The beginnings of the history of Copán remain very mysterious, although archaeologists believe that there was human occupation of the site as early as the 12th century BC. We only have the first archaeological traces from the year 159 AD, but even after this date many archaeological traces cannot be validated. Indeed, we cannot rule out that they are part of the domain of mythology. It is therefore more than a millennium of the history of Copán which remains for the moment lost in the abysses of history. However, thanks to what we found by studying both the Altar Q, erected during the reign of Yax Pasai to establish his power, the Hieroglyphic Staircase erected in honor of one of the kings of Copàn, as well as several royal tombs, one can really begin to trace the history of Copán in a clear way, starting from the rise to power of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ – founder of a long dynasty – in 426 A.D

The rise of Copán

The first lesson to be learned from the reign of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, is that the links are obvious between the founder of the dynasty and Teotihuacán, another great Maya city. For good reason, several archaeological clues have been found. The first is a representation of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ with “circled eyes” and a rectangular shield in the manner of Teotihuacán, this shows that there was an interaction between the two cited. Second clue, the discovery of a tripod container, ie with three feet, which is well known to archaeologists under the name of “Dazzler”. On this container is drawn an archaeological temple built according to the talud-tablero method, which is typical of the constructions of Teotihuacàn. The talud-tablero consists in profile of an oblique wall, the talud (talus, in Spanish), surmounted by a vertical panel framed by a projecting cornice, the tablero (plank, in Spanish). This way of building temples was also found in Tikal, located 303 kilometers north of present-day Guatemala City. This shows that the phenomenon of interaction between cities is not unique to the 5th century. However, the nature of these links remains subject to debate. Indeed, the large cities being all autonomous, there was no, as we already know, centralized power in the Maya world. It is therefore difficult to assess precisely the degree of influence that Teotihuacan could have had on Copán and Tikal. It could only be cultural and in no way political.

Copàn’s Golden Age

In accordance with the ideology that began to spread in the Mayan cities from the end of the Preclassic Period (the period from 2500 BC to 200 or 300 AD, according to the various archaeologists), Copàn operated at the time classical (from 200 or 300 AD to 900 AD) as a “theatre-city” according to several concordant sources. The kings of Copán were indeed k’uhul ajaw – divine lords – mediators between the human world and the supernatural powers. As in the other “theatre cities”, great monuments have been constantly built there to establish the power of kings. In Copán, the reign of the k’uhul ajaw, lasted from the beginning of the reign of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ in 426 after JC until approximately 822 after JC. Nevertheless, it is necessary to wait until the VIIIth century, therefore the years 700 after JC, so that Copán becomes one of the most powerful Mayan cities. This period, the golden age of the city, corresponds to the reign of Imix K’awiil and his son Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. Under their reign, trade developed and temples proliferated. A large population comes to gather around the city. She was attracted by his prosperity. For the Mayas, this was due to the great ritual festivals organized by the king around self-sacrifices and human sacrifices. Self-sacrifices mainly consisted of sacrificing a part of one’s body to a deity, by extracting blood in particular.

The Death of Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil: A Real Turning Point

Copan’s golden age came to an abrupt end, when Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and sacrificed by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. The latter was the king of Quiriquá, a “satellite” of Copan which claimed independence in 738 AD. The history of Quiriguá truly began in 426 AD, with the enthronement of its first ruler, whose Mayan name is unknown. This enthronement was made under the aegis of the first great king of Copan Yax k’uk’ Mo’. Between 426 and 724 AD Quiriguá seems to have always been a satellite of Copán. But in this year 724, a new king, K’ak Tiliw Chan Yoaat, was enthroned as usual under the supervision of the thirteenth ruler of Copán, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. But soon after the enthronement, the two men will quickly fall out because K’ak Tiliw Chan Yoaat has plans for independence for Quiriqua. A vision that Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil obviously does not share. In 738, no doubt with the support of Calakmul, another ancient and powerful Mayan city, K’ak Tiliw Chan Yoaat succeeded in seizing the king of Copán and had him beheaded.