The Maya ceremonial center of Copán contains numerous accounts about the rulers who reigned over the many years it was home to the Mesoamerican royal family dominant in this part of the world. Its many memorials and stelae as well as the writings on them tell us details about their history and legends.
We know that the reign of a particular house was established by the many depictions of succession, like Altar Q showing the passing of the baton from early rulers to the king who had the altar built, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th ruler. While the stories of the rulers are laid out in the hieroglyphic stairway at Copán, a few stand out in its history. The city had been important but little is known about the ruling house before it returned from obscurity, not well interpreted from early writings, and was re-established in A.D. 426.
The city was refounded by K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, establishing it as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. This coup was apparently organized and launched from Tikal. Texts record the arrival of a warrior named K’uk’ Mo’ Ajaw who was installed upon the throne of the city in AD 426 and given a new royal name, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and the ochk’in kaloomte ”Lord of the West” title used a generation earlier by Siyaj K’ak’, a general from the great metropolis of Teotihuacan who had decisively intervened in the politics of the central Petén. K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was probably from Tikal and was likely to have been sponsored by Siyaj Chan K’awill II, the 16th ruler in the dynastic succession of Tikal. K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ may have legitimized his claim to rulership by marrying into the old Copán royal family, evidenced from the remains of his presumed widow. Bone analysis of her remains indicates that she was local to Copán. After the establishment of the new kingdom of Copán, the city remained closely allied with Tikal.The hieroglyphic text on Copán Altar Q describes the lord being elevated to kingship with the receipt of his royal scepter. The ceremonies involved in the founding of the Copán dynasty also included the installation of a subordinate king at Quiriguá.
Probably the best known because of his disastrous end is Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. His decapitation at the hands of one he had appointed as a member of his court, K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, showed the passing of the reign into another capital, Quiriguá.
Although the exact details are unknown, in April 738 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and burned two of Copán’s patron deities. Six days later Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was decapitated in Quiriguá. This coup does not seem to have physically affected either Copán or Quiriguá; there is no evidence that either city was attacked at this time and the victor seems not to have received any detectable tribute. All of this seems to imply that K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat managed to somehow ambush Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, rather than to have defeated him in outright battle. It has been suggested that Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was attempting to attack another site to secure captives for sacrifice in order to dedicate the new ballcourt when he was ambushed by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and his Quiriguá warriors. In the Late Classic, alliance with Calakmul was frequently associated with the promise of military support. The fact that Copán, a much more powerful city than Quiriguá, failed to retaliate against its former vassal implies that it feared the military intervention of Calakmul. Calakmul was far enough away from Quiriguá that K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was not afraid of falling directly under its power as a full vassal state, even though it is likely that Calakmul sent warriors to help in the defeat of Copán. The alliance instead seems to have been one of mutual advantage: Calakmul managed to weaken a powerful ally of Tikal while Quiriguá gained its independence. The disaster for Copán had long-lasting consequences; major construction ceased and no new monuments were raised for the next 17 years.
The reign returned to Copán later, and continued on until what shows to have become a less prosperous time when the strain on the countryside of retaining its powerful in splendor appears to have offset its riches. That is when throughout the area, and Mesoamerica in general, the Maya ceremonial centers began to be drained of the influence and central rule they had enjoyed. The complete account of ruling elites at Copán is contained, and has been interpreted from, the Heiroglyphic Staircase there as well as on the monuments to rulers who succeeded their earlier kings, and built onto the structure that had been modified by those earlier royal heirs. The story is long and elaborate, and shows the motivation behind the many sculptures and writings of legitimizing each ruler in turn.
(Picture below courtesy of Michael Swigart at flickr.com.)
Stela A places Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil ‘s rulership among the four most powerful kingdoms in the Maya region, alongside Palenque, Tikal and Calakmul.