Sitting on the vastness of Tikal’s Mayan ruins it is common for visitors to imagine the bustling city that once thrived here. How it must have looked in its prime, with the jungle pushed far back to make way for endless crops and marvelous limestone structures that towered over the landscape. How proud its residents must have been to live in this shining capital of a dominant power.
And yet my thoughts were drawn in a completely different direction; to Shelly’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command . . .
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Whatever it once was, today Tikal is a decidedly dystopian place. I guess all ruins are to some degree. But to see the extent to which nature has reclaimed this once mighty and prosperous city is staggering. Much of the sprawling city is still unrestored. In these areas, roads and fields and buildings are buried as if they never were. Proud temples, with intricate carvings, are in many places completely overrun. Everywhere beneath the earth and vegetation lies rock once painstakingly hewn by human hands, now shrouded in jungle.
Today a new civilization slowly unearths what was built here long ago. Beating back the jungle and removing centuries of encroaching soil, Tikal’s Grand Plaza and neighboring acropolis have returned to a shadow of their former glory. Even in this diminished form, they are amazing to see. In the coming years more temples and palaces will be unearthed and in time much of the area may look as it once did. Tikal is reborn with a new purpose for a new people.
And yet I’m left feeling that we are them; clear cutting the jungle to make way for magnificent temples and tributes to ourselves; proud in our accomplishments and secure in our dominion over the earth. Meanwhile, nature patiently waits for the time when she’ll once again reclaim what is hers.