan Classical period, reaching their pinnacle during the 8th century A.D. Their elegant pyramids, temples and edifices were originally adorned with polychrome reliefs, and even today their finely carved stone stelae are of a craftsmanship that is unparalleled anywhere in the Americas.

At dawn we walk toward the great Copán Archeological Park, eager to explore the centuries old ruins of this mysterious city/sanctuary whose sublime monuments have awakened the fantasies of more than a few travelers, writers and adventurers. As we approach the archaeological site we receive a noisy welcome from a squawking troupe of red macaws. We walk through them with absolute trust. For the ancient Maya, the macaw was a sacred bird. With feathers that reflect the extraordinary purity of the three primary colors of sunlight - red, blue and yellow - the Maya saw the macaw as a beautiful epiphany to Aha-Kinich, their Sun God. The birds’ presence reminds us that we are entering a sacred city. We follow the path through a tall stand of tropical trees whose roots seem to stretch endlessly throughout the site, in some cases even protecting ancient ruins that have yet to be unearthed and remain unseen to the untrained eye. Finally, after climbing a steep set of stone steps that winds through the underbrush, we stand before the vast stretch of green that surrounds the great ceremonial center of ancient Copán. The city’s monumental architecture invites our imaginations to fly, conjuring images of a glorious past full of splendor.

The Copán site is home to numerous points of attraction: the Main Plaza whose towering pyramid symbolizes the celestial world, which the Maya believed to consist of three levels, the highest of which was the realm of the gods. Today the plaza is covered with a soft blanket of emerald green grass, spotted with altars and commemorative stelae. These monoliths, magnificently carved in stone, fulfill a triple mission: historical, chronological and astronomical. On one hand they chronicle important events in the history of Copán’s royalty and clergy. On the other, they serve as precise markers of time, as the ancient Maya were expert astronomers whose keen observation of the movement of the celestial bodies allowed them to predict with great exactness the passage of the seasons, eclipses, climactic changes and equinoxes.

Next to the central pyramid is the famous Ball Court, perhaps the best conserved in the entire Mayan world. It was here that the Maya played pokyan, a game whose origins remain lost in the fogs of myth and time. We can assume that the game served a ritual purpose (as most sacred traditions do in ancient societies), but we cannot know for certain what that purpose was. What we do know is that the game was played by two teams, each dressed in their respective ceremonial costumes, on a court consisting of a long central pit lined by two parallel walls, sharply inclined and facing one another. Atop each of these walls are three stone markers carved as macaws to symbolize the Sun God. The object of the game was to keep the ball from falling into the pit while attempting to earn points by hitting the stone markers. Players were only allowed to touch the ball with their elbows, knees and hips.

Not far from the Ball Court is the majestic Hieroglyphic Staircase, built by one of Copán’s greatest rulers to honor his ancestors. The staircase is built with stones carved in hieroglyphics, more than 1,250 pieces that together are the largest single piece of ancient text ever found on the American continent. The Maya were the only Pre-Columbian culture to use hieroglyphics, and one of only three - with China and Egypt - to have developed a writing system complex enough to record their myths and sacred literature. The language was also used in commerce and politics and to keep historical records. To date, the hieroglyphs at Copán have been only partially deciphered by archaeologists.

The Acropolis is another important archaeological site at Copán. Home to two great plazas and surrounded by important buildings, this was the heart of the city’s royalty. Copán, like other sacred cities in ancient times, was designed both geographically and geometrically to represent a microcosm of the world of the divine. It serves as a sort of universal scale model oriented toward the four directions and set on an axis mundi, or world axis, which marks the virtual center of the cosmogony, the starting point of life, without which it would be impossible to effectively link the three levels of creation: the heavens, earth and the underworld.

The city of Copán, then, is an architectural reproduction of the Mayan Myth of Creation and its various levels. During the rainy season, the lower plazas of the Acropolis flooded, created a beautiful lake that symbolized the Primal Ocean of cosmogony. From these waters emerged the pyramids, an archetype of the Sacred Mountain in whose innards live ancestral spirits. In fact, the Mayan word for “plaza”, naab, also means “ocean” or “primal waters”, while the word for “pyramid”, witz, also means “sacred mountain”. The ancient Maya were firm believers in imitation dei, recreating through architecture the sacred spaces that allowed them to experience on earth the divine geography of the heavens.

The plaza west of the Acropolis s home to an important set of buildings whose interior, unseen by most visitors, holds two of Copán’s most recent discoveries: the funeral temples known as Rosalila and Margarita. These unique structures, buried deep under the ruins and still covered with their original reliefs, are helping scientists unravel numerous enigmas of the Mayan world. One of these great mysteries revolves around the Mayan custom of using old temples as foundations upon which to build new ones, keeping the older temples intact instead of tearing them down to make room for the new ones. Today there is no scientifically supported explanation for this custom. What does remain are these buried temples, covered in white stucco and carefully prepared to withstand the tests of time, as if the Maya were preparing a deceased human for entry into the “great beyond”. Today we can admire the original Rosalila temple thanks to a network or magnificent tunnels dug throughout the understructure, which allow visitors to see “what was never meant to be seen.” The full size reproduction of this temple, which is the centerpiece of the Copán Archaeological Museum, brings Rosalila back to life, down to the minutest detail. For those who are fortunate enough to make their way through the tunnels that lead to the original temple deep within the ruins, an overpowering feeling of respect and awe is unavoidable. Muted voices from the past leave behind nothing but a reverent silence and a wave of emotion as our eyes take in the temple, a mysterious presence, a “being of stone” that appears to have once been alive.

Right in front of Pyramid 16, the structure that houses Rosalila, we find one of the most important sculptures in the Mayan World, for its magnificent craftsmanship as well as its historic significance. It’s Altar Q, carved during the reign of the final governor of Copán, Yax Pac, whose name means “first dawn”. The altar depicts each of the 16 leaders of the Copán dynasty, four on each side, lined in circular chronological order so that the first ruler and founder of the Copán dynasty, Yax Kuk Mo, may pass into the hands of the final ruler, Yax Pac, the rights of the throne. The altar is the final ruler’s way of expressing his legitimate ascent to power.

A little further on, we climb to the higher East Patio, where the Royal Council and the Popular Assembly met before the Temple of Oracles, whose pyramidal shape represents the mythical mountain Mo’Witz, home to the divine protector of the Copán dynasty. This magnificent pyramid is topped by a temple whose eaves are fashioned in the shape of the Great Sun Serpent. It is not difficult to imagine ancient leaders standing before the temple proclaiming oracles by which Mayan gods blessed new governors and legitimized their laws with divine powers. Let us not forget that the Maya, like other ancient peoples, lived in a world where religion was closely entwined with daily life, both personal and political, public and private, making even political events a time of ceremony and public ritual, a part of the calendar of festivals.

Finally, further out from the ritual center, we find ourselves in the residential zone known as Las Sepulturas after the burials uncovered inside the residences. These ancient stones tell us how the everyday Maya lived and died. Today the site is enveloped in silence and the invisible forces of nature are evident in its surroundings. A quetzal bird looks down on us from a nearby ceiba tree, its green and blue feathers reminiscent of the mythical Feathered Serpent. The ceiba, which grows in abundance across the Copán Valley, was thought by the Maya to be a sacred tree symbolizing the axis of the universe and three worlds of the divine, with its enormous root spans representing the depths of the underworld, its spiny knotted trunk the world of man and the painful tests that must be faced there, and its thick canopy the rise to the gods.

Copán and everything in it breathes an intense aroma of magic and mystery. Strolling through the ruins we can breathe in the vital air of nature in all her splendor. When Ahau Kinich, the sun god, goes into hiding, his inseparable companion Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, begins her timid rise on the horizon. Then Chac the rain god splits the atmpsohere with enough force to awaken the earth and bring Uo, the sacred frog god, to a raucous croaking to announce the coming of the rainy season. Life returns to normal as Alaghom-Naom, the mother earth, awakens after a long sleep during the dry months, penetrating the air with an intense and refreshing aroma that rises to the heavens like an insence that carries the dreams of man to the gods. At that moment the animals, too, join in the great celebration of the cosmos, dancing and singing while Hunab-Ku, the Supreme Unnamed God, watches over it all with serene delight.

One thing’s for sure: the Maya have not disappeared forever. Today, nearly 4,000 of their descendants inhabit the hills and valleys surrounding the ancient cities. These people speak their own Mayan dialect, conserve their ancestral traditions and perform the rites of a culture that has existed for thousands of years and still today remembers the greatness of its ancestors - a greatness that has been recognized worldwide, after the Ruins of Copan were declared a Heritage for Humanity site by the United Nations in 1980.

Today the Mayan culture is one of the most important civilizations of the ancient world. Mayan monuments, traditions, customs, beliefs, science and art have surpassed the limits of space and time to come to us today as a synonym for greatness and wisdom. A wisdom that today remains a mystery to us.
Francis J. Vilar & Herminia Gisbert

El Mundo de Sophia, D.L. PM-2099-98
Magazine Published by the Sophia Foundation in cooperation with the Sophia Studies Center for the promotion of thought and art by ancient cultures. Address: Jaime Ferrer, 3 - 07012, Palma de Mallorca, Baleares, Spain. Tel: 971-72-1555


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