The Ancient City of Copan: The culture capital of the Mayan world

Walking into the Copan Museum is like walking into the bowels of the earth. You enter through a giant serpentine mouth which leads into a tunnel opening out into a bright open air museum chock full of jaw dropping Mayan art.

The significance of the mouth and the cave relates back to the Mayan belief that caves were the door to Xibalba (shee-bal-ba: Literally translated to place of fear). This was thought to be the underworld or the realm of the dead and home of fearsome beasts, demons and death gods. In the sacred Mayan book of creation The Popol Vuh, there is a story which tells of a set of “Hero Twins”. They were subjected to a series of tests by the lords of the underworld before ascending to the celestial cosmos and rescuing their father going on to create humanity.

At the end of the tunnel the main feature of the museum is a full scale replica of one of the most exciting discoveries at Copan. “Rosalila” was an ancient temple dedicated to the 1st and arguably the most significant ruler of Copan “K’inich Yax K’uk Mo” (Yash-kook-moe). The temple was buried within one of the enormous pyramids in the centre of the acropolis and found intact by archeologists. Remarkable for its elaborately sculpted facades the original temple is actually still in position and we were able to view it via a very clever tunnel system created by the archeologists who discovered it. The evidence throughout the many cities of the Maya shows that each new leader would assert his dominance by rebuilding all of the current monumental structures making things bigger and newer. Therefore with each new ruler came a new layer over each of the pyramids, just like Russian dolls. This means that in order to see the past, archeologists usually have to dissemble the most recent layer peeling back the history stone by stone. In Copan however, archeologists developed the tunnelling system to enable discovery without destruction. We paid an extra $15usd to visit the tunnels but no-one checked our ticket when we got down there and to be fair I think it would be more interesting if you were a die hard fan.

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Discovered in near perfect condition in 1991 Rosilila is thought to have been built by Copans 8th ruler around 550ad

As well as adding layers to each of the pyramids certain rulers chose to add even more to make their city the most grand, which is how Copan ended up with so much amazing Mayan art. This museum is a wonderful way to absorb a huge collection of well preserved carvings and get a better understanding of their symbolism which comes together to form an incredibly intricate and complex belief system.

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This carved old man head is a lovely example of this symbolism as he was part of a pair of old deities called “Pawahtuuns” who Mayans believed held up the earth. In ancient mythology the earth was thought to be a giant crocodile. The “Toothless Old Man of Copan” was actually part of a towering stone replica of this scene including a giant mosaic crocodile. It stretched right across the facade of one of the temples and would have been the largest sculpted figure found in Copan.

There are many, many amazing carvings and sculptures to be found at Copan but the most spellbinding and original is the hieroglyphic stairway. This is the longest pre-Colombian hieroglyphic inscription in the Americas and one of the most fascinating monuments built by the Maya during the classic period. Most Mayan inscriptions are very short relating to specific ritual and usually only stating names and dates but this stairway is a massive exception. Two hundred glyphs on 63 steps the text recounts an entire dynastic history beginning at the bottom with the dynasty’s founder K’inich Yax K’uk Mo (Yash-kook-moe) and ending at the top with the famous 18 Rabbit who was beheaded by foes in a nearby city. Unfortunately the tail cannot be recounted in correct detail as the steps were found in a bad state of decay and were rebuilt in a random order before the Mayan code had been cracked and the language understood.

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The awe inspiring carved staircase telling the story of Copan

Another thing you see in varying forms in almost every Mayan city is a sacred ball court. This sounds crazy but the game was used to decide who would be sacrificed to the gods and stems back to the Popol Vuh. One of the tests the twins needed to pass in the underworld was a ball game against the sun’s imposter “Vicub-Caquix” or Seven Macaw. Around the ball court in Copan many different depictions of macaws can be seen, which could be symbolic of these origins of the sacred game.

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Here you can see the ball court near the back of the image with slanted walls. To the right is the glyph staircase covered with a canopy to protect it from the elements.

Macaws were a very sacred bird in Mayan mythology and are found depicted in more art here in Copan than anywhere else. The scarlet macaw represented the powerful god of the sun, K’inich Ahua because with its vibrant colours he looked like he may be in flight between heaven and earth. Not only were their feathers used to decorate the headdresses of the high and powerful, they were traded between cities. There are also glyphs which show the birds captive on tethers. One of the magical things about visiting Copan is the local bird rescue centre Macaw Mountain have been releasing ex-captive birds into the archaeological site in order to re-home them giving a new dimension of sound and colour to the park.

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One of the macaw carvings depicted near the ball court
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