The magnificent site of Tikal has a long history. It was settled about 600 BC. and was abandoned by its rulers around AD 890 when there is evidence that some of the elite palaces were burned. It was completely deserted shortly after and only explored for the first time in 1848. The extensive site contains temples, pyramids, palaces, causeways, ball courts and plazas, covering an more than 16 square kilometres. At its height its population was estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000. Many of the main buildings that can be seen today were completed between the 6th and 9th centuries, during the late classic period. In the early classic period there was a carefully maintained relationship between the high priests and the people. The priests used the astronomical and other knowledge they had built up to coordinate the planting and harvesting activities of the people who in turn would keep them in their elite position. Matters changed in the fourth century when the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan took over Tikal, married into the ruling family and introduced its more bellicose ideas. Every five years the Venus wars were fought, ritual conflicts to obtain captives of sacrifice to the gods. For a while Tikal was successful, but in 562 the ruler of Tikal was captured and sacrificed by the rival city of Calakmul. For more than a century there was little building and Tikal suffered a series of defeats by Calakmul. Only in 695 did the ruler of Tikal eventually defeat Calakmul and initiate the flurry of building that led to the awe-inspiring complex of buildings we see today. Temple One was completed in 695, Temple Two in 702, Temple Three in about 810 and Temple Four in about 750. All these are massive structures but were mostly built over earlier buildings as the culmination of a millennium of construction work. In the façade of the North Acropolis it is possible to see fragments of stairways, large decorative masks and doorways from earlier phases of the construction which the Mayan architects later built over. Set away from the ceremonial centre, Temple Four rears to a height of 70 metres above the forest canopy and from its top the other temples and tree-covered mounds rise above the gently undulating forests of the Peten.
There is much of the site that awaits restoration. Temples on top of pyramids emerge through clearings in the jungle canopy. In some cases these are simply tree-covered mounds awaiting excavation and reconstruction, but in the Grand Plaza extensive restoration has been undertaken.
The Great plaza is the heart of the site. Two temples, numbered Temple One and Temple Two by the archaeologists face each other from the east and west sides of the plaza, crowned by elaborate roof-combs which formerly had massive stuccoed and painted masks, while at the north side looms the Northern Acropolis in front of which is a row of stelae with round altars before them.