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Maya Architecture Overview & Examples | Pyramids, Temples & Palaces

Instructor: Sonia Burns

Sonia has over a decade of experience teaching History and Spanish Language Arts at the Denver Center for International Studies. She holds a BA in History and an MA in Spanish with a focus on the history and culture of the Spanish-Speaking World. She also has a CELTA endorsement completed in Seville and is a proud Fulbright scholar after an intensive summer program in Morocco.

Read about ancient Maya architecture. Discover who the Maya were and read about the structures in their cities, such as temples, palaces, and pyramids. Updated: 11/07/2022

Maya Society

The Maya civilization originated in Central America and parts of what is now modern-day Mexico. Despite historical myths of the disappearance of the Maya, many people in the region today are of Maya descent and still maintain the language and some cultural practices. However, it is true that many of the greatest cities from the height of Maya city-states were abandoned and the structure of the societies changed. The designation "Maya" comes from one of the last kingdoms, whose base was the city of Mayapan on the Yucatan peninsula.

Maya cities were built around their natural surroundings. While there was a high degree of organization, there was not necessarily always a recognizable grid pattern while building around the terrain. The most important features were the central plazas built on higher ground with other buildings and facilities radiating out around the centers.

Maya Architecture

What impressive architecture did the Maya build? While the pyramids are the most iconic of Maya architecture, this civilization had many other highly sophisticated building features. The architecture is even more impressive considering the lack of modern machinery, or even the use of wheels or draft animals for transportation. The Maya were able to quarry and work with a variety of local materials such as limestone and volcanic tuff. In addition to the scale of the structures, often built in jungle surroundings, many buildings were also constructed for alignment with astronomical phenomena.

The centers of Maya cities often contained the most important buildings for public life, including temples and pyramids. Some of the most famous and impressive temples and pyramids include Tikal, Chichen Itza, and Palenque. Palaces were not only living quarters for royalty but also administrative centers. Temples and ceremonial platforms offered places for public worship and events. The courts for the famous ball games could sometimes also hold ritual significance, not just for sport.

Maya homes varied widely based on social class. The higher social classes could afford to build larger homes with stone and other more durable materials. The majority of Maya homes would have been relatively small, clustered together, and often made of materials like baked mud and thatched roofs.

City Center

Maya architects utilized local materials and built strategically around their environment. Most cities were laid out with a city center surrounded by homes. Often, smaller plazas with other homes and small buildings could be found outside the city center in some large cities. Many of the structures at the center of the city were important markers of public life. Ceremonial platforms at a central location allowed easy access and viewing for religious ceremonies. These platforms also had a series of massive stelae with religious messages or that recounted the deeds of great leaders.

Special buildings in the city centers included arenas for the characteristic Maya ball game. Players would make goals through elevated hoops in an arena without using their hands or feet. Sometimes the games would be purely athletic and recreational. However, as many of the glyphs around the ball courts and stelae reveal, sometimes the game was also ritual. Originally, scholars thought that the losing team would be sacrificed, but more recent investigations have revealed that sacrifice may actually have been reserved for the winners.

As part of public religious practice, temples were also a prominent feature in the city centers. Palaces in the city center had public and political functions as well as being the home of royalty. Surrounding the city center were the homes of the rest of the population.

Maya Homes

Most Maya people lived outside of the city centers. Maya social structure was complex and stratified while the cities thrived. Most buildings of the Maya empire were much more humble structures than the famous temples and pyramids. Maya families would have built homes out of materials such as baked mud for the walls and thatch for the roofs. These homes would have been built with access to the city center, or at least easy access to another plaza outside the city center.

Maya Temples

Maya society produced visually stunning monuments as well as advanced mathematical principles. They independently came up with the concept of zero and meticulously tracked astronomical movements and patterns. The construction of their temples also coincided with the alignment of the stars and times of the year, such as the equinoxes.

Along with their own unique creations, the Maya were also great admirers of the previous cultures of the Olmec and the structures at Teotihuacan. Maya architects and engineers innovated in many important aspects and were experts at utilizing local materials to construct incredible buildings. Sites such as Palenque and Tikal are made primarily of sandstone. Quiriguá is similarly distinguished by the use of sandstone, and the structures at Copan include volcanic tuff as building materials. In place of modern concrete or mortar, the Maya used burnt lime and even mud. Exteriors were covered in stucco and painted in vivid colors, often with images of religious and political significance.

Even the earliest Maya structures in the region of Petén show a high degree of planning and organization. Temples from this early period also show alignment with the solstices and equinoxes for both winter and summer. Later temples would follow similar alignments and often would have spaces for observing and tracking the stars and visible planets.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was a major feature of Maya architecture?

Mayan architecture is most renowned for the pyramids. Maya pyramids were often temples that were aligned with the solstices and equinoxes and reflected the society's knowledge of and reverence for the cosmos.

Why is Maya architecture important?

Maya architecture would be a source of inspiration and expertise for following civilizations such as the Aztecs and Toltecs. Maya architecture influenced the building of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, one of the greatest architectural marvels in history.

What architecture did the Maya build?

The Maya city centers included pyramids and palaces that aligned with astronomical phenomena and included building features that reflected their observations of and beliefs about the cosmos. Other important buildings include ball courts and public squares, and many Maya houses encircling major city centers.

Are the Maya famous for architecture?

The Maya are famous for impressive architecture constructed in jungle terrain and without the use of either the wheel or draft animals for transportation. Today, the temples in Central America and parts of Mexico are world-famous archeology sites and centers for tourism.

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