El Mirador: abandoned pyramids and Mayan cities in Guatemala

El Mirador: abandoned pyramids and Mayan cities in Guatemala

The thick forest cover in the heart of the ancient Mayan land could not cover these giant buildings – even thousands of years after they were built, the pyramids of El Mirador tower above the rainforest. The land is now abandoned, but it was once the first and largest metropolis of the Maya civilization.

El Mirador (“lookout” in Spanish, named after the huge pyramids overlooking the flat rainforest) was discovered in 1926. Because it was located in a very remote place (and there are many other Mayan sites occupied by scientists) researchers did not come here for several decades.

The first explorer here was Ian Graham in 1962. More detailed research was done in 1978 – 1983 under Dr. Bruce Dahlin (mapping) and Dr. Ray Matheny (excavations in the center, architectural studies). They were surprised to find that these magnificent ruins were much older than those of neighboring Tikal and Huaxactún, the most famous Mayan cities.

El Mirador: abandoned pyramids and Mayan cities in Guatemala

The site and its surroundings were becoming increasingly popular with looters. There was a risk that researchers would be left with very little that could provide information, so in 2003 an ambitious research project led by Dr. Richard D. Hansen, the Mirador Basin Project, was launched. It was more than just an archaeological research project. The Mirador Basin Project can be compared to the work of a rather large company, with many hundreds of people involved, producing scientific work in various disciplines, promoting their activities, organizing TV broadcasts and press articles, and consolidating the remains of prehistoric structures.

The Mysterious Heart of the Maya Land

It is quite possible that the great Maya civilization originated in the so-called “Mirador Basin” . This is the heart of the great rainforest on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, a basin that in most places is a swampy lowland with low limestone hills. Numerous – more than 50 – ancient Mayan cities have been discovered in this area, most of which have not yet been explored . Hundreds of thousands of people formed this network of cities very long ago, during the Middle and Late Preclassic period of Maya culture, from 300 BC to 150 AD.

Birth of the great Mayan cities

Great civilizations are born through adversity when people are forced to join forces and invent new ways to overcome the forces of nature or seemingly invincible enemies.

The Mayans were no exception. Although they lived in tropical forests, there is a distinct dry period of the year without rain – it lasts from January to May . Densely populated areas with hundreds of thousands of people could not exist in such a climate. Or, they can exist if people are smart and organized enough to collect rain and store it in large reservoirs for the dry period of the year.

The Maya in the Mirador Basin did this from about 300 to 200 B.C. – they built elaborate systems of canals to collect rainwater from large reservoirs.

El Mirador: abandoned pyramids and Mayan cities in Guatemala - Photo 2

Birth of the great Mayan cities

The birth of the great Maya cities

It seems that this newly acquired skill of well-organized social work gave them a huge competitive advantage over other cultures in the region. Thus was born a new civilization with a strong central administration.


The power of the Maya centralized government is evidenced by the grandiose system of roads (sacbeob) between cities, as well as the lack of large fortifications, which a powerful centralized state did not need.

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Sacbeobes were straight, level roads built on a stone base and often elevated 3 to 5 m above their surroundings. The width of these roads was 20-50 m, which was equal to the width of a highway. It seems that these roads were not just for the transportation of infrastructure – they could have been built and used mainly for ritual purposes . The Mirador Basin was probably the first place where such large-scale road construction was carried out.

El Mirador: abandoned pyramids and Mayan cities in Guatemala - Photo 3

It seems that this newly acquired skill of well-organized social work gave them a huge competitive advantage over other cultures in the region. Thus was born a new civilization with a strong central administration.


History of El Mirador.

A dense network of cities – a true agglomeration – developed in the Mirador basin and beyond. It is often difficult to tell where one city ended and another began. It seems (though not all cities have yet been explored) that El Mirador was larger and more significant than the other cities. The largest structures ever built by the Maya were made here, and crude calculations show that it took a population of over 100,000 people to populate this city and build its gigantic buildings .

El Mirador may have previously existed as a small settlement in 600 B.C., but in the 6th century B.C. it became an important city. The “Golden Age” of El Mirador lasted from the 3rd century BC to 150 AD, during which time it was the largest known Mayan city and one of the ten largest cities in the world. Some of the largest buildings in the world were built there at this time.

El Mirador: abandoned Mayan pyramids and cities in Guatemala - photo 4

Collapse in A.D. 150 An unknown cataclysm happened sometime around A.D. 150 – the cities of the Mirador Basin were suddenly abandoned. Maya appears to have been attacked by enemies . The northern, eastern and southern parts of the central area of El Mirador were surrounded by extensive fortress walls, which were up to 8 meters high. This did not save the city – it was abandoned.

History of El Mirador

Revival . It took several centuries before people returned to the city. Around 700 A.D. some parts of El Mirador were settled again. This time the Maya did not engage in ambitious construction. Among the crumbling giants of the past, small structures of no more than 8 meters in height were built. The building stone was taken from old buildings.

These people were not barbarians – they left behind intricate ceramics (“Coda-style ceramics” – now very much in demand on the black market) and other art values. By 900 A.D. El Mirador was abandoned again . The once beautiful and gigantic city was covered by a tropical forest, the heart of civilization turned into the center of a mysterious forest.

Layout and buildings in the Mayan metropolis

El Mirador: abandoned Mayan pyramids and cities in Guatemala - photo 5

Planning . The central part of El Mirador was about 26 km square. Like other Mayan cities, El Mirador was built according to a very strict plan. It is not quite clear why the plan looks like this, but it is possible that the buildings were carefully aligned for ritual purposes, for example, to provide a view of sunrise or sunset at certain times of the year.

Layout and structures in the Mayan metropolis

  • Structures . Ruins of several thousand structures have been discovered here. Many of the buildings are very impressive, some of them are higher than 30 m (higher than a modern 10-story building), the buildings have many interesting decorations, even paintings have been found in the underground structures. A characteristic feature of local architecture are the so-called “triadic” structures – pyramidal buildings with the main building in the center and two smaller ones on the sides. Stairs lead to the top of each pyramid. Originally these buildings were decorated with large stucco masks depicting the deities of Mayan mythology. There are about 35 such triadic buildings in the city, some of which are the largest buildings ever built by the Maya. The largest of these are:
  • La Danta, the largest Mayan pyramid and one of the largest prehistoric buildings in the world. This building is about 1.8 km east of the main group and rises 70-72 m above the forest floor. It is covered by forest, but from above there is a magnificent view of the seemingly endless forest and other nearby pyramids. The total volume of La Danta is 2.8 million meters – thus, it is one of the largest pyramids in the world
  • The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico has a larger volume, over 4.4 million meters, but the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt is less – 2.5 million meters. La Danta stands on a giant artificial platform of 18,000 m.
  • El Tigre is a triad pyramid 55 m high, located in the presumed center of the city.
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Los Monos is a pyramid 48 m high, also in the center. This giant structure is little studied.

Many other structures – Acropolis, Tres Mikos, Chikarras, etc. – were also named. Of particular importance was the so-called Structure 34 (Temple of the Jaguar’s Paw) in the center of the city, one of the oldest structures in Mesoamerica, built in 200 B.C., with an underground passage and preserved murals. Most of the structures have not yet been explored.

Popol Vuh bas-relief . A large, intricate bas-relief was discovered here in 2009. It adorned the water collection system (proof of how revered these systems are) and shows a scene from Popol Vuh, the creation myth of the Maya world. The bas-relief is about 4 m long and 3 m high, depicting (possibly) the twin heroes Junafu and Shbalanque swimming to the underworld to retrieve the head of their beheaded father. This find redefines the story of Popol Vuh, a great narrative older than previously thought.

El Mirador: abandoned Mayan pyramids and cities in Guatemala - photo 6

Planning . The central part of El Mirador was about 26 km square. Like other Mayan cities, El Mirador was built according to a very strict plan. It is not quite clear why the plan looks like this, but it is possible that the buildings were carefully aligned for ritual purposes, for example, to provide a view of sunrise or sunset at certain times of the year.

Layout and buildings in the Mayan metropolis

The reserve is scattered across zones and includes five national parks. El Mirador is located in one of them, the Mirador Rio Azul National Park.

The integrity of the territory of the park is encroached upon by human activities: in the southern part, forest is cut down, farms and settlements are established. El Mirador has not yet suffered much – it stands in the heart of the ancient forest, the nearest roads are about 30 km away. Unfortunately, El Mirador and neighboring towns suffer great losses due to the widespread looting of valuables – every month these sites are looted, and art values from these towns end up in auctions all over the world and are sold for millions.

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There are plans to turn this remote Mayan city into a major tourist destination – tourism can help reduce looting by giving the local community an incentive to preserve the values of the past. Today it is still covered by jungle, and it takes days of strenuous jungle walking to reach it.

Amazing Mayan sites have been found in the jungles of Guatemala. 1h of the series on American civilizations. The city-state of El Mirador.

Archaeologists from the United States and Guatemala have found previously unknown objects in the vicinity of the largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, with the help of laser scans, reports Prensa Libre.El Mirador was surveyed using high-precision radar from an airplane. Within 38 hours, scientists were scanning the impenetrable jungle hiding the ancient city with a laser.

It is believed to have appeared around 600 B.C.

“We obtained high-resolution images of every site, pyramid and canal in the central Mirador Basin over an area of more than 700 square kilometers,” says project leader Richard Hansen. – As a result, many hypotheses were confirmed and new hypotheses were proposed that have yet to be tested.”One of the most important discoveries was the discovery of a road network with a total length of over 240 kilometers. Scientists call it unique. The network connected about 50 cities,

that were part of the metropolis. Most of them have been found for the first time. In addition, previously unknown pyramids, terraces, canals, dams, necropolises and walls on the borders of the state were found.

According to scientists, El Mirador was representative of a closed political system. According to preliminary estimates, up to one million people lived on its territory. Laser scanning of the area will continue in 2017.

El Mirador is located in the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala.

The coordinates are 17°45′18.18″ N. 89°55′13.55″ W. / 17.75505° N. 89.920431°W.

It was discovered in 1926. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Canal. There are two major pyramids in the city: the 55-meter-high El Tigre and the 72-meter-high La Danta. Many images of the bird-like deity Vukub-Caquish have been found in El Mirador. Miles of jungle and nothing around. You can’t see anything from above through the jungle.

But it wasn’t always like this. Centuries ago this place was most likely the American capital, one of the largest cities of the legendary Mayan people.

El Mirador has one of the largest pyramids in the world, La Danta, named for the tapirs roaming the dense jungle that hid pre-Columbian treasures for centuries. American archaeologists who made an aerial survey of the area north of Peten in Guatemala in the 1930s mistook the pyramid hidden under the trees for a volcano.

layout of the structures

The peak population in El Mirador exceeded 8,000. For unknown reasons, the city was abandoned at the end of the 9th century AD. Its ruins did not become too popular because of its location deep in the jungle in northern Guatemala. Today the site is overgrown with jungle, and the largest structure here, the La Dante complex, looks more like a large green hill.

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The La Dante complex consists of several platforms, the tallest of which contains three pyramids, one of which is 21 meters high.

The entire complex is the largest pyramid not only of the Mayan civilization and the American continent, but of the entire world. One part alone, the La Danta pyramid is 72 meters high, and its volume is 2,800,000 cubic meters, which is 200,000 cubic meters more than the volume of the Cheops Pyramid at Giza. Another pyramid from this structure is El Tigre, 55 meters high, where the National Geographic Society filmed the documentary “Dawn of the Maya.

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2/25/2011 Day three: Tintal – El Mirador.

Early in the morning we set off to watch the sunrise at the pyramid, but the meeting was spoiled by cloud cover.

Today we have more walking to do than yesterday. In addition, we are a little late in leaving Tintal and most of the way we walk in the heat itself.

Exhausted, we come to a small group of structures called La Muerta. It is said that La Muerta is so named because one of the marauders died here after being bitten by a snake and could not get to the doctors in time.

After the inspection, we arrange a snack. We notice a small fox, which, realizing that nothing will fall, quickly retreats.

After La Muerte, we go to the sculpture, carved in the place of the natural emergence of limestone rock to the surface. The inscription on the sculpture contains the name and title of one of the rulers of the Serpent Kingdom. The hieroglyph with the head of the snake is clearly visible. A special canopy was built over the sculpture to protect it from the rain.

A short walk more and we are in El Mirador. We were told by the local guides that two hours ago El Mirador was visited by a group of Russian journalists, who were either shooting a film for television or collecting material for an article. Richard Hansen, whom everyone here calls Dr. Richard, was also there.

The plan was to have a short break, set up our tents and go get cleaned up. The camp at El Mirador is the best maintained; it even has a shower. But many have adapted to ablution with a plastic bucket and a bowl, which we do on the shore of the lake near the camp. Of course, we won’t be able to wash off all the dirt this way, but it helps a little.

We still have time before dark, and we have time to see the Paw Jaguar temple, decorated with jaguar masks. This temple is believed to be dedicated to a deity associated with the sun cult, and the jaguar masks represent the movement of the sun across the sky. Under the protective layer on the masks you can see traces of the red paint that the entire temple was once covered with.

The Paw Jaguar Temple is built over another, earlier temple, also decorated with stucco moldings. Unfortunately, mere mortals are not allowed to see the earlier structure now.

Afterwards we go to the Tigre pyramid to watch the sunset. Its height is 55 meters, its base area is 140 by 145 meters – which surpasses the central square of Tikal with Temples 1 and 2 and the Northern Acropolis put together, and at the top is a temple “triad”. It is believed that in some cases, as here, such a “triad” recreates the arrangement of the three stones in the household hearth of the ancient Maya, and the household hearth in turn replicates the heavenly hearth of creation, where the three stars from the constellation Orion (Alnitac, Rigel and Saif) are the hearth stones and the M42 nebula is the fire.

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So, we’re at the pyramid. There’s another group there besides us, but there’s plenty of room for everyone. Before sunset the forest comes to life – the cries of birds are heard, howlers howl with even greater zeal than during the day, moths are flying over the pyramid, and just before sunset silence comes. Those who are eager to enhance the effect of their union with nature smoke a joint.

In the darkness with the light of lanterns we look at the two steles. In the bright sunlight the reliefs on them are less visible. The first stele has two figures carved at the top (presumably female), at the bottom is an inverted head of a deity.

On the second stele the deity holds a snake in the mouth, on the right side we can see the inscription, heavily damaged by time.

After a dinner in complete darkness we look at the stars – directly above us Orion is twinkling, in the north – the bucket of Big Dipper, and the Pole Star is still not seen, probably, it is already too low above the horizon.

26.02.2011 Day 4: El Mirador – Nakbé

Early morning gathering at the keepers’ houses, in front of which a crowd of colorful birds (eye turkey, meleagris ocellata) graze.

Our plan for today is to spend half a day seeing what we didn’t get to see yesterday, then go to Nakba. This time we are given a tour of El Mirador by Arnoldo, a local ranger, and Ron translates for the English-speaking people.

Of all the things we saw in the 5 1/2 hours we spent in El Mirador, the biggest impressions were the Central Acropolis and, of course, the La Danta complex.

In 2009, a gizzard-decorated pool used to collect water was discovered in the Central Acropolis. Hansen believes that the stucco frieze of this structure depicts a subject from Popol Vuh. The frieze has been dated supposedly to 200 or even 300 B.C. and it turns out to be the earliest evidence of the existence of this myth. However, not everyone agrees with this interpretation (http://www.mezoamerica.ru/we/news09-02.html), but this in no way detracts from the significance of this find.

The pyramidal complex of La Danta was erected on a natural hill and reaches 72 meters at its highest point. The volume of the complex is about 2.8 million cubic meters, according to Hansen’s calculations it took 15 million man-days to build the complex.

At the bottom of the upper platform at the top of the pyramid we notice an unusual object – it is a metate used for crushing grains. The hole in the middle is not accidental – it was made on purpose to emphasize that this object is a tribute to the gods, and people will not be able to use it anymore.

The central temple of the La Danta Triad:

One more climb and we are at the top of the pyramid.

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