|Fig.1: I'll wait until they install the escalator.
Like most things in Central and South America, "Tikal" is not the right name to use here (just ask the equally misnamed Aztec and Inca). Tikal was given its name, Mayan for "at the waterhole," upon its discovery due to its ancient reservoirs and the sweet hole-in-the-wall bar just off of Temple VI. However, transliterations of hieroglyphic inscriptions found all over the site refer to the city as "Mutal," though the meaning of the term is as unknown as the reason Bigfoot just can't take a good picture. Another thing that's annoyingly unknown is when settlement began in the area. It appears that agriculture began around 1000 BC, but the temples weren't constructed until around 400 BC, and the first true signs of civilized culture (government, economy, high-speed internet, etc.) didn't come around until the 1st century AD. The rise of Tikal led to its rivalry with the nearby Mayan city of Calakmul, with whom it completed for vital resources, which often led to wars and/or stealing the other's football mascot.
|Fig.2: Location of Tikal and other Mayan cities. While united by similar cultures and languages,
these separate cities often got along as well as me and my intestines after I eat Mayan food.
|Fig.3: Seems like a lot of work just to
make a "Beware of Dog" sign.
Of course all this success caught the ire of Tikal's rival, Calakmul, who began to establish their own colonies and make their own cryptic stelas for archaeologists to stare at for hours on end. During the 5th and 6th centuries, almost endless warfare broke out between the two Mayan superpowers, with both sides pointing to the other when asked who started it. Tikal had the advantage at first, but in 562, Calakmul appears to have captured the city itself, executing Tikal's king and spray-painting "Calakmul rulez" all over its temples. This began what's known as the Tikal Hiatus, where all construction and writing stopped because Tikal felt it was important to focus on "me" for a change. After 130 years of brooding, Jasaw Chan K'awiil (He Who Clears the Sky) restored Tikal's confidence and took down Calakmul in 695, making them the dominant playa in the region once more. The balance of power held sway until Quiriguá, all grown up, took over their parents in Copán around 738 and then teamed up with Calakmul to go after Grandma Tikal (this is what happens when you spoil the children). The Mayan realm looked like it was going to go through another round of fighting, with scalpers all set up to sell overpriced tickets..
But soon the Mayan civilization suffered an irrevocable collapse during the 9th century. The last monument in Tikal was erected in 869, and the city became completely depopulated (and thus stopped paying the internet bill) within a hundred years. Calakmul didn't have much time to celebrate since the same thing was happening to them, as well as practically all urban centers in the region. Historians have developed many different explanation for the "Classic Maya Collapse" (which was not as refreshing as "Coke Classic"); the most excepted theory is that all the warfare forced people closer to the protective arms of their cities, which created issues associated with overpopulation such as intensive farming, environmental degradation, and a lack of an answer to the essential question: "What do I do with my feces?" Recent analysis has also determined that a major drought occurred during this time, making the waterhole that gave Tikal its modern name nothing more than a hole. While the Maya people, culture, and languages have survived through this period into colonization, independence, and the present, they would not command the same influence as they did during the 1st millennium Anno Doughnutty, and would therefore not have the power to fully enjoy the glazed goodness for another thousand years.
|Fig.4: The view of Tikal from out of face-scratching range.
When one thinks of Mayan ruins (as I do every morning while I'm washing my armpits), one usually picks Tikal as their go-to image. It certainly ranked up there among the most powerful city-states in the region back in its heyday, and left behind some stunning ancient art and architecture that everyone outside of Egypt could be impressed by (there's just no topping those guys). Most importantly, the same sight that allowed Ambrosio Tut to spot Tikal's temples rising above the trees was used as a backdrop for Yavin 4 in Star Wars, the home of the rebel base from which Luke Skywalker took off and then fired those proton torpedoes right into the Death Star's thermal exhaust port. I mean, how cool is that? That battle was so crucial that the New Republic would make it the starting point for their calendar which, unlike the Mayan calendar, didn't lie about when the world was ending. Semantics and geekiness aside, the remains of Tikal demonstrates the power of the Maya in Mesoamerica for over a thousand years, and how quickly Mother Nature can wipe it away. She's a sassy lady, that one.