Monday, December 27, 2010

Guatemala's Rich Public Places -- Tikal's Gran Plaza

The Gran Plaza in Tikal, Guatemala, is a space that is unusual in many regards. I will mention just two. The first is that it survives, or is revived, as a social space. Tikal is the ruin of a Mayan city that was effectively abandoned in the ninth century. The continuing, albeit limited, use of the Gran Plaza is very interesting. On Christmas day I saw many Guatemalan families (they appeared to be Mayan) picnicking or otherwise relaxing in the Gran Plaza (see the video of groups using this space, Jeff, the friend with whom I was traveling, approached the plaza at a different time that same day. He said that before he got to it, he could hear a hubbub coming from the Gran Plaza.

The second way in which it is unusual is physically. The proportions of the square are much different from what I would expect in a US or European city (which is mostly what I have experienced). The volume defined by the structures is more vertical.

The Gran Plaza is defined by two pyramid-shaped temples to the east and west and two complexes of smaller buildings to the north and south. The space between the temples' steps, the part closest to the other, is approximately 200 feet, as is the distance between the rises to the north and south (see the plan of the Gran Plaza, with the defined square highlighted in gray). The temples themselves had risen (there has been more or less loss of height over the last thousand years) almost 150 feet.

(Compare the heights and distances between structures with the Parque Central in Antigua, for example. The latter has four times the surface area of the Gran Plaza and is surrounded mostly by two-story buildings (see

The pyramids of Tikal are composed of three sections (see the first and last photos, of Temple I and Temple II, respectively). The base occupies the lowest part of the pyramid and is the largest section. The actual temple is a much smaller section that sits on top of the base. The top of the pyramid is the roofcomb, which is often taller than the temple.

The volume of the plaza may have an unusual cultural (if intentionally done) or poetic (if not) meaning. The base of Temple I is built in nine levels. According to Mayan scholar Mary Ellen Miller
, this "probably refer(s) to the nine levels of the Mesoamerican underworld, where a king would descend to its nadir, only to rise up once again" (Maya Art and Architecture, p. 40). The arrangement of the structures around the Gran Plaza implies, in volume, an inverted base of a pyramid that is as tall as the others, but with a "platform" (the ground) much larger than any of them (see the east-west section through the Gran Plaza and the panoramic photo from the south).

The platform is where the temple rests. If the ground level of the Gran Plaza is the platform of an implied inverted base, the pyramid's "temple" would be underground. The trip to the underworld begins right here, under our feet.

For some of the background material for this post, I must thank two resources: Tikal: Guia de las Antiguas Ruinas Mayas (1971) by William R. Coe; and Maya Art and Architecture (1999), by Mary Ellen Miller.

1 comment:

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