The Ancient City

Collapse and Rebirth

A thousand years ago the Maya civilization, which had flourished throughout Mexico and northern central America, collapsed. Millennium-old cities and ceremonial centers were abandoned, sculptures and inscriptions in the Maya style ceased to be produced, the immense agricultural projects that had supported the ever-growing Maya population returned to brush and jungle, and the Maya people themselves dwindled in numbers. The causes of this disastrous upheaval are still debated but various combinations of over-population, exhausted resources, grasping and inefficient government, and warfare seem to have been involved. The Maya-related sites which once dotted western El Salvador were abandoned.

There followed a period of turbulent change, known as the "Postclassic." It was a time of migration, of the founding of new political units, and of empire-building. Long distance trade flourished and expanded as never before, with sea-going canoes on the Caribbean side of Central America ranging from North America to Colombia and land-based groups of professional merchants covering much the same territory inland.

A New Kind of City

In the very late Maya Classic period a new idea of what a capital city was like came into existence. Maya cities had had their civic and ceremonial core formed of a series of interconnecting plazas around which were arranged the temples and palaces on their platforms ("pyramids").

In the new city, the center was a large flat area surrounded by a wall or palisade. Within the walled plaza the pyramids, ball courts, and other structures were placed, seemingly without any formal relationship one to the other. This new idea of what a capital should look like spread rapidly through Mexico, where Tula of the Toltecs and Aztec Tenochtitlán share the same plan of the downtown area. The northernmost example of the new city is Cahokia in Illinois, the capital of a frontier state and the only ancient city north of Mexico.

Cihuatán ("see-wah-TAHN") was one of the first of these new cities, constructed shortly after Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan of Mexico.

The City of Cihuatán

Cihuatán was built on a low ridge in the center of the Acelhuate Valley. From there it could control traffic between the Caribbean, Honduras, and the rich river valleys and coastal plain of El Salvador. The site was surely picked for defense as well: the Western Ceremonial Center is surrounded by a low wall which probably supported a wooden palisade. The name means "place of the woman," from the imagined silhouette of a woman ("cihua") lying on her back along the ridge of the nearby Guazapa Volcano.

The core of the city was the ceremonial centers, with their pyramids, ballcourts, palaces, and other civic and religious buildings. The Western Ceremonial Center is the best-known part of the city. On the edge of the ridge just outside is the West Terrace, which might have been the marketplace. Across a deep gully lies the Eastern Ceremonial Center.

The ceremonial platforms of Cihuatán are made of thin slabs of volcanic rock, covering an earthen core. The structures which once stood on them were made of clay plastered over woven sticks ("wattle and daub"), with thatch roofs. Both platforms and the buildings were probably painted. Large hourglass shaped incense burners once stood on the western corners of the platforms, flanking the wide stairs.

Schematic CityThe houses of the ancient citizens of Cihuatán surround the two major ceremonial centers. Because the city was so large, there are different neighborhoods, each with its own local cluster of ceremonial buildings. Seven of these subsidiary centers have been identified and more may exist. Only one neighborhood, San Diaguito, has been explored.

How the Cihuatecos Lived

The ancient houses at Cihuatán did not differ much from modern houses in this part of El Salvador. They were constructed of wattle and daub, adobe, or even fieldstone, and stood upon low platforms made by outlining a rectangle with boulders and filling the space with dirt covered first with a layer of small cobbles and then with a layer of clay. "Dirt" floors are still constructed in this manner.

Houses had low walls — about waist-high — and very large thatch roofs. Storms in this area are accompanied by high winds that blow the downpour horizontally. A large roof overhanging low walls guarantees you a dry house.

Although houses are quite similar in construction methods, differences in the arrangement of the buildings which formed a household show us something else new about Cihuatán: it was a multi-ethnic city. Some houses are arranged around central patios in the traditional Maya manner. Others are lined up along terraces in a manner which suggests they belonged to Lenca or Xinca people.

Who Ruled Cihuatán?

This is a question the new project is seeking to answer. Many of the artifacts found in association with the ceremonial structures suggest ties to the east and north, especially with peoples from Veracruz in Mexico. Other artifacts show trade with the Maya peoples of Guatemala and with people to the south in Nicaragua and even Costa Rica. Was Cihuatán ruled by a new dynasty that arose out of the collapse of the neighboring Maya sites? It seems clear that, whoever was in charge, the citizens of Cihuatán were members of a number of different groups, gathered together in this new city for commerce and for defense.

The Fall of Cihuatán

We don't know who Cihuatán's enemies were or why they came to destroy it, but one day in the 10th century AD, little more than a century after the city had been built, it was burned. We know that this disaster must have happened in the late dry season, perhaps January or February, when the fields and hills are dried out and there are high winds. This is because the entire city was burned — so rapidly that people fled, leaving all their possessions lying where they had been using them. In the Western Ceremonial Center, the incense burners which once stood on the corners of the platforms were smashed on the west stairs. Whether this was an attempt at desecration or a sign of the invader's disrespect for the gods and the government of Cihuatán we do not know. Whoever the invaders were, they were successful: Cihuatán was abandoned and the forest engulfed the city.


Other Mesoamerican Sites

Joya de Cerén, El Salvador
El Pilar, Belize
Blue Creek, Belize
Virtual Uxmal, Yucatán
Yaxuná, Yucatán

Life rises from the ruins

Cihuatecos had the wheel

Can you see the cihua?

New house, old style

A smashed incense burner restored

The fatal day

Photos by Karen Bruhns
Illustration by Tom Weller


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