The Maya Sculptural Splendor of Copán Ruins
As my eyes look upward along the monolithic sculptures at the ancient Maya site of Copán, I can't help but feel awestruck. The grandeur and opulence of the Maya kings seem to radiate through the weathered stone.
The spacial separation between these sculptures and viewers conveys a mysterious divinity. Towering gazes reinforce the godlike status of these rulers. Power is expressed with stoic expressions, ornate symmetry, and elaborate regalia.
Copán exemplifies the sculptural magnificence of the Maya realm with its commemorative stelae, stucco façades, glyphs, and altars. For this reason, Copán joins Tikal (grand pyramids) and Palenque (limestone reliefs) to form the triad of important Maya sites.
Copán's origins can be traced as far back as the 9th Century BC with agricultural settlements flourishing in the fertile river valley of present-day Honduras. Archaeologists have yet to paint a clear picture of the period leading up to the reemergence of Copán in the 5th Century AD.
In 426 AD, Tikal organized a takeover of Copán and installed K'inich Yak K'uk' Mo' upon the throne. Soon after, Copán became one of the most influential cities in the southern Maya region.
The dynasty of K'inich Yak K'uk' Mo' ruled for four centuries and included 16 kings. His son, K'inich Popol Hol, redesigned the layout of Copán with several construction projects including a ball court with carvings of scarlet macaws.
Chan Imix K'awiil, the 12th dynastic ruler, reigned between 628-695 AD. He oversaw extensive monument production and temple upgrades nearby the Great Plaza during his 67 years on the throne.
Chan Imix K'awiil's successor, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, witnessed an artistic shift towards flamboyant in-the-round (three dimensional) sculpture. Until 736 AD, he commissioned several stelae reflecting the peak of Maya artistic achievement. Intricate cartouches with glyphs, red paint, and zoomorphic figures adorn the fine sculptures.
Unfortunately, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's contribution was rewarded with the betrayal of his vassal state of Quiriguá. In 738 AD, K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured and beheaded the Copán ruler resulting in a halt of construction projects for the next 17 years.
An era of renewal was ushered in by the 15th dynastic ruler, Ajaw K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil. He upgraded the remarkable Hieroglyphic Stairway (the longest inscribed text at any Maya site) by doubling its length and installing five life-sized seated kings.
Despite Ajaw K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil's efforts, Copán slowly declined due to overpopulation, drought, inadequate resources, and disease. In 822 AD, Copán's last known king, Ukit Took', ascended the throne. The sudden abandonment of the city took place during the 9th Century AD.
The Copán Complex
More than 27,000 people inhabited Copán at its peak during the end of the 8th Century AD. Approximately 3,400 structures have been discovered within the 27 sq mi (43.5 sq km) zone outside of the Principal Group.
The Principal Group, which includes the areas listed below, was the main complex of Copán built for the high nobility. If you desire to explore residential areas, check out the excavations at Las Sepulturas about 1.25 mi (2 km) away included with your ticket.
Religious ceremonies and public events were held in the main plaza. The impressive ball court (731 AD) near the southern end is the second largest in Central America. Beautifully carved macaw heads line the top of the sloping walls.
The main attraction of Copán is undoubtedly its spectacular stelae depicting Maya rulers. The finest stone sculptures were created between 613-738 AD. Sacrifices and offerings were often placed in vaults underneath or alongside the stelae.
These high relief, in-the-round portraits range between 9.8-16.4 ft (3-5 m) in size! The front of the sculptures depict Maya kings in full regalia emphasizing their status amongst the gods. On the back and sides are often glyphs describing the ruler's accomplishments, lineage, and divine power.
Every inch of these sculptures is exploding with detail and shows the high level of craftsmanship in the Maya realm, specifically Copán. These monuments are a testament to the importance of this lost civilization.
North of the main plaza is the Acropolis consisting of temples, palaces, and tombs decorated with ornate stucco and sculptures. Pyramids with grand steps border an open courtyard serving as a water reservoir. The area is divided between eastern and western courts.
Temple 11 was built as a gateway to the underworld by the 16th dynastic ruler of Copán, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. Carved monkeys holding torches adorn the lower levels.
Temple 16 holds a colorful secret. Beneath its weathered stones resides the Rosalila Temple (Temple of the Sun); a pristine stucco building with brilliant shades of red, green, and yellow. A full-scale replica is inside of the onsite museum (see below)!
Underneath the Acropolis are tunnels with five main construction phases spanning two centuries. The Rosalila and Los Jaguares tunnels are open to the public, but were unfortunately closed at the time of my visit because of COVID-19.
One of the most striking works of Maya art is the Hieroglyphic Staircase on the west side of Temple 26. The excellent stairway, constructed in 710 AD by Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, consists of approximately 2,000 separate stone glyphs positioned on 63 steps.
It is the largest Maya hieroglyphic inscription found and explains the dynastic history of Copán. Along the 33 ft (10 m) wide, 66 ft (20 m) high staircase are five figures representing the most prominent rulers.
Some of the altars and stelae around the site are actually replicas with the originals inside of the onsite Sculpture Museum. The two-story museum has a variety of friezes, altars, and artifacts found throughout Copán. Notable pieces include Stela A and Altar Q.
Stela A portrays the 13th dynastic ruler, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, carrying a two-headed serpent bar which is symbolically giving birth to sun deities. Serpents adorn his headdress while small figures crouch next to his feet.
Altar Q, originally located at the base of Temple 16, shows the succession of Copán's 16 dynastic kings. Each Maya ruler is sitting upon his own glyph. The founder of the dynasty, K'inich Yak K'uk' Mo' passes the scepter of power to Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the last ruler of the dynasty.
A true-to-scale replica of the Rosalila Temple is at the center of the museum. The temple represents a sacred mountain of creation and honors K'inich Yak K'uk' Mo' who is depicted as a winged deity on the lower levels. Maya constellations are painted on the corners of the roof crest.
What to Expect Upon Arrival
Copán Ruinas, named after the Maya site, is a pleasant town to base yourself to explore the archaeological ruins. A walking path leads straight to the complex, but tuk-tuks are available if you prefer a ride.
The complex is open every day, 8:00 AM-4:00 PM. Tickets are 360 HNL ($15 USD) per person. Tickets to the Sculpture Museum are 168 HNL ($7 USD) per person. Cash and credit cards are accepted.
As you walk nearby the ticket booth, English and Spanish speaking guides will offer their services. A few placards are found throughout the site, but not enough to make it DIY friendly. Prepare ahead of time with documentaries or articles.
Crowds are not a problem at Copán so any time and day is perfect for a visit. Brad and I spent five hours touring the complex and museum. Same-day reentry is permitted.
Copán is a small site with a variety of wildlife. Be on the lookout for scarlet macaws, Montezuma oropendolas, lizards, and deer.
The onsite restaurant serves hot food, drinks, and snacks. Bathrooms are located at the main entrance and ticket office.
Bring a rain jacket if you are visiting during the wet season (May-October). Wearing sneakers or hiking shoes is a good idea with all of the walking and uneven terrain. There are plenty of trees if you need a break from the sunshine.
Copán's dynamic sculptures mirror its interesting history. The wonder of the Maya empire is encapsulated in the stone stelae, thousands of glyphs, and grand structures. The site's beauty is unmatched and a testament to the sculptors' skillful attention to detail.
The human form is combined with allegorical motifs creating a parallel display of history and myth. To behold such creativity is a marvelous experience!