Located in northern Belize, the ancient Maya ruins of Lamanai are very special. Unlike other colossal cities built by the ancient Maya which were abandoned long before the arrival of Europeans on the continent, Lamanai was continuously occupied right until the early part of the 20th century.
Because of the city’s unique history, Lamanai is one of the few Maya cities for which we know the original name. Originally misheard by Spanish monks, the original name of the city is Lam-ayin, which means “submerged crocodile.” Lamanai, on the other hand, means “submerged insect.” Archeologists are now convinced that “submerged crocodile” is the correct name as evidenced by the numerous statues, figurines, and art depicting crocodiles that have been found at the site.
Today, Lamanai is located in Belize’s Orange Walk District
. The “core” of the city measures more than 12 square miles (31 square km), and only the biggest buildings have been excavated. Indeed, archeologists estimate that some 95% of the site is still waiting to be revealed. Today, visitors can explore more than 100 buildings, 12 of which are colossal temples, including the Mask Temple, High Temple, and Jaguar Temple. The excavated portion of Lamanai also includes several ball courts and the remnants of two Catholic churches built by the Spanish.
Lamanai is also unusual because its layout is very different than other comparable ancient Maya sites. Most of the ancient Maya cities featured a large temple surrounded by plazas. At Lamanai, however, the temples are aligned along the banks of the river and lagoon while the smaller, residential structures were built further inland.
No one is quite sure why the ancient Maya continued to stay at Lamanai after the collapse of their civilization around the year 900 AD. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the population of Lamanai had been dramatically reduced. The local Maya population revolted numerous times against the Spanish, ultimately driving them north into what is now Mexico. Today, visitors can see the remains of two churches as well as a sugar mill.
Due to the wealth of artifacts found at the site, archeologists know that Lamanai was a very important trading post for the ancient Maya. Vast numbers of copper objects and ingots have been found at Lamanai, including bells, tweezers, ornaments, pins, needles, fish hooks, chisels, and bells.
Lamanai is located approximately eight miles from the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a few miles upriver from the town of Orange Walk.
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