Maya apocalypse and Star Wars collide in Guatemalan temple

TIKAL, Guatemala, Dec 18 (Reuters) - At the center of the

rebel base where Luke Skywalker took off to destroy the Death

Star and save his people from the clutches of Darth Vader,

Guatemala is preparing for another momentous event: the end of

an age for the Maya.

Deep inside the Guatemalan rainforest stand the ruins of the

Maya temples that George Lucas used to film the planet Yavin 4

in the movie "Star Wars," from where Skywalker and his sidekick

Han Solo launched their attack on the Galactic Empire's giant

space station.

This week, at sunrise on Friday, Dec. 21, an era closes in

the Maya Long Count calendar, an event that has been likened by

different groups to the end of days, the start of a new, more

spiritual age or a good reason to hang out at old Maya temples

across Mexico and Central America.

"If it is the end of the world, hopefully Luke will come and

blow up that Death Star," said Alex Markovitz, a 24-year-old

consultant and Star Wars fan from Philadelphia, looking out over

the site of Skywalker's rebel base. "I see why they shot here.

It doesn't look real. It looks like an alien planet."

Once at the heart of a conquering civilization in its own

right, the ancient city of Tikal is now a pilgrimage site for

both hard-core Star Wars fans and enthusiasts of Maya culture

eager to discover what exactly the modern interpretations of old

lore portend.

In the 1960s, a leading U.S. scholar said the end of the

Maya's 13th bak'tun - an epoch lasting some 400 years - could

signify an "Armageddon," though many people trekking to the old

temples believe it could herald something wonderful.

Discovered in 1848 when locals unearthed human skulls whose

teeth were studded with jade jewels, Tikal draws tourists from

around the globe. Visitors this week said they felt a powerful

presence in the blue skies above them.

"The force is strong here," said Jimena Teijeiro, 35, an

Argentine-born self-help blogger. "The world as we know it is

coming to an end. We are being propelled to a new age of light,

synchronicity and simple wonderment with life."

Maya scholars and astronomers have dismissed the idea the

world is on the brink of destruction but mystics and spiritual

thrill-seekers have flocked to feed off Tikal's energy. Park

guards said they had to throw out 13 naked women who were

dancing and chanting around a fire pit near the temples last

week.

"Something big is going to happen," said the president of

Guatemala's Star Wars fan club, entrepreneur Ricardo Alejos.

"The Maya were an incredibly precise people. Something big is

going to happen and we'll find out what in a few days."

Surrounded by thick jungle home to jaguars, monkeys and

toucans, the view of Yavin 4 from the top of Tikal's Temple

Four, known as the temple of the double-headed serpent, has

changed little since Lucas filmed here in 1977.

CIVIL WAR

Lucas chose Tikal when he saw a poster of the site at a

travel agency in England during the production of the original

"Episode IV: A New Hope" film, and sent a crew to Guatemala in

March 1977 to shoot during its 36-year civil war.

His team hoisted bulky camera gear and heavy lights to the

top of the 210-foot-high (65-metre-high) Temple Four with a

pulley system and paid a guard with six-packs of beer to protect

the equipment with a shotgun for four nights, locals said.

A year after the shoot, the wooden huts where Lucas' film

crew camped were burned to the ground by leftist rebels fighting

against a right-wing military government.

Extending for 222 square miles (575 square km) through

Guatemala's sweltering north, Tikal is one of the largest

pre-Colombian Maya sites and known by some as the New York City

of Maya ruins because of its high temples that climb toward the

heavens.

The peaks of the limestone structures pierce the dense,

green canopy of the jungle and howler monkeys wail at sunrise.

Yavin 4 and the rebel base return to the Star Wars plot in

the forthcoming Episode VII, announced in October by the Walt

Disney Co, in which Skywalker comes back to the planet to build

a Jedi Knight academy. However, fans said that Disney will

likely film those scenes in a studio rather than return to

Tikal.

The shrines, believed to have been used mainly for worship,

also appeared in the 1979 James Bond movie "Moonraker" in which

007 was lured through the jungle to the lair of his enemy Hugo

Drax.

Local guides are expecting a rush of visitors this week and

the Guatemalan government forecasts a record 235,000 foreign

tourists for December. Hotels in Tikal are fully booked.

"There are passionate groups that come," said tour guide

Gamaliel Jimenez. "One group told me 'If you don't take us to

where they filmed Star Wars, we aren't going to hire you.'"

(Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham)

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