El Mirador, ‘The Look Out’ Of Guatemala Boasts Probably the Largest Pyramid in the World
The Mayan civilization is one of the most mysterious and fascinating in history. There is much we still don’t know, but they are much-admired for their fully developed writing system, their art, mathematical and astronomical systems , and of course, their architectural genius, building thriving cities in extreme environments. El Mirador has the largest pyramid ever built in all of pre-Columbian America , possibly in all the world. Set in a remote jungle, many people still make the arduous trek to visit the phenomenal wonders at this Mayan site.
The History of El Mirador
The city was founded sometime in the 6 th century BC and flourished until the 3 rd century AD with a population who were sophisticated for the period.
One of the remarkable discoveries about El Mirador is that it is located in the jungle and even when cleared, the land is not typically suitable for agriculture. The Maya had an ingenious solution - importing nutrient-rich mud from the many bajos, or seasonal swamps. This enabled them to turn former jungle into healthy farming land that sustained a large population. As a result, the El Mirador basin was densely populated in the early history of the Maya.
Stucco friezes at El Mirador that adorned the banks of a water-collecting system ( CC BY 2.0 )
The city was the dominant political entity in the region and during the period of societal collapse associated with the Mid-Classical period in Mesoamerica, the city came under attack. Evidence of this can be seen in the large wall that was built around the site at this time.
Sometime in the 3 rd century AD, building stopped at El Mirador and it may have been abandoned. The site was later re-occupied in the Late Classical period and it became a cultural center until it was finally abandoned in the 9 th century AD.
The Rediscovery Of El Mirador
The city was totally lost to history and overgrown by jungle for centuries, although the site was possibly found by locals looking for rubber in the early 20 th century. It was also spotted during an aerial survey in the 1920s, but only mapped in the 1960s.
Due to the remoteness of the location , El Mirador was not surveyed until the 2000s. In 2002 a project to stabilize the buildings commenced, doing much to preserve the magnificent site which is now part of the El Mirador National Park.
The Wonders Of El Mirador
Much of the city has been destroyed or is still overgrown by vegetation. Nonetheless there are many remarkable sights to see in the archaeological complex , including three-dozen pyramid-like structures of various sizes from the Mayan pre-classical period. They pre-date other important pyramids such as the ones at Tikal by centuries.
Built on platforms, these pyramids are composed of steps and are typically flanked by two inward-facing buildings. Originally, they were coated with painted plaster or stucco and were visually stunning.
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Remains of a pyramid at El Mirador (Gallice, G / CC BY 2.0 )
The most famous of the step-pyramids is La Danta, measuring 230 feet high (72 meters), which pokes out of the canopy of the jungle and can be seen for miles. If the platform upon which it rests is included, it is the largest pyramid in the world. Archaeologists believe that the enormous edifice took 15 million working-days to build. La Danta has four faces with a stone staircase on the eastern side. The view from the top of the structure is truly awe-inspiring.
Two other noteworthy pyramids at El Mirador are La Tigre and Los Monos. The Maya created many carved stela and stucco friezes which depict scenes from Mayan mythology and are remarkable works of art and even their stone water collection systems were decorated with friezes. A great number of stone causeways or raised roads can also be seen.
Visiting El Mirador
El Mirador is set in a remote area of northern Guatemala, in the Petén Department. Because of its remoteness, visitors have to trek to the ancient city, which can take several days and hiring a professional local guide essential. There is no accommodation near El Mirador and visitor camp in the jungle.
Top image: Pyramid of La Danta, El Mirador, Guatemala Source: Jarvis, D / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan
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Šprajc, I., Morales-Aguilar, C., & Hansen, R. D. (2009). Early Maya Astronomy and Urban Planning at El Mirador, Petén, Guatemala . Anthropological Notebooks, 15(3)