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Cities of the Maya

When the producers of Star Wars were scouting for a suitably otherworldly location to create shots of space craft flying above a rebel base, they chose the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. The 70m high pyramids towering above the rain forest canopy provided the perfect backdrop to scenes of inter-galactic conflict.

But the real history of the Maya and the astonishing structures they produced is every bit as awe-inspiring as anything which has sprung from George Lucas' imagination.

The Mayan people populate the area now covered by southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. For most of their history they have followed an agricultural life style similar to many of the indigenous peoples of the American continent. However, for much of the first millennium they developed one of the most impressive pre-Hispanic civilisations in the Americas.

Much Mayan land was low lying and prone to flooding. Extensive drainage networks helped make these areas fertile farmland, which in turn produced plentiful food to feed an ever growing pool of building labourers.

Mayan cities are dominated by two types structure - pyramids and palaces.

Mayan pyramids cannot boast the engineering sophistication of their much earlier Egyptian counterparts. They were little more than rubble filled, stone clad mounts supporting small temples. Mayan tradition was to construct successive religious buildings on the same site, right on top of their predecessors. Eventually the structures began to reach astonishing heights.

Much more impressive in engineering terms were the terraced bases supporting the pyramids and palaces. These were formed from earth and reclaimed building materials and could measure 200m by 150m, containing up to 250,000m2 of fill.

In contrast to the pyramids, the palaces were usually only a single storey. But it was here that Mayan engineering ingenuity really revealed itself. Alone of the peoples of the New World, the Maya were able to construct vaults using a steeped or corbelled method. The ability to construct 'solid' roofs is one of the main reasons why many Mayan structures have survived so well, while evidence of other pre-Hispanic culture has largely disappeared.

Outer blocks of stone were fixed together with pins and a cement made from lime-mortar and rubble. As the cement cured, the outer stone casing was added to and the whole process repeated, the structure rising accordingly. Finally the structure was meticulously dressed in stone, and often highly sculpted plaster decoration.

The decline of the Mayan civilisation was sudden and mysterious and, for most of the second millennium, great Mayan cities like Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza were surrendered to the jungle. Their rediscovery last century eventually led to the sites being cleared and partially restored.

Alastair McLellan

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