What is Quirigua?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Quirigua is a Mayan site in Guatemala. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1981. Quirigua is one of many Mayan sites found throughout Central America and Mexico, and is one of a handful included in UNESCO’s World Heritage inscriptions.

It’s hard to deny that the Mayan sites found throughout Central America and Mexico are some of the most impressive archeological sites on the planet. The Maya built amazingly beautiful structures, and covered enormous stone pillars, or stele, with depictions of gods, rulers, and hieroglyphs. Quirigua is an excellent example of Mayan hieroglyphs, and is less inundated with visitors than many sites found in Mexico and Guatemala.

Generally, people find Quirigua to be less impressive than other sites not found far away. In many people’s minds, Mayan cities evoke images of large pyramids and intricate game courts. In contrast, Quirigua has relatively few buildings, especially for a site as significant as it appears to have been. Quirigua is also almost entirely unrestored, unlike most other major Mayan sites. For this reason, many people appreciate nearby sites like Copan or Tikal more, or travel the extra distance to the Yucatan to see the enormous sites of Uxmal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza.

What does set Quirigua apart, however, and what makes it a site worth visiting for those willing to dig a bit deeper, is the quality and extent of its hieroglyphics. Quirigua has many incredibly impressive stelae, which are generally agreed upon as being some of the best examples of Mayan carving. Quirigua was also built in a region which happened to possess an abundance of sandstone, and it is this stone, as opposed to the limestone used in most of the Mayan cities, that makes up the stelae. This has resulted in stelae that have been preserved much better than those at other sites.

One of the most impressive stelae at Quirigua is an enormous marker, standing more than 35 feet (10m) high, and depicting Cauc Sky, the lord of the city. This stone, known as Stelae E, weighs more than 130,000 pounds, and is the largest stone ever quarried in the world of the Classic Maya. The stelae, like all at the site, date back to the 8th century, only a few short centuries before the Maya mysteriously abandoned their civilization.

Quirigua contains more than twenty distinct pillars, erected once every five years over the bloom period of the city to mark the hotun calendrical cycle. It is thought, because of the sudden appearance of these stelae, which remain the finest yet discovered, that the artisans responsible were imported from nearby Copan. The stelae found at Quirigua, like those throughout the Mayan world, were carved entire with stones and wooden mallets, as their artisans never discovered the secret of metal tools.

Although Quirigua doesn’t possess the pyramids or ball courts that have captured the imaginations of so many visitors to other Mayan sites, it remains a beautiful and magical place in its own right. For those with an interest in the carving and hieroglyphs of the Maya, there is truly no better site in the Americas.

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