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The heart of their civilization lay between the highlands of Guatemala and the plains of the Yucatan, much of it a vast region of dense jungle. They were renowned for their monumental architecture.

Pyramids and temples towered over plazas and ball courts, where kings ascended to the throne and warrior athletes competed for their lives.

By the 18th century, I don't think anybody could write.

One blaze was ignited by Diego de Landa, a zealous friar, bent on destroying one of the most original writing systems ever invented, Maya hieroglyphics.Landa's mission was to convert the Maya to Catholicism in the Yucatan peninsula.Everything would change in the 1880s, when Alfred Maudslay arrived with a glass-plate camera.Maudslay was taking full advantage of the new developments in photography.The travelers cannot make sense of our mysterious script, but if they could, would they comprehend who we were?

In the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America, the ancient ruins of the Maya posed such a mystery.Almost 1,000 years later, a Spanish explorer named Jose Calderon stumbled upon the jungle city of Palenque.Inside its abandoned temples, Calderon and his men found huge stone tablets carved with figures and hieroglyphic writing.As news of the strange texts spread, French artist Jean-Frederick Waldeck traveled to Palenque, in 1832, to sketch its hieroglyphs.Believing that Babylonians, Phoenicians or Hindus had built the Maya cities, Waldeck's drawings even included Indian elephants.But unknown to many scholars poring over Maudslay's photos, the work of decipherment had already begun, with the rediscovery of Maya books that had survived the Spanish conquest.