In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya

The ambitious Snake kings used force and diplomacy to create the most powerful alliance in their culture’s history.

The ancient city of Holmul isn’t much to look at. To the casual observer it’s just a series of steep, forested hills in the middle of the jungle in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border. The jungle here in the Petén Basin is thick and warm but drier than you might expect. And silent, except for the drum of cicadas and the occasional calls of howler monkeys.

Take a closer look, and you may notice that most of these hills are arranged in massive rings, like travelers huddled around a fire on a cold night. An even closer look reveals that parts of the hills are made of cut stone, and some have tunnels carved into their sides. In fact they’re not hills at all but ancient pyramids, left to decay after the collapse of the Maya civilization a millennium ago.

The site was a thriving settlement during the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-900), a time when writing and culture flourished throughout what is today Central America and southern Mexico. But it also was a time of political upheaval: Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings.

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