Copan: Some 750 sites and 4,500 Structures

The early-morning sun burnishes the stone temples in Copan to a golden sheen, while on their facades, serpents writhe, jaguars crouch, birds preen and gods grimace in a pantomime that has been going on for nearly 2,000 years. The silence is shattered only by the screech of a howler monkey living in the surrounding jungle of Honduras.

In a few hours, the chiseling of archaeological teams combined with the chattering of tourists will imbue this primeval scene with a sort of 21st-century immediacy, but now, just after dawn, when it’s nearly deserted, it’s easy to imagine the ghosts of ancient Mayans treading the sacred ground.

Copan, once one of the four major capitals of the Mayan world, is today Honduras’ major tourist attraction. Along with its three sister cities — Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico, and Tikal in Guatemala — it gives visitors insight into an empire that stretched from Mexico’s Yucatan across Belize, Honduras and Guatemala to El Salvador, encompassing most of Central America.

Although there is archaeological evidence that the Copan Valley was inhabited as early as 1200 B.C., it wasn’t until A.D. 426 that it was first ruled by a king (Yax K’uk’ Mo’, which means Great Sun First Quetzal Macaw; successive monarchs had equally descriptive monikers, including names that translated to Smoke Monkey, Waterlily Jaguar and 18 Rabbit). By A.D. 750, the civilization had reached its zenith.

The 12-square-mile area of Copan includes more than 750 sites and 4,500 structures: temples, tombs, sacrificial altars and courtyards, as well as caves that are considered portals to the Mayan underworld.

Excavations reveal that Copan was a ceremonial center and meeting place for the Maya. From here they predicted solar and lunar eclipses; made calculations on the movements of Jupiter, Mars and, some think, even Mercury; and interwove aspects of nature with a belief in supernatural forces. In the first system of writing in the New World, they carved all their findings on huge stone tablets called stelae.

The most prominent of these monoliths recounts the life and death of the aforementioned 18 Rabbit, an eighth-century king and patron of the arts who was beheaded by a rival tribe.

Modern visitors to Copan enter the ruins from the western Mayan Road, the same route taken by the Maya and later by their Spanish conquerors. A cedar-lined alley leads to the entrance, which, on my visit, was guarded by five colorful macaws.

This is a good spot to pause and reflect on how Copan must have looked when it was discovered in the 16th century after having been swallowed up by the jungle and hidden for several centuries. Or to consider how it must have looked in 1839, when a local farmer sold it to American archaeologist John Stephens for $50, and how it continued to look until the 1930s, when the first excavation began.

Mayan kings might rest uneasily in their graves if they knew that many of Copan’s greatest treasures now grace public museums, including the British Museum in London and Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and assorted private collections; still, enough remains to titillate the professional and armchair archaeologist.

By Patti Nickell