Tikal

As far as anyone can tell, the Temple of the Jaguar in the central plaza of Tikal was painted red, purple, yellow, and green.

For years it towered over the open courtyard, taller than the palace compound to the west. The palace, though, had a series of views overlooking the artificial reservoir. The setting sun streamed over the jungle canopy, reflecting off the lake, and poured into the noble bedrooms. Cushioned and curtained and strewn with furs and rugs, the small stone chambers held the warmth and light long after the village houses in the fields were shadowed.

But the Temple of the Jaguar, well, that was taller still. The red peak of power, of sacrifice, of tradition, its steps were carved to be awkwardly tall and difficult. Ascending the temple for religious ceremonies was to be a conscious act of will and offering. One did not climb up to speak to the gods as casually as one climbed the market stairs.

After a few years, the Temple of the Masks was built. Facing the Jaguar Temple, it was taller still. Beautifully carved at the top, with greater artistry and greater height, the Temple of the Masks was a further offering to the gods. The gods needed such offerings. They needed the sacrifice of time and focus and blood to give them strength.

As far as we know, the Temple of the Masks was a gift from the king who built the Jaguar Temple. It was a gift to and in honor of his wife.

To the north and south, then, the gods. To the west, authority and government. To the east, well — to the east lay the dead. The North Acropolis housed the bodies of kings and priests of the past. Layered with tributes to the gods, the dead rested in splendor and honor.

The stele and altars where the people offered their blood are in a line before the North Acropolis. The dead watched the living die.

There is a spot, on the grassy lawn before the Temple of the Masks, where a voice can be heard over the entire Central Plaza. There is a spot where the acoustics bend sound to send it crashing back towards the Jaguar Temple. In the sunlight and warmth of our visit, young men vied for position in that one spot, laughing and shoving each other out of the way as they clapped their hands. The echoes snapped off the stone, sharp as the pitch bent and fell.

One walks from the west side of the palace, high up, past the bedrooms and the ceremonial courts and the open-air receiving rooms, and comes out on a ledge on the east side. One rounds a corner of grey-white limestone, covered in moss and lichen that the restoration crews are steadily fighting back (with machetes and pocket knives and no safety lines whatosever, clambering over the slick rock faces,) to find the Central Courtyard like a dream.

One moment, the solidity of limestone block carved 2200 years ago. The next moment, the ghosts of that 2200-year-old city are jutting out of the grass in front of me. Ghosts, in their grey and white and beige. No longer the red and gold of a people devoted to their gods.

Between the palace and the Jaguar Temple, there is a ball court. Men played there for god and country. They played to defeat prisoners of war, they played to show their devotion to the kings and priests. They played for the signal honor of walking to their deaths, that the gods might drink of life. On game days, the courtyard would be full of people. Nobles and priests in glorious greens and golds and purples and reds, sunlight glinting everywhere off of jade and nephrite and gold. The crowd would part as the players walked across the courtyard to the stele.

Were they quiet, when the players lay down on the altars? Did they sing? Chant? Did they roar approval? Was it solemn or joyous? Did the voices of the people, united together in pride and joy, snap in echoing waves off of the surrounding stone?

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