Copán, A Mayan City
Of Beauty and Mystery


Walking amid restored ruins of Copán instills awe.
Covering only 55 acres, Copán and the adjoining
residential and Seplecura are less than one-tenth of Tikal’s
size. But size does not win this Mayan city’s place in
history. Artistic splendor is what captures the eye and
imagination of Copán. Massive intricately carved stone
monuments or stelae dot the ruins. Stone altars and
benches are richly adorned with carvings, which also
grace the elaborate buildings that the ruling elite erected
over centuries of growth in the fertile Copán River Valley.
Clearly this was a ruling class that provided not just for
the daily necessities of its subjects, but for their sense of
beauty as well. Yet beauty barely scratches the surface of
the enigmatic carvings.

The myriad depictions of faces, birds, snakes, cats and
other creatures of all description here are the symbols that
enabled archaeologists to crack the code of the language
used throughout the Mayan empire. Their prominence
shows the city’s deep ties to the culture of an empire that
spanned some 325,000 square kilometers, encompassing
what now are much of Honduras and El Salvador, all of
Guatemala and Belize, and the southern Mexican states of
Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
Today, 28 distinct languages are recognized by linguists in
the region that was united by trade and a common
language during much of the first millennium. And like the
estimated three million Mayans who populated the empire,
the language is in no way primitive. Some 800 symbols
are incorporated into the text, and many can be substituted
with other signs or “allographs” that are graphically
different but still represent the same phonetic sound.
Confusing? Yes, to the point of the city’s own symbol, a
leaf-nosed bat. Some interpret it as the “capital of Co”
while others say it means “pontoon or bridge.” The latter
interpretation has archaeologists studying a bridge-like
formation a few kilometers from the Copán ruins.

As the complexity of the language sinks in, it raises
questions about the people who spoke it. What were their
daily lives like? How did their civilization rise to
prominence and whatever became of it? Mundane details
were likely recorded on paper-like fiber scrolls, but alas
these codices were routinely destroyed throughout Central
America by Spanish conquistadors in their drive to erase
the history of heathens. Fortunately, a rich record was
painted on pottery and carved in stone at Copán by a
populace whose artifacts continue to bubble up through
the ground after a good rain. Together, they provide a rich
history in clay and stone.

Pottery dating to 1200 BC shows that the Olmecs
preceded the Mayans in the Copán River Valley. Aside
from the occasional artifact find, their legacy was largely
paved over as the Mayans flourished. The first Mayan
ruler, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ or Quetzal Macaw, arrived
in the valley in AD 426. The outsider had been anointed
elsewhere to found a city and he settled on the Copán
River Valley. A stela describing a deer sacrifice, and an
adjacent building called the Momot are evidence of his
nine-year reign that began Copán’s 400-year dynasty.
During this span, 15 subsequent rulers oversaw the
expansion of the city’s influence to 24 square kilometers,
with a population of about 27,500 in its heyday. Stelae on
hills flanking the city can still predict celestial events, and
some 4,500 overgrown mounds dotting the valley in
between hint of a vast amount of research yet to be

It is doubtful if commoners came into the city except for
special events or to peddle their wares. They raised maize,
the staple crop in the region then, much like the current
residents grow corn, as Mayan teeth are ground flat from
the grit left from stone-ground grain. Bananas and sugar
cane, regularly grown now, were introduced by
Europeans, so the Mayans were spared the cavities caused
by these sugar-laden crops. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes,
beans, chilies and other vegetables and fruits were dietary
mainstays. Deer, peccaries, birds, iguana and other game,
plus freshwater fish and mussels were regularly
consumed, so area hunters no doubt found a ready market
for these meats in the city. Mining limestone and
converting it to lime most certainly was a local industry,
for grassy expanses in Copán today were paved with
cement in Mayan times, and painted stucco coated the
buildings. Both require lime, which, to the day, is
produced in wood-burning kilns by natives. A shift to
cacao growth to the lowlands after the eruption of the
Ilopango volcano circa 250 in what’s now El Salvador
brought a real money tree to Copán, since its beans were
used by the Mayans as currency.

The Copán River Valley was an artery that plugged the
city into the extensive commerce network of the Mayan
empire. Goods could be loaded on canoes and portaged
overland to link the city with north-south trade routes
along the Pacific Coastal Plain and the Caribbean. An
enormous variety of goods moved throughout
Mesoamerica. Mayan elite showed their status with
precious metals, semi-precious stones, shark teeth, coral
and stingray spines worked into jewelry. Semiprecious
stone dental inlays added sparkle to rulers’ smiles.
Ceremonial dress included bird feathers and animal pelts,
especially those of macaws and jaguars, which were
revered as gods. Amber, balsam, bark cloth, copal, dyes
and pigments, grinding stones, honey, knapped flint, pitch
pine, pottery, textiles, tortoise shells and wax were
brought in from both coasts and Yucatan sources. Salt,
important for medicines and food preservation, was
imported from the Caribbean. In exchange, Copán’s
lowland valley provided cotton, feathers, flint, lime,
pottery, tobacco and other agriculture products, especially
cacao. Obsidian, the volcanic glass, was used in Mayan
knives, weapons and cutting tools. It was in high demand
throughout Mesoamerica, but especially in Copán for
carving artworks. The center for obsidian and jade was
Quirigua, a city just over the current Guatemala border
from Copán. Although smaller and seemingly developed
with Copán’s assistance, Quirigua became Copán’s

One event that most certainly drew masses from their
humble wooden, thatched-roofed homes into the city was
the ball court competition. To call this a ball game would
trivialize its significance. The event was a metaphor for
the creation of the Mayan people, and matches were
religious rites. The ball represented the twin gods Hunahpu
and Xbalanque; the playing field was the earth; and the air
above was the universe. Legend holds that the twins
descended to the underworld, where they were engaged
by its lords into the ball game. Accounts differ on who
won, but after the game they were sacrificed. Their spirits
rising to the heavens became the sun and the moon, and
gave birth to the Mayan people. The contest between
opposing teams represented the battle of life versus death,
but the outcome often was more than just metaphoric.
Depending on local rules, victorious or losing captains and
sometimes their entire teams were beheaded. Being
sacrificed was not necessarily a bad thing. Competitors
believed that losing their heads to the game ensured a
quick passage to heaven. These matches instilled great
fervor among spectators, who might bet their entire
fortunes, their children, their wives or even their own lives
on the event.

Opposing teams of up to 11 players each were ornately
dressed and painted for the competition. The uniforms
included stone, wooden or leather padding – especially at
the waist, shoulders, arms and legs – that was capable of
absorbing the blow of a solid rubber ball that weighted
about a kilo. Once the ball was thrown into play, it could
not be touched by hands, but rather kept into play by
kicks or thrusts of the hips. Players would knock the ball
back and forth over an I-shaped field, about 25 meters
long and 10 meters wide, going to great extremes to keep
the ball from touching the ground, which would end the
competition. Unlike ball courts at many sites, which
feature two rings on either side of vertical walls through
which the ball must pass to score, Copán’s ball courts
have six stone macaw heads as goal posts mounted on
sloping sides. Some hold that Copán sacrificed the losers,
not the winners as was the practice at courts with hoops.
Copán’s main ball court is dear to modern Hondurans as
the image on the back of the 1 lempira bill. The front side
has the portrait of Chief Lempira, who led the revolt
against the Spanish from Western Honduras until he was
tricked into peace talks and then brutally murdered in
1538. Universally, the competition was so highly regarded
by the Mayans that they believed if the game ceased to be
played, the world would end. Fortunately for their
descendents and perhaps the rest of us too, variations of
the competition are still played in isolated pockets of
Guatemala, albeit without human sacrifice.

History smiles the brightest on those who write the books.
In Copán, art works are the history books, and rulers who
commissioned the most carvings are remembered, while
those who did not are largely shrouded in mystery. Some,
such as the fifth and sixth rulers, whose combined reigns
occurred between 495 and 504, ruled for such short
periods that they had little time to make history. The
eighth and ninth rulers similarly left little legacy from
reigns between 544 and 553. More may be learned of their
deeds and fates as archaeological work continues in and
around Copán. For example, details are just now being
unearthed about the third ruler through the excavation on
the outskirts of Copán being conducted with assistance of
Japan’s Ministry of Culture. The site is believed to be the
ruler’s residence.

Although it is known that the third ruler’s reign ended in
485, no one knows when power was passed on from the
second ruler, Mat Head, who succeeded Quetzal Macaw,
the founder of the city. The hair or headdress depicted on
Mat Head, coupled with the low-profile loin cloth
compared with the rise in other rulers’ groins, lead some
to speculate that this ruler was female. Was Mat Head
Quetzel Macaw’s surviving spouse, and the third ruler
their son? These questions and those of the fates of short-
lived rulers are just some of the mysteries that have yet to
be deciphered.

More would be known of earlier and lesser known rulers
were it not for a quirk of the culture to destroy major
architectural accomplishments and rebuild atop them
every 52 years at the convergence of the social and solar
calendars. Archaeologists have bored 3 kilometers of
tunnels into the structures to find temple pancaked atop
temple as rulers strove to outdo predecessors with bigger
and more elaborate constructions. A notable exception is
the Rosalila temple that was dedicated in 571 by Moon
Jaguar, the 10th ruler who reigned from 553 to 578. For
some reason, the temple was viewed as still possessing
power, and so it was buried intact without being
destroyed. Working in dank, subterranean tunnels,
archaeologists are learning more than details of Copán’s
early days. They also are gaining an appreciation for their
engineering feats, such as a washroom for the elite that
features running water and a 1,400-year-old plumbing
system that still works fine.

Moon Jaguar’s successor, Smoke Serpent, reigned only
15 years, and his legacy was obscured by the recycling of
buildings by later rulers. However, his successor, Smoke
Jaguar, ascended as a youth in 638 and during the next 67
years he built Copán into the region’s power base. A stela
proclaiming “Smoke Jaguar at Quirigua” suggests that
Copán held sway over its smaller neighbor then, and
monuments with cosmological significance were erected
around the perimeter of the Copán River Valley. Smoke
Jaguar shaped much of the present configuration of the
city’s acropolis, imposing structures that were the seat of
power. Playful figures of dancing jaguars on the wall
overlooking the palace plaza hint that the city was
experiencing good times under his guidance.

The absolute “king of the arts” was the 13th ruler, named
18 rabbit. As Smoke Jaguar worked on expanding Copán's
regional power, 18 rabbit worked on urban renewal. His
43-year reign from 695 to 738 shaped the city and
established a new direction in artwork. Unlike earlier flat
posts, stelae became rounded, three-dimensional figures
that resembled the sacred ceiba tree. 18 Rabbit extended
the Great Plaza to its present size of several football fields,
ringed with a stepped wall that could seat up to 50,000.
Seven stelae in the plaza depict him in phases throughout
life, including one as a ball player addressing the ball. The
figures and ceremonial altars are a sculpture garden on a
vast lawn now, but in 18 Rabbit’s day, the plaza was
paved with concrete. He also began a log of Copán’s
history as a hieroglyphic staircase that was built upon by
later rulers. He built Temple 22, a massive stone structure
decorated to appear as a mountain of maize.

18 Rabbit’s demise came mysteriously and swiftly, and it
began the downward spiral for Copán. On May 3, 738,
just weeks after 18 Rabbit expanded the main ball court to
its final configuration, he was slain in Quirigua at the
hands of its ruler, Cauac Sky. The only record is a stela
there noting the “axing” of Ruler 13. Did he suffer Chief
Lempira’s fate after being lured to talks or was he
captured while raiding this vassal city state for an
opposing ball team? Did the old ball player lose (or win) a
bet on the big game? The stone history books aren’t telling
yet, but these are questions archaeologists at both sites are
digging into.

Little is known of 18 Rabbit’s successor, Smoke Monkey,
who no doubt had his hands full with political turmoil.
Under his reign from 738 through 749, building
construction and commissioning of art works came to a
halt. With nothing chiseled in stone, there is no recorded
legacy. Meanwhile, Quirigua vaulted rapidly upward in
political and economic significance, but Cauac Sky was
too busy expanding Quirigua’s power to commission

Copán’s fortunes began to rise again with Smoke Shell in
749. Eight years into his 14-year reign, he began
commissioning artworks, completing two stelae that
introduced a new level of intricate carving. He also added
to the structure of Temple 22 and picked up where 18
Rabbit left off in building the hieroglyphic stairway. The
stairway, made with more than 1,250 glyph blocks, 63
steps high and 10 meters wide, would provide a
comprehensive description of Copán’s highlights were it
not for the whims of nature. The Copán River changed its
course, eroding the stairway’s underlying support and
causing the blocks to tumble out of place. When it was
rebuilt in the 1930s through 1950s, only the bottom 10
steps remained in place. Above this, archaeologists could
only guess the order of the blocks, so the rest of the
stairway reads like a narrative in which the characters are
randomly scrambled on the page.

The stairway was in good shape and so were Copán’s
fortunes when Yax Pasah or Dawn succeeded Smoke
Shell in 763. Although he steered away from the stelae
tradition of his artistic forbearers, he did leave several
monuments, altars and inscriptions on architecture. Their
style continued the shift away from tradition that began
with Smoke Shell in which non-Mayan Mexican
influences grew in prominence. At the base of the tallest
building, his Altar Q is a powerful depiction of 15 prior
rulers of Copán ringing its edges, each passing the scepter
of power to the next until Yax Pasah is shown accepting
the baton from Copán’s founder, Quetzal Macaw. The
backgrounds of both the first and 16th rulers hint of non-
Mayan origins, and the full circle suggested in this
artwork became prophetic.

Yax Pasah logged his last records in 805, but Copán’s
history was taken up again on Feb. 10, 822, when U Cit
Tok dedicated an altar in the middle of the city, between
the ball court and the great plazas built by generations of
rulers. Figures on the ball court side depict his acceptance
of power from Yax Pasah. The other three sides remain
untouched, and the city’s history record henceforth turns
as cold as uncarved stone. What happened?

Physical anthropologists found growing evidence of
malnutrition, infectious disease and trauma in skeletons
unearthed from Copán’s latter years. Life expectancies
grew shorter until many of the skeletons were those of
children between 5 and 15 years of age, when the body
should be most resilient to disease. By the 800s, the
population may well have outstripped the valley’s ability to
provide food and wood for fuel. Trade routes were
collapsing in the southern lowlands, so importing goods
would have been difficult and paying for them even
harder, since the land had been stripped of its bounty. The
money tree died.

As the population moved out of the ecologically devastated
valley, the land began to slowly heal. When Diego Garcia
de Palacios became the first European visitor, he too was
struck by the ruins of magnificent buildings that were
“constructed with such a skill that it seems that they could
never have been made by a people as coarse as the
inhabitants of this province,” he wrote to Felipe II of
Spain in March 1576. “They are located on the banks of a
beautiful river in an extensive and well-chosen plain,
which enjoys a temperate climate, is fertile and abounding
in fish and game.”

Visiting Copán
Copán is a four-hour drive from Honduras’s San Pedro
Sulu airport. The two-lane road is torturous and best left
to local drivers familiar with its hairpin turns and other
hazards. Take a bus or arrange through a travel agent for
a guide to take you there.

Lodging and food are inexpensive at Copán Ruinas, the
town adjacent to the ruins. Hotel Marina Copán caters to
North Americans and Europeans, offering western
comforts such as air conditioning, a swimming pool, safe
drinking water and an excellent restaurant. The ruins are
within walking distance, but a ride in the three-wheeled
scooters that serve as taxis is cheap and saves walking
legs for exploring the ruins.

Historians will want to stay for at least a week, and travel
to Quirigua in Guatemala. Besides Mayan ruins, the area
has rafting on the Copán River, nature hikes, horseback
riding, a butterfly farm, a coffee plantation and other sites
to keep visitors busy. Much of the ruins can be seen in a
two-day side trip as part of a vacation to other Honduran
destinations, such as the island paradises of the Bay
Islands. Information can be found at www.anthonyskey.

Copán's glyph, a leaf-nosed bat, is
interpreted as either the capital of Co or
Ball games were a foundation of Mayan
culture, and the court at Copán, above, is
special to Hondurans, since it it depicted on
the nation's 1 Lempira bill, below.
Guide describes features on a stela in the
Grand Plaza showing 18 Rabbit, the king of
the arts, as a ball player. A ball is in the
foreground. His 43-year reign was marked
with artistic growth.
Diagram shows layout of Copán.
Copán founder Quetzel Macaw, left, hands
the sceptre of power to Yax Pasah, the 16th
ruler, in a replica of Altar Q. The original is
in a museum at the site.
Yax Pasah presents the sceptre to Copán's
last ruler, U Cit Tok, on the altar overlooking
the ball court photo above. It was the city-
state's last carving, with the remaining three
sides left smooth.
Playful depictions such as this dancing
jaguar hint of good times under Smoke
Jaguar, 18 Rabbit's predecessor who
extended Copán's dominance throughout
the region.
Grand staircase of glyphs started by 18
Rabbit was completed by Smoke Jaguar.
The 1,250 blocks would tell Copán's history
had they not tumbled to the ground because
of erosion. Archaeologists placed them
randomly during reconstruction.
Visitors descend through one of the more
than 2 kilometers of tunnels archaeologists
have bored into temples to seek clues to the
city's past. Mayans tended to destroy and
rebuild temples every 52 years when solar
and social calendars converged.
Plumbing still flushes in the washroom of the
Rosalila Temple, built in 571 by Moon
Jaguar. Unlike other temples, it was buried
intact rather than destroyed
Limestone is converted to lime inside wood-
burning kilns today as it was during Mayan
times. Lime was essential to paving Copán's
courtyards and covering the buildings with
painted stucco.
Artifacts like this pottery shard still bubble up
from the ground after a good rain.
Mounds dotting the Copán Valley hint of the
massive amount of research yet to be
undertaken by archaeologists.
Sacred ceiba trees grow through a temple.
Macaw, a bird held sacred by the Mayans,
perches in a tree at Copán.