The Mayan empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Mayans excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyphic writing, creating their world-famous Mayan calendar and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. Most of the great stone cities of the Mayans, such as Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Labna and Izamal were abandoned by A.D. 900, and ever since the 19th century, scholars have debated what might have caused this dramatic decline.
The Mayans were the most dominant of indigenous societies in Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest. Unlike other scattered indigenous populations of the area, the Mayans were centered in one geographical block covering all of the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala; Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas; and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. This concentration showed that the Mayans remained relatively secure from invasion by other indigenous peoples.
The height of the Mayans in the Classic Period produced the incredible cultural advances for which they are well known. The Mayans believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever `born’ and nothing ever `died’ – and this belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos. According to them, beneath the earth was the dark realm of Xibalba from which the great Tree of Life grew, which came up through the earth and towered into the heavens, through thirteen levels, to reach the paradise of Tamoanchan where beautiful flowers bloomed.
In the modern age the Mayans still farm the same lands and travel the same rivers as their ancestors did from the north in the Yucatan down to Honduras. The claim that the Mayan culture somehow vanished, simply because their cities were found abandoned, is inaccurate.
Though the region was Christianized in the 16th century CE conquest and inquisition, the old ways are still observed in a hybrid between European Catholicism and Mayan mysticism. The day keeper of a village still interprets the energy of a day and rituals are still performed in caves and on hills. On the island of Cozumel, shrines to the Virgin Mary and the goddess Ixchel are interchangeable and, often, one and the same. A great deal has been learned about the Mayans since the days when Stephens and Catherwood explored and documented the ancient ruins but, for the Mayans living today, nothing of importance has ever been forgotten and the cycle of life, and their incredible Mexican history, continues on.