"Look Over All the Land Round About": El Mirador!

Part of the incredibly well preserved stucco freize at the Temple of Jaguar Paw
Not all the sites out here are easy to get to. Some are very remote and isolated. El Mirador is one of those sites. There are two ways to get there. One is by foot—a two-day trek 40+ miles through the jungle. While this could have been a great way to better understand the Book of Mormon and their tendency to get lost in the wilderness, we opted for the other route: flying in on a helicopter!

Looking out over the jungle from the chopper!
Since I had never ridden a helicopter before, this in an of itself was a really cool experience. Just watching as we flew over the jungle canopy was a really cool sight to see! I need to pause for a minute here and express gratitude to Kirk Magleby for making the chopper ride possible for me. It was extra cost over and above the cost of the tour, and I did not have the budget for it. I never said anything to Kirk about it, and he never asked me. He just out of the blue sent me an email telling me that he had paid for me, and my friend Stephen Smoot, to be able to go on the chopper to El Mirador. An incredible act of kindness which I can only hope to repay some day.

Now, back to El Mirador. El Mirador is a massive site, and it was already huge in the Early Pre-Classic. Among those who think Rio Usumacinta is the River Sidon, many think this may have been Bountiful. It should go without saying that I disagree, but still worth pointing out. El Mirador is almost entirely a Pre-Classic site. It flourished from the 6th century BC to the 2nd century AD, when it was abandoned. Defensive walls built around part of the city suggest that the abandonment was under duress.

Unlike other sites, this one was not built over during the Classic period. It was virtually left alone until about AD 700, when some modest new construction took place before again being abandoned again around AD 900, with most other Classic sites. As such, El Mirador provides an important window into the Pre-Classic era. Unfortunately, despite many years of excavation, very little of the site has seriously been explored. This was obvious throughout our walk through the area, which looks more like jungle than an ancient city.

The stucco freize depicting part of the Popul Vuh
We did not have a lot of time at El Mirador, because we had catch a flight to Antigua. So we did not get to explore nearly as much we would have liked to. We saw the Temple of Jaguar Paw, and the freize (mural) there, which still has traces of the original paint from 2,000 years ago. Another freize at the site dating to around 200–300 BC depicts a portion of the Maya creation myth. This is an extremely significant find because it depicts more or less the same creation myth found in the Popul Vuh, a post-Columbian document. This is a testament to stability of Mayan mythology over thousands of years.

We are already part way up La Danta,
and you still can't see the top.
Of course, we had to climb La Danta. La Danta stands 230 feet in the air—just a foot shorter than Temple IV at Tikal. Though slightly shorter, it is actually far larger than Temple IV, consisting of 99 million cubic feet of rock and gravel. One again, the view from the top was incredible! I could see miles and miles of jungle, and we could even see Tikal in the distance.

Reflecting on the many glorious views atop massive towers reminded me of King Noah’s building projects in the land of Nephi. Mormon tells us that “he built a tower, near the temple; yea, a very high tower, even so high that he could stand upon the top thereof and overlook the land of Shilom, and also the land of Shemlon, which was possessed by the Lamanites; and he could even look over all the land round about.” He also “caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom” (Mosiah 11:12–13). When Gideon turns on Noah, and he “the king saw that he was about to overpower him, he fled and ran and got upon the tower which was near the temple.” It was here that “the king cast his eyes round about towards the land of Shemlon, and behold, the army of the Lamanites were within the borders of the land” (Mosiah 19:5–6).

A view looking out from La Danta
This whole story rings true in a Mesoamerican setting. Towers and temples go together—usually the temple was atop the tower, but not always, and there are many cases were various temples and towers are built near each other (see the images from Tikal, for example). From atop the massive towers, one can certainly see “all the land round about” including other nearby sites. As I mentioned, we could see Tikal from La Danta, and the reality is in ancient times all the jungle would have been cleared away and a person standing atop a tower would be able to see several nearby—and probably even some fairly distant—cities. This also would have made it easy to see approaching armies from the towers. And Mark Wright talked about how the towers were used as safe havens by rulers during invasion. There was only one way to get to the top—a usually steep and narrow staircase—making it easy for the king or his guards to push or kick attackers down the steps. In this light, King Noah’s retreat to the top of the tower—which initially seems illogical, since it meant he had nowhere else to run—makes a lot of sense.

El Mirador is the last of the ruins we saw on this trip. The only thing I regret is that it could not last longer—there are still so many ancient sites to see! I’ve gained all kinds of perspective and insight relevant to the Book of Mormon. Even without thinking about the Book of Mormon, though, the ruins have been magnificent in their own right. Every city visited has been impressive in its own unique ways—you simply cannot just go see one ancient Mesoamerican city and say you’ve seen them all!


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