5 events throughout history that have formed the Guatemalan culture

Jürg Widmer Probst - Guatemalan culture

Guatemala has witnessed its fair share of drama and culturally significant events over the past few thousand years. From the foundation of some of the greatest cities in the world, to invasions, war and colonialism, the Guatemalan culture has been formed.

The thing is about Guatemalan history and culture is that it goes back a really long way. So, it can be difficult to grasp all of the events that shape today’s modern Guatemala. Here are some of the key historical events that changed the world for Guatemalan people.

5 historical events that have shaped Guatemalan culture

  1. Founding of the city of El Mirador, circa 6th century BCE

Once the biggest city in Pre-Colombian Guatemala, El Mirador means ‘the lookout’. The ruins exist to this day and are an absolute dream for any explorer or historian. The exact date of the city’s foundation is obviously difficult to ascertain, but we know it was somewhere around the 6th century BCE.

Either way, the ruins of El Mirador show us just how important this city was in the formation of Mayan culture. Archaeologist Richard D Hanson from Idaho State University believes that El Mirador lay at the very centre of the first ever organised state in the Americas. This makes the founding of this great city one of the most historically significant social developments in the history of Guatemalan culture.

  1. The collapse of Classic Maya, circa 900AD

To this day, the true reasons for the collapse of the Classic Maya civilisation are still unknown. The events that led to the collapse and beyond are the subject of much speculation. Whatever happened and why, it led to Mayan people simply abandoning lots of their largest cities sometime around 900AD.

One of the most popular places to visit in Guatemala, the city of Tikal, was abandoned in this way. And while we can visit the spectacular pyramids and Mayan ruins in Tikal and other cities, we just don’t know why this collapse happened.

One of the most popular theories today is a period of prolonged drought led to a mass famine. Other reasons for the collapse have been put forward, ranging from ongoing military strife between different city states or another catastrophic environmental event. Of course, this wasn’t the complete destruction of the whole Mayan civilisation as plenty of people still live in Guatemala today, however it was the end of its era as one of the most spectacular and powerful places on earth.

  1. The Spanish arrive, 1523/1524

The arrival of the Conquistadors headed by Pedro de Alvarado is the most significant historical event in recent history for Guatemala. It effectively ended the indigenous Mayan civilisation and forced the country to evolve into something else.

The conquest didn’t happen overnight, and the Spanish didn’t actually conquer every Mayan capital until the late 17th century. It took them that long to conquer the final Mayan capitals of Zacpetén and Nojpetén.

But the Spanish arrival in the first quarter of the 16th century was the start of a traumatic and turbulent era for Guatemalan people. Guatemala effectively became a Spanish colony, which was ruled and dictated to by Madrid. The Spanish culture completely overwhelmed the traditional indigenous cultures.

While pockets of Maya traditions do still exist, they are usually impacted in some way by the Spanish. The arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in Guatemala can be seen and felt everywhere in the country today.

  1. Independence Day for Guatemala, 1821

After 300 years of Spanish colonisation, winning independence in Guatemala is another hugely significant event in its history. It was a proud moment of regaining identity and national pride. However, it wasn’t a smooth transition, and actually took until the 1840s for Guetamala to become a truly sovereign nation state.

During the years in between there were wars, turbulence and uncertainty under the dictatorship of Governor Mariano Aycinena y Piñol. Today, however, 15 September is celebrated every year as Guatemala’s Independence Day and is a source of pride and joy.

  1. End of the Guatemalan Civil War, 1996

Guatemala’s history is rarely smooth and so it proved throughout the 20th century. This was a period of great political uncertainty and instability in Guatemala, reaching a peak of tragedy between the 1970s and 1990s.

During these years, civil war and political upheaval reigned, killing hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan people. Thousands more people went missing, and it was a time of mourning, fear and national tragedy. The scars are still there today, particularly for families who lost loved ones. Much more recently, families and victims of the civil war have received damages and Guatemala has stabilised.