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In Copan, the Mayans' Second City

Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page P07

If the soaring ruins at Tikal conjure a civilization at the peak of its ceremonial hubris -- with temples that dwarf the very jungle -- the Copan ruins recall something more like a quiet city by the river. The Copan guides call it the Mayan Paris in relation to Tikal's New York, but I think the Mayan St. Louis may be more like it -- a languid southern outpost more interested in hometown sports, arts and gossip than with being a crossroads to the hectic world beyond. A visit to Copan today is a smaller experience than a trip to vast Tikal, but a no-less moving one. (And unlike Tikal's limited, middle-of-nowhere options for food and lodging, Copan is attached to a winning small town with diversions good for several busy days.)

The gray bones of the ancient town sit in a broad, brilliantly green valley bottom a half-mile from the modern village of Copan. A gaggle of guides-for-hire linger in the shade at the entrance to the park. The one I hired, Nery Gonzales, brought a much more detailed expertise, story-telling prowess and English fluency than I ever expected at $30 for a three-hour tour. Just past the macaws stalking and squawking peacock-like along the entrance path, Copan's Great Plaza opens up like a sunny park. Massive carved obelisks are scattered around the open glade, finely carved stone columns called stellas that tell the story of Copan's dynasties. Some still carry the tinted shadow of the red paint that once covered the city. One of them features a boyish image of 18 Rabbit, a great patron of the arts who reportedly developed the carving technique that has left such a treasure of information for modern scholars. "No other Mayan city has reliefs like Copan," says Gonzales, looking up at his ancestor king with local pride. "It was his invention."



Adjacent to the plaza, separated by a beautifully restored ball court, is a huge complex of much bigger structures. The tallest of them, Temple 22, features doorways carved in skulls and double headed snakes. Leading down from the top of the temple is Copan's magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway, a mind-boggling 63 steps made from more than 1,200 carved blocks built by the ruler Smoke Shell. It's the largest Mayan text in the world, but it's mostly gibberish to linguists because it was so jumbled by early archeologists. Deeper inside, Pyramid 16 conceals Copan's most exciting recent revelation, an intact earlier structure dubbed Temple Rosalia. It's well worth a few quetzals extra for a flashlight descent into the tunnels to see the still crimson struts and walls of Rosalia discovered only in 1989.

You emerge from the tunnels into the bright Honduran sun outside the main complex, not far from the river that has run here even longer than these stones have stood. In the whispers of that water, it's hard not to hear the echoes of some tremendously old voices.

-- Steve Hendrix


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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