Established well before the time of Christ and shrouded in thick rainforest and centuries of mystery, Tikal was once the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya and was probably called Yax Mutal. Located 19 miles (30 km) north of Lake Peten Itza, it was the largest urban centre in the southern Maya lowlands and a sprawling city and ceremonial centre of the ancient Maya civilization.
From the traces of agricultural activity discovered by the Archaeologists at the site, the Historians concluded that Tikal was first occupied as a small village in the Middle Formative or the Middle Pre classic Period as far back as 1000 BC. However, the construction of an elaborate system of fortifications, including ditches and earthworks, was completed by the start of the fifth century AD. Subsequently, with the construction of the major pyramids and temples in the Late Formative Period from 300 BC to 100 AD, Tikal became an important ceremonial centre. According to later Hieroglyphic records, perhaps in the 1st century BC, a dynastic rule was founded in the lowland Maya and Tikal became the seat of the Mayan ruler Yax Ehb Xook, after whom the city was named. Evidence of burials first appeared in the region during that period.
During the Early Classic Period, from 100 to 600 BC, Tikal was an important post in the great trading network of Teotihuacán, the largest city of the pre-Aztec central Mexico and the contemporary central-southern Mesoamerica and Tikal continued to flourish after the decline of Teotihuacán. However, Tikal reached its zenith in the Late Classic Period, from 600 to 900 BC, with the planning and construction of its great plazas, huge pyramids and palaces, the appearance of Hieroglyphic writing, complex systems of time-counting, and the flowering of Mayan art as seen in monumental sculpture and vase painting. It is estimated that at its height, Tikal had a population of about 20.000, plus an outlying population of another 50,000.
Unfortunately, the city fell from its zenith sharply, like much of the Mayan empire, by 900 AD. The Historians believe that during that period, the area around Tikal was overpopulated, and at the same time, the region fell victim to a series of droughts, and outbreaks of epidemic diseases. It is also believed that during that time, the indiscriminate and massive deforestation led to unprecedented crop failure. The dual crisis resulted in the massive exodus, as the terrified people were compelled to abandon the city, rather than die in starvation. Although small groups of people continued to live at the site for nearly another century or so, Tikal and some other Maya centres of the southern lowlands were completely abandoned by the 10th century.
Abandoned by its original inhabitants more than a thousand years ago, Tikal remained unknown to the outside world for almost a millennium. In 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés passed within a few miles of the ruins of Tikal, without knowing anything about it. In early 1696, when Spanish friar Andrés de Avendaño came back after being lost in the Petén forests, he described a ruin that may well have been Tikal. But knowledge of the site was never completely lost in the region as the local people guided Guatemalan expeditions to the ruins in the 1850s.
Due to the remoteness of the site from the modern towns, no explorers attempted to visit it until 1848, when Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut, the commissioner and the governor of Peten, visited Tikal, along with artist Eusebio Lara and published their report in Germany in 1853. As Tikal was located in a remote area with difficult of approach, which could only be reached by several days of rigorous travel through the forest on foot or mule, a small airstrip was built near the site in 1951, and major archaeological excavations were carried out from 1956 through 1970 by the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project. Subsequently, the Guatemalan government also began a further archeological project at Tikal in 1979, which continued through to 1984.
Tikal is now a major tourist attraction, surrounded by its own national park, partially restored by the University of Pennsylvania and the government of Guatemala. There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal, out of which only a fraction have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include five very large pyramids and three large complexes, often called acropolis. While each pyramid is supported by a temple structure on its summit, the complexes, composed of numerous buildings and equipped with burial chambers, served as the palaces for the upper class. The site also contains private residences, administrative buildings, platforms, inscribed stone monuments, and even a building that seemed to have been a jail, originally built with wooden bars across the windows and doors. Seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a set of 3 in the Seven Temples Plaza, are also included in the Tikal National Park.
Limestone was used for the construction of the structures of the ancient city, and the depressions formed by the extraction of stone were plastered to waterproof them and were used as reservoirs. The main plazas, surfaced with stucco, served as channels to carry the seasonal rainwater to the reservoirs. Tikal had no water other than what was collected from rainwater and stored in the reservoirs.
The 148 feet tall Pyramid I is crowned with the temple of Jaguar and Pyramid II, located just west of Pyramid I, stands 138 feet above the jungle floor and supports the Temple of the Masks. While Pyramid III is 180 feet high, the 213 feet high Pyramid IV is the highest of the Tikal monuments, which is the westernmost of the major ruins and also the site of the Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent. It is also one of the tallest pre-Columbian structures in the Western Hemisphere. The 187 feet high Pyramid V is located near the Plaza of the Seven Temples.
Considered as one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the the pre- Columbian Maya civilization, Tikal National Park was enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.