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The Adventure Begins

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Places of Antiquity
(Part II of II)
Tikal:  South of Chichen Itza, in the present day country of Guatemala, lies Tikal, the majestic Mayan city of the jungles, which was discovered in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba.  Perhaps the largest center of the Classic Mayan civilization, Tikal reached its peak between the 4th and 10th centuries A.D.  The site contained some 3000 buildings within six square miles and had an estimated population of 45,000.  The heart of Tikal was a huge square with two temples on the east and west sides, and raised structures to the north.  This raised area is the site of sixteen temples, which can be seen there now, and were built on the remains of earlier temples and buildings.  Located througout the area are six steep pyramids, the largest of which — simply known as Pyramid IV — is 228 feet tall.
From this lofty height the view stretches over the jungle canopy toother steep pyramid temples that reach beyond the treetops.  In 1526 another Spaniard, Francisco de Montejo, was lead an expedition to the Yucatan with a mission to convert the natives to Christianity.  Instead, the expedition was to burden Spain with nearly 20 years of guerrilla warfare against the Conquistadors and brought an end to Tikal and many other Mayan temple-cities.
Ankor Wat: For 500 years the city of Ankor was the capital of the Khmer Empire.  Located deep within the Cambodian jungle, this city of two million people was secure until sometime in the 14th century when the people of Ankor were driven from their city.  For the next half century Ankor would remain deserted.  Finally, in 1861, Henri Mouhot - a French naturalist - accidentally discovered the lost city while searching for butterflies.  Dense jungle growth reclaimed the land, covering the buildings.  Monkeys, bats, and panthers became the new occupants roaming the streets and great halls.  The main temple of the city - known as Ankor Wat - is the worlds largest religious structure.  Approached by a 1200 foot stone causeway, which crosses a surrounding moat and leads to the 65–foot entrance tower, the visitor passes 108 stone genii - each 8 feet tall - who support a seven-headed stone cobra. 
Five acorn shaped towers crown the galleries, colonnades and courts; the tallest tower reaches 250 feet into the sky.  Inside the temple, the walls are covered in carved kings, dancers, gods, and goddesses.  Although much of the jungle that chokes this site has been cleared away, the job has never been completed.  The central temple of Ankor Wat is only one of many structures within the city.  Libraries, gateways, palaces, and other temples are so spread throughout the ancient city that a visitor could not see them all if they had a week's time.
Meteora: Precariously hanging from the labyrinth of rocky pillars, the monasteries of Meteora apparently hang in the air.  And that is what Meteora means, "to hang in mid-air".  The 24 rocky pillars and the monasteries which cling to their surface are a spectacular sight.  Located where the Pindus mountains meet the plain of Thessaly in central Greece, the earliest inhabitants of the rocks' crevices were simple hermits and monks, who first arrived here as early as the 10th century.  In 1356, Saint Athanasios began construction on Megalo Meteoro - the Great Meteora - which was to be only the first "monastery in mid-air".  Using ropes and pulleys he hauled up construction materials until 1372, when he considered the task complete.  By the 16th century there were at least 20 small settlements and 13 monasteries.  Soon thereafter there was a decline in monasticism, and by the 18th century the smaller, poorer monasteries could no longer afford to maintain the buildings.  Many were abandoned, or neglected to the point where they were no longer habitable.  Of the 30 or more monasteries that once flourished at this site, only six are still functioning.  The most famous of the monasteries is AyiaTriada, the quintessential monastery in the air.  Seen in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, it feels like the most primitive and remote of all the monasteries.
Mesa Verde: Carved into the sides of cliffs are what some have called the first high-rise apartment blocks in America.  The Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde National Park (see picture, above) was built between 1073 and 1273, and housed 400 people.  It has more than 200 rooms for living in, as well as storage rooms and special ceremonial rooms called kivas.  The people who lived here are referred to as the Anasazi — "the ancient ones" — by the Navajo.  They were farmers who grew corn, squash, and beans.  They domesticated wild turkey for the meat and feathers, and made pottery, baskets, and wove cloth.  Around 1300, it is believed the climate suddenly changed and they were stricken by a long drought.  They abandoned their homes and vanished into the wilderness.
The Statues of Easter Island: About 2500 miles west of Chile, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, lies a remote island.  Discovered by the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeven on Easter Day, 1722, it was called Easter Island.  As the explorer approached the island, he was greeted by a collection of huge carved faces, gazing toward the ocean.  Carved from a volcanic stone of one of the islands extinct volcanoes, the island is dotted with over 600 of these mysterious statues, which the islanders called moai.  Many of the heads — some over 30 feet high — are imbedded deep into the surrounding soil, and are estimated to weigh up to 100 tons.  All the statues look similar; they have exaggerated, long heads, jutting chins, and long ears.  Some have square red-rock "hats" or "top-knots", and many unfinished statues
were found in a quarry.  How the statues were made and how they were moved is no longer a mystery.  The unanswered questions that remain are: What are they?  Are they gods?  Ancestors?  And why do they stare out to sea, contemplating the Pacific?
Machu Picchu: The oldest continually inhabited city in the Americas is Cuzco, Peru.  High in the Andes Mountains, it was once home to the Inca's.  These ancient people built highways that stretched from present-day Columbia to Chile, a distance of over 2000 miles.  Many of these roads are bordered with massive retaining walls and tunnel through mountains.  But these people are not remembered for their road building.  Fifty miles north of Cuzco is the Inca urban center that has become synonymous with these people; the lost city of Machu Picchu.  The site appears to be less a city, and more an important religious complex.  Built between two peaks, Machu Picchu is series of agricultural terraces with paved stairway-streets, woven between stone houses and fortifications.  A place of gardens, terraces, palaces, ceremonial buildings, and baths, Machu Picchu shows evidence of aqueducts and fountains.  Why this place - which remained a secret from the Spanish Conquistadors - was abandoned is still a mystery.
Last month we began looking at places of antiquity.  Today we continue our tour with another six amazing locations that represent ancient places and lost civilizations.  Below is a continuation that represent more "greatest building efforts" from long ago.  Again, they are in chronological order, from the oldest - at the top of the list - to the "youngest" at the bottom. (NOTE: The locations underlined indicate those which I have visited and can speak of from first hand experience.)