A Visit to Copan: In Which Ezra Finally “Gets It.”

March 22, 2011 in blog, Honduras, North America, Travelogue

The view from the top of the big pyramid at Copan is surreal. The foggy, drizzle, completely uncharacteristic for March and April in this part of the world, turned the jungle into a forest of ghosts and the mountains into silent, immovable specters looking on with watchful eyes.

It’s a completely different experience to visit a set of ruins on a bright blue day, when the  steps are dry, the tour buses are plentiful, the photos come out better and you’re surrounded by a sea of languages as folks from all continents come to study history.

On a grey, damp day, we had the place virtually to ourselves. There was one small tour of French folks, who were immediately recognized by the children as Europeans from their shoes, and who, like good French folks, stuck with their tour guide and hung on his every word. They were good guests.

In contrast to that, our children fanned out over the complex like beagle pups on the scent of something particularly tempting. This is not their first set of ruins, we’ve climbed every other major set on the continent and a lot of the minor ones too, and they know what they’re looking for: particularly good inscription, hidden tombs (they’re convinced they’ll find one that the archaeologists have missed!) inner rooms of old temples and any of the structures they’re still allowed to climb.

I prefer to walk alone, as quietly as possible, to stare into the stone faces and wonder who they are, what their story is, and where they’ve gone. Ghosts whisper parts of the story from every corner and small, black, Mayan eyes still peer out of history from the empty doorways, begging us to put the pieces back together, to work out the puzzle, to discover.

We took video of Ruth Esther, my 24 year old cousin from Atlanta, Georgia, climbing her very first Mayan pyramid, the smallish one in the center of the grand plaza. She laughed at us, but the children still cheered her and called her up with enthusiasm that one really would think should wane after hundreds of rock piles climbed in their short lives, but it never does.

We sat atop one set of buildings and munched our pistachios and told the stories again, for Ruth, this time, as much as to reinforce it for the children. The history of the Maya and how they moved about between the two continents over the isthmus that is Central America, the advancements of their civilization, their wide spread trade, the raised roadways they built, against all odds to connect their major cities. The fact that they built all of this, and used those roadways without using anything wheeled, even though they carved plenty of stone wheels for monuments. We explained that, among the things that make Copan “special” is the hieroglyphic staircase, the longest continuous set of Mayan glyphs ever discovered and that it tells the history of Copan’s dynasty. We discussed what we know of them after the arrival of the Spaniards, even though so many of the great cities had already disappeared by then, and their eventual development into our neighbours around the lake and the Maya that are still with us today.

The children listened and added their two cents worth. Ezra, fixated on the similarities between the Maya and the Aztec asked me to read aloud every plaque in the museum, hunting for links between Copan and Teotihuacan, the huge ruins north of Mexico City that were his favourites last winter.

He made another major brain breakthrough at Copan as well. For years I’ve been explaining, time after time, the even squares of Mayan hieroglyphs that are found inscribed on monuments and buildings everywhere we go. He’s never quite “gotten” it.

It was in front of one of the stellae in the museum that the lightbulb finally came on.

We stood and looked up at the stern faced king with a woven mat hat flanked by serpents to represent the cardinal directions and I told him, one more time:

“See Ez, this is the guy: the king or the warrior, or the important somebody that got a big stone carved to look just like him. He was important. He did something cool. Or he was the major boss of the city somehow. Now come around here to the sides and the back. You see these rows of squares? The funny pictures with the people that look a bit like animals and the rows of dots?  Each one of these is almost like a word to us. It means something. The pictures are parts of the story, the dots represent numbers, like dates, and together they tell us who this guy was and what he did that mattered so much.”

I love it when their eyes light up and you SEE the “ah-ha” moment.

“So,” he began slowly, “This is like, how all of a sudden now that I’m reading really good and I can’t NOT read the stuff I see and so I know what everything says all the time, this is like that? The old dead Mayans, they could read this stuff and couldn’t help it either and so they’d see the pictures and know the story?”


He took one last look and RAN for the wall where there was a line drawing of one particular glyph that showed up repeatedly on the stellae.

“Read this one to me, Mom, what does it mean?”

I read the lengthy, scientific description aloud, the long words in museum descriptions still frustrate him, and the end result was that this particular glyph means, “Copan.”

He was off at full tilt again, back to the stellae, scanning the squares before shouting, “I FOUND IT!!!  I CAN READ IT! I FOUND COPAN!!”

After he’d shown everyone else, and calmed down a bit, we made a video of him explaining what he’d learned, so perhaps you’ll see it on a podcast eventually.

We sat in shorter, but equally impressive, “residential” section of the ruins for a long last hour while the boys fought with sticks and raced through the empty ruins like they were fighting an immense battle. I love that their experience of history is reenacting on the floors of colosseums, and in the mazes of ruins wherever we go; their books come alive for them and for me, that’s the very best part.

We walked back out of the gate, beneath a flock of swooping, squawking macaws that were stunningly beautiful, but rather bad mannered when it came to the tourists, whom they’ve evidently learned to see as a food source (bread, not little kids!)

The walk back into town is like a thread between worlds: a few stellae sprinkled along the way between unexcavated rock piles. The ghosts are slowly replaced by living people, with the same black eyes, prominent noses and stories just as secret and history making and earth shaking as those of their ancestors who lived in this valley 1500-2000 years ago. Stories that are as much as mystery to me as those lost in the jungle.