Landscape with Figures



Made in America


At some point, Chak Tok Ich’aak must have realized that January 14, 378 A.D., would be his last day on earth. The king of Mutal, the biggest and most cosmopolitan city-state in the Maya world, he lived and worked in a sprawling castle a few hundred yards away from the great temples at the city’s heart. (Now known as Tikal, the ruins of Mutal have become an international tourist attraction.) Audience seekers entered the castle through a set of three richly carved doors in its eastern wall. Inside was a receiving room where petitioners waited for the king’s attention. An inner portal led to a torch-lit chamber, where Chak Tok Ich’aak, flanked by counselors and minions, reclined on an ornate bench. On that bench is, quite possibly, where he met his fate. *23

Like most Maya rulers, Chak Tok Ich’aak spent a lot of his time luxuriating in his court while dwarf servants attended to his whims and musicians played conch shells and wooden trumpets in the background. But he also excelled at such regal duties as performing ritual public dances, sending out trade expeditions in search of luxury goods, and fighting wars—a celebratory stela has Chak Tok Ich’aak personally stomping a manacled POW. In another portrait, a bas-relief, the king is depicted as an alert man with a long breechclout and a jeweled mass of necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and pendants clicking and clattering about his person. Towering a foot over his skull was an elaborate headdress in the shape of a bird of prey, complete with swirling plumage. Like most Maya art, the portrait is too stylized to regard as a naturalistic rendering. Nonetheless, it effectively makes its point: Chak Tok Ich’aak was a major historical figure.


Mutal (modern Tikal) and the huge city-empire of Teotihuacan had trade relations—peaceful, so far as is known—that dated back to 200 A.D. Matters abruptly changed in January 378, when a force led by the Teotihuacan general Siyaj K’ak’ arrived in the court of the Mutal king Chak Tok Ich’aak. As depicted on a painting wrapped around a Mutal vase, the foreign soldiers, shown with bundles of spears and atlatls, marched away from a Teotihuacan-style building (above) and confronted the lightly clad Mutalking on the steps of his palace (near left). The outcome of the meeting—Chak Tok Ich’aak’s death—may be hinted at in the final image (far left), in which longhaired Maya pay their respects to an empty pyramid.

By combining scraps of data on several inscriptions, archaeologists have calculated that Chak Tok Ich’aak probably acceded to the throne in 360 A.D. At the time, the Maya realm consisted of sixty or so small, jostling statelets scattered across what is now northern Belize and Guatemala and the Yucatán Peninsula. Mutal was older and wealthier than most, but otherwise not strikingly different. Chak Tok Ich’aak changed that. During the eighteen years of his reign, the city acquired diplomatic stature and commercial clout; its population grew to perhaps ten thousand and it established trade contacts throughout Mesoamerica. As it prospered, Mutal attracted considerable attention—which, in the end, may have been the king’s undoing.

Marching toward him that January day was an armed force from Teotihuacan, 630 miles to the west. Already in control of most of central Mexico, Teotihuacan was looking for new lands to dominate. Leading the expedition was one Siyaj K’ak’, apparently a trusted general or counselor to the ruler of Teotihuacan. Four Maya cities along Siyaj K’ak’’s path recorded his progress in murals, panel paintings, and stelae. Texts and images depict the Teotihuacanos as gaudily martial figures with circular mirrors strapped to their backs and squared-off helmets sweeping protectively in front of the jaw. They were bare-chested but wore fringed leggings and heavy shell necklaces and high-strapped sandals. In their hands were atlatls and obsidian darts to throw with them. Painted panels in one city show Maya soldiers in jaguar uniforms rushing to attack the visitors, but in fact it seems unlikely that any of the small settlements between Teotihuacan and Mutal would have dared to harass them.

No detailed description of the encounter between Siyaj K’ak’ and Chak Tok Ich’aak exists, but it is known that discussion did not go on for long. They two men met on January 14, 378 A.D. On that same day Chak Tok Ich’aak “entered the water,” according to an account carved on a later stela. The Maya saw the afterworld as a kind of endless, foggy sea. “Entering the water” was thus a euphemism on the order of “passed on to a better place.” Readers of the stela would understand that Chak Tok Ich’aak’s old heart had quietly stopped beating after Siyaj K’ak’ or one of his troops slipped a blade into it. Likely the rest of his family perished, as well as anyone else who objected. In any case no one seems to have complained when Siyaj K’ak’ established a new dynasty at Mutal by installing the son of his Teotihuacan master on the vacant throne.

Chak Tok Ich’aak’s death began a tumultuous period in Mesoamerican history. The new, Teotihuacan-backed dynasty at Mutal drove the city to further heights of power and prestige. Inevitably, its expansion was resented. A northern city-state, Kaan (now known as Calakmul), conscripted an army from its client states and launched a series of attacks. The ensuing strife lasted 150 years, spread across the Maya heartland, and resulted in the pillage of a dozen city-states, among them both Mutal and Kaan. After suffering repeated losses, Mutal unexpectedly defeated the superior forces of Kaan, possibly killing its king to boot. The beaten, humiliated Kaan lost the support of its vassals and was reduced to penury.

Mutal once again reclaimed its heritage from imperial Teotihuacan. But its triumph, though long sought, was short-lived. In one of archaeology’s most enduring mysteries, Maya civilization crumbled around it within a century. After a final flash of imperial splendor, the city joined Kaan and most central Maya cities in obscurity and ruin. By about 900 A.D., both Mutal and Kaan stood almost empty, along with dozens of other Maya cities. And soon even the few people who still lived there had forgotten their imperial glories.

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