Ancient Maya Architecture

Mexico - Archaelogy - Magicians Pyramid
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The Maya were an advanced society that flourished in Mesoamerica long before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. They were skilled architects, building great cities of stone that remain even a thousand years after their civilization fell into decline. The Maya built pyramids, temples, palaces, walls, residences and more. They often decorated their buildings with intricate stone carvings, stucco statues, and paint.

Today, Maya architecture is important, as it is one of the few aspects of Maya life that is still available for study.

Maya City-States

Unlike the Aztecs in Mexico or the Inca in Peru, the Maya were never a unified empire ruled by a single ruler from a single place. Rather, they were a series of smaller city-states who ruled the immediate vicinity but had little to do with other cities if they were far enough away. These city-states traded with and warred upon one another frequently, so cultural exchange, including architecture, was common. Some of the more important Maya city-states were Tikal, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Caracol, Copán, Quiriguá, Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal (there were many others). Although every Maya city is different, they tended to share certain characteristics, such as general layout.

Layout of Maya Cities

Maya tended to lay their cities out in plaza groups: clusters of buildings around a central plaza.

This was true of the impressive buildings in the city center (temples, palaces, etc) as well as smaller residential areas. These plazas are rarely neat and orderly and to some, it may seem as if the Maya built anywhere they pleased. This is because they Maya built on irregularly-shaped higher ground to avoid floods and dampness associated with their tropical forest home.

In the center of the cities were the important public buildings such as temples, palaces, and the ball court. Residential areas radiated out from the city center, growing sparser the further they got from the center. Raised stone walkways linked the residential areas with each other and the center. Later Maya cities were built on higher hills for defense and had high walls surrounding most of the city or at least the centers.

Maya Homes

The Maya kings lived in stone palaces in the city center near the temples, but the common Maya lived in small houses outside the city center. Like the city center, the homes tended to be bunched together in clusters: some researchers believe that extended families lived together in one area. Their modest homes are thought to be much like the homes of their descendants in the region today: simple structures constructed mostly of wooden poles and thatch. The Maya tended to build up a mound or base and then build upon it: as the wood and thatch wore away or rotted they would tear it down and build again on the same foundation. Because the common Maya were often forced to build on lower ground than the palaces and temples in the city center, many of these mounds have been lost to flooding or encroaching wilderness.

The City Center

The Maya built great temples, palaces, and pyramids in their city centers. These were often mighty stone structures, over which wooden buildings and thatched roofs were often built. The city center was the physical and spiritual heart of the city. Important rituals were done there, in the temples, palaces, and ball courts.

Maya Temples

Like many Maya buildings, Maya temples were built of stone, with platforms on the top where wooden and thatch structures could be built. Temples tended to be pyramids, with steep stone steps leading to the top, where important ceremonies and sacrifices took place. Many temples are graced by elaborate stone carvings and glyphs. The most magnificent example is the famous Heiroglyphic Stairway at Copán. Temples were often built with astronomy in mind: certain temples are aligned to the movements of Venus, the sun or the moon.

In the Lost World Complex at Tikal, for example, there is a pyramid which faces three other temples. If you're standing on the pyramid, the other temples are aligned with the rising sun on equinoxes and solstices. Important rituals took place at these times.

Maya Palaces

The Palaces were large, multi-storied buildings which were home to the king and royal family. They tended to be made of stone with wooden structures on top. Roofs were made of thatch. Some Maya palaces are spacious, including courtyards, different structures that were possibly homes, patios, towers, etc. The palace at Palenque is a good example. Some of the palaces are quite large, leading researchers to suspect that they also acted as a sort of administrative center, where Maya bureaucrats regulated tribute, trade, agriculture, etc. This was also the place where the king and noblemen would interact not only with the common people but also with diplomatic visitors. Feasts, dances, and other community social events could also have taken place there.

Ball Courts

The ceremonial ball game was an important part of Maya life. Common and noble people alike played for fun and recreation, but some games had important religious and spiritual significance. Sometimes, after important battles in which important prisoners were taken (such as enemy noblemen or even their ahau, or King) these prisoners would be forced to play a game against the victors. The game represented a re-enactment of the battle, and afterwards, the losers (which were naturally the enemy nobles and soldiers) were ceremonially executed. Ball courts, which were rectangular with sloped walls on either side, were prominently placed in Maya cities. Some of the more important cities had several courts. Ball courts were sometimes used for other ceremonies and events.

Surviving Maya Architecture:

Although they were not on a par with the legendary Inca stonemasons of the Andes, Maya architects built structures which have withstood centuries of abuse. Mighty temples and palaces at places like Palenque, Tikal, and Chichen Itza survived centuries of abandonment, followed by excavation and now thousands of tourists walking and climbing all over them.

Before they were protected, many ruin sites were scavenged by locals looking for stones for their homes, churches or businesses. That the Maya structures have survived so well is a testament to the skill of their builders.

The Maya temples and palaces that have withstood the test of time often contain stone carvings depicting battles, wars, kings, dynastic successions and more. The Maya were literate and had a written language and books, of which only a few survive. The carved glyphs on temples and palaces are therefore important because there is so little remaining of the original Maya culture.


McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.