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The Mayan City of Quirigua, Guatemala: World Heritage.

The Mayan City of Quirigua, Guatemala: World Heritage.

José Crasborn

Quirigua was a little Mayan city located in the northwest of Guatemala.

The hieroglyphic texts of its monuments, as well as the archaeological investigations carried out on the site, have determined that it was occupied for about four hundred years; however, political, artistic and cultural achievements were propelled until its last eighty years of existence.


Through this short period, Quiriguá came to bear the economic benefits and control of one of the most important trade routes in pre-Hispanic times. This allowed his greatest ruler and his successors to accomplish an ambitious sculptural project, that highlights the finely decorated monuments of the Mayan kingdom. Features for which this city was listed in 1981 by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage.


The city of Quirigua was established in 426 AD as part of a program of political and economic expansion of the city of Copán. Positioned in the extreme southeast of the Maya area in what is now Honduras, it is built on the north margin of the Motagua River.

Quirigua was in control of this fluvial commercial route, which was one of the most influential of its time because through the river people traveled from the Guatemalan highlands to other regions of Mesoamerica with products such as jade, obsidian, skins, and feathers among others (Figure 1).


Figura 1: Mapa de Ubicación de Quiriguá dentro del área Maya (Dibujo J. Crasborn 2009).


During its first years, Quiriguá had a sculptural and constructive development that was quite modest, since between the years 426 and 652 D.C. construction did not reach great dimensions, and only six monuments were carved. This left a void in the records of the site; there are records of only five kings who had governed the city for 226 years.


Years later, in 724 D.C. a  man called K’ahk ‘Tiliw Chan Yopaat (GOD WHOSE FIRE BURNS the SKY) ascends to power. He later would become the greatest king in the entire history of Quirigua, not only for the time he remained in power (roughly 60 years) but also for the achievements made during his reign, which would be remembered by his successors, for many years to come (Figure 2).


Through his first 14 years of reign, the city of Copán still maintained the control on Quiriguá. Towards the year 738 D.C. In an act that has not yet been fully clarified, he captures and decapitates the king of Copán, who was known as Waxaklaju’n Ub’aah K’awiil (Eighteen Images of the God K’awiil), with this Quiriguá achieves its political and economic autonomy, becoming a city of significant influence in the region.


These advantages allowed him to initiate an ambitious sculptural program that includes nineteen of the monuments, that are recognized by specialists as the tallest and finely carved that are known in this Mayan region. Sadly, this apogee came to an end after 810 D.C. when, for unexplained reasons, the elite stopped carving monuments and left the city. It lingered in oblivion for several centuries until 1842, when it was discovered by the American traveler John L. Stephens. It is described in his popular book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan


From that time on, the interest in Quirigua has been growing. The majority of investigations have concentrated on its monuments, which as mentioned  above,


have the necessary attributes to be recognized as world heritage of humanity,  in 1981 was designated using the following criteria (the criteria number correspond to those used by UNESCO):


(I) Represents a masterpiece of human creative genius: Quiriguá has the tallest and most elaborate monuments in the Maya area and is an example of the techniques and sculptural refinement achieved by this culture. Among these stands  Stela E with 10.60 meters in height (Figure 3).


Photography T. Draper


(II) To observe a significant interchange of human values, during a particular period or in a cultural area of the determined world, in the fields of architecture or technology, monumental arts, urban planning or the creation of landscapes. They were carved between the years of 700 to 850 AD forming part of the Motagua style sculptural school, with a strong influence in the Maya area of Honduras and Belize (Figure 4).


Photography T. Draper


(VI) To be an eminent representative example of a type of construction or architectural, or technological or landscape set that illustrates one or several significant periods of human history. Hieroglyphic texts refer to calendar dates, celestial events such as eclipses, passages of Mayan mythology and political, social and historical events of this city developed between AD 426 and AD 810. Making it possible to reconstruct part of the Mayan history (Figure 5).


Photography T. Draper


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