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Today, the lands once occupied by the ancient Mayan civilization fall within the boundaries of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Guatemala, a country of over 14 million that officially recognizes several Mayan-derived Indian languages along with Spanish, has many direct descendants of the ancient Mayans among its people.
The ancient Mayan culture is believed to have taken shape between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100 in the Pacific highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. Beginning around A.D. 250, Mayan civilization entered what is now called its Classic Period, when the great city-states whose ruins define La Ruta Maya began to be built. The Classic period lasted until about A.D. 900, after which many Mayan cities were abandoned. Some cities, however, particularly on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, survived centuries longer, in a post-Classical period that extended as late as the 16th century. For example, Tulum in Mexico was still a living Mayan city when the first Spanish explorers and colonists arrived in Central America.
At the beginning of the Classical Period, Tikal (now in Guatemala) was already well established. Early in the third century A.D., a king named Yax Moch Xoc ruled Tikal and began a dynasty that lasted for the next 400 years. Yax Moch Xoc and his successors expanded their city-state by conquering surrounding kingdoms until Tikal had a population estimated at 100,000 by the middle of the sixth century. Then Tikal itself was conquered by Caracol (now in Belize), which ruled the area for over 100 years. A ruler named Moon Double Comb brought renewed greatness to Tikal early in the eighth century, building most of the great temples that still stand around the Great Plaza today. Tikal declined around A.D. 900, at the end of the Classic Period, with its population slowly dispersing and its buildings overgrown by luxuriant tropical vegetation.
The Mayan site at Joya de Ceren, El Salvador, dates from around A.D. 600 in the middle of the Classic Period. Unlike the pyramids and great temples elsewhere, the structures here were the homes of ordinary people, preserved by an eruption of volcanic ash. At the same time during the middle of the Classic Period, the city-state of Copán (now in Honduras) was a major Mayan center. A ruler named Smoke Imix came to power in the late seventh century as the twelfth king of Copán and began the period of construction that produced the spectacular temples that still stand. The last known ruler of Copán was U Cit Tok’, who ascended the throne in A.D. 822.
The city of Lamanai (now in Belize) was occupied for over 3,000 years and had one of the longest occupation spans of the Mayan world. It is set in tropical rainforest and offers spectacular views of the surrounding jungle from its temples. Lamanai is Mayan for ´submerged crocodile´ (the true Mayan word is "Lama´an´ain," but the shortened version is often preferred). Archaeologists have mapped over 700 structures in Lamanai; only five are partly excavated.
Though elements of Mayan culture have always survived among the region’s native people, and a few Spanish officials glimpsed some of the ruins during colonial times, the great ancient cities remained largely unknown to Western civilization for centuries. The period of modern awareness of the achievements of the ancient Mayans began after Frederick Catherwood and John L. Stephens visited Copán in 1839, and Stephens published the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan in 1841. Archaeological research in the decades since then has decoded many of the ancient inscriptions, and continues to reveal more about these ancient people.