Copan Honduras

The Famous Maya City of Copan: A Site with Abundant Art and Hieroglyphs

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Located near the border of present day Guatemala, is the ancient Maya city of Copán. A relatively small Mayan site, it dates back nearly 2,000 years and was once the easternmost city-state in the Maya World. Over the course of 400 years, Copán was shaped from a small valley in western Honduras into a great city with pyramids, temples and statues painted with a range of colors: dark red being the most prevalent of all. It is considered to be the most "artistic" of the Maya cities and is famous for its carved stone sculptures that decorated plazas and temples as well an impressive staircase with the entire history of Copán written on it in Mayan hieroglyphs.

Copán's Rulers: 16 Kings, One Dynasty

Copán began as an agricultural settlement around 1000 BC. As it grew, the site functioned as the political, civil and religious centre of the Copán Valley as well as the center of a larger territory that covered the southeast portion of the Maya area. From the early 400s to 820 AD, a series of 16 kings ruled Copán, all of them belonging to a single dynasty (family). 

The Maya leader Yax Kuk Mo, came from the area of Tikal (Petén) and arrived in the Copán Valley in 427 AD. He started the dynasty that transformed Copán into one of the great Maya cities. The greatest period of Copán, paralleled that of other major Mayan cities and occurred during the Classical period from 300-900 AD.

An incense burner depicting Yax Kuk Mo. Some people claim that the "goggles" he wears are proof of Ancient Maya contact with aliens, others say they are just part of the ruler's headdress. (Charles Tilford/Ancient History Encyclopedia)

An incense burner depicting Yax Kuk Mo. Some people claim that the "goggles" he wears are proof of Ancient Maya contact with aliens, others say they are just part of the ruler's headdress. ( Charles Tilford/Ancient History Encyclopedia )

The Fall of Copán

 During the 8th century, the 13th king of Copán, lost a battle against a neighboring kingdom and was beheaded. Thereafter the kingdom gradually declined and eventually disappeared. The decline may have been caused in part by internal revolts, war and disease. At its peak, it is estimated that Copán was home to as many as 20,000 people.

Copán's Architecture Today

Today, the valley of Copán extends approximately 10 square miles with the site comprising some 250 acres (100 hectares) and has a main complex of ruins along with several secondary complexes. It consists of an Acropolis, stone temples, two large pyramids, stairways, plazas, and tombs. The Eastern Plaza towers above the valley and features a stairway with sculpted jaguars. Near the stairway in the Great Plaza is a ball court with markers resembling macaw heads and was once used for playing the ball game tlachtli (Mayan: pok-ta-pok ). It is the second largest court in the Maya World behind the one at Chichen Itza.

Map of the Center of Copán (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of the Center of Copán ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Hieroglyph Staircase: A Structure Depicting the History of Copán

Arguably the most notable feature of Copán is the Hieroglyph Staircase. It is not just an amazing feat of architecture and artistry but an important Mayan historical document. The staircase consists of 63 stone steps built on top of a 30 meter (98 feet) high pyramidal structure which leads up to one of the temples. 

This hieroglyphic staircase contains over 1250 blocks of stone with 2200 hieroglyphs making it the single longest stone carved text ever found in the ancient Americas. Every step on the stairway is engraved with Maya texts describing the history of Copán. When the structure was first discovered, it was in a state of decay and was re-assembled without an understanding of the language or knowledge of the correct sequence of the blocks. As a result, the text is out of order and the meaning behind the story of the staircases is unknown. What is certain however, is that it is a story about the 16 kings of Copán, starting with Yax K'uk Moh at the base and ending with the death of "18 Rabbit" at the 61st step at the top. The story seems to emphasize the 12th king, K'ak Uti Ha K'awiil, perhaps related to his burial found deep inside the pyramid of the staircase. In the central axis of the stairway are five portraits of previous rulers seated in full military regalia. Their adornments are consistent with warfare, self sacrifice and ancestor worship.

Painting of the hieroglyphic stairway, Copán, Honduras (Scott & Emily/Flickr)

Painting of the hieroglyphic stairway, Cop án, Honduras ( Scott & Emily/Flickr )

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