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Ancient Maya Architecture

An avid camper and hiker as well as writer and astronomy lover, Jose Juan Gutierrez has always been inspired by the sky

Maya Ruins: Tikal

Ancient Maya Architecture

The Maya civilization is known for its achievements in many areas, including art, mathematics, astronomy and architecture. It is in the area of architecture, where the Mayas created magnificent structures of outstanding beauty and complex designs. The Mayas built their pyramids and Temples in close relation with celestial phenomena, and many of them in alignment with the winter and summer solstices, as well as the equinoxes. Many of their achievements in architecture are believed to stem for their cultural exchange with other Mesoamerican civilizations.

One of the most recognizable features of Maya architecture is the stepped pyramids which were built by the end of the pre classic period. What is admirable about Maya architecture is that they did not use any type of machinery or tools to build them, but only manpower and the materials required for their construction. Most of the stone was obtained from local deposits of limestone, which is abundant in the region. Most of the plaster used to join the pieces of limestone consisted of crushed limestone mixed with an organic adhesive extracted from a tree known as holol, thus, giving it the properties of cement.


Maya City-States

Maya cities from the classic period consisted of a number of temple-pyramids and palaces around which were situated the huts of the Maya population. Temple-pyramids and palaces were distributed around ample plazas, which were open areas from which Mayas could observe the religious ceremonies taking place on the temples.

Mayas built many independent city-states, where religious and administrative affairs were administered. Typically, the Maya community was distributed in huts around the main Maya buildings. City-states began to be constructed in the low-land cities of Takil, Bonampak, palenque, Uxmal, among others. Just after the collapse of the low-land city-states, Maya civilization continued to prosper in the Yucatan Peninsula region.

Castillo in Chichen Itza

Temple of the inscriptions

Maya Temples and Pyramids

Maya pyramids were constructed not from big solid pieces of stone, but from smaller ones, placed over flat layers in a series of steps, some of which could reach the height of more than 200 ft. On top of a pyramid, there was usually an important temple, often overlooking high above through the jungle. On top of the temple there was a roof comb, often carved with representations of Maya leaders. Maya temples and pyramids were often decorated with beautiful sculptures of their deities, as well as ornaments and objects made of jade, obsidian and sea shells.

Often, new temples were built on top of the older ones, making the pyramid higher each time. Although rare, sometimes their temples served as tombs for their leaders. One example of this is the tomb of Pacal at Palenque. Royal burials were placed under the temples inside natural or man-made caves; the cave representing the underworld or Xibalba and the pyramid representing the heavens. Temples and pyramids were remodeled every 52 years in close relation with the Maya Long Count Calendar, supposedly after the ascension of a new ruler.


Maya Palaces

The palaces were large constructions beautifully decorated and often near the main city. They were one story palaces with many small chambers and often one interior courtyard. Large palaces consisting of many chambers and arranged in distinct levels consisted of many chambers or rooms in different levels. These structures are thought to have served as royal palaces and as headquarters for varied Maya government affairs.

Temple of Warriors


Significant historical events were often carved on stone Stelas in the form of glyphs, which were then placed in front of the temples at the plazas. The writings contained within the stelas were the records of the rulers and their dynasties.

Another common feature in Maya architecture is the construction of man-made holes called Chultun, which were covered with a thin layer of stucco, in which they stored precious objects and food.


Plazas were very common in every Maya city. The majority of stelas were placed in the plazas. Plazas were ample spaces enclosed by the major city pyramids and palaces designed to accommodate much of Maya population. They served as gathering places where acting events took place. These gatherings promote cultural identity through the presentation of varied theatrical performances.

El Caracol Observatory

Maya Observatory

The Mayas, like many other ancient civilizations, were assiduous observers of the heavens, and for this purpose, they aligned most of their pyramids and Temples with the objects in the sky. The Caracol in Chichen itza had holes on its walls. Inside the walls of the dome, the stones were removed, allowing Maya astronomers to observe different features of the sky, including the Pleiades, which they called Tzab-ek, and which they thought was their place of origin.

Ball Court in Chichen Itza

Ball Courts

Ball courts formed part of every major Maya city. This was a major site in Maya cities where they played their sacred sport called Pok-a-tok. The ball courts had sloping walls on either side, as well as an observation area. Ball courts were usually located near the temples.

Pok-at-tok was played using only the hips, arms, or shoulders, and the object of the game was to carry the ball to one end of the ball court and insert it into a stone ring that was attached to a wall. Typically, the losers of this game were sacrificed.

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Joya de Cerén Sauna

Maya Hut

Maya Sauna Baths

Sauna baths or pib nah were usually built near temples and ball courts, and they are thought to have been used by the Maya royalty, and probably for other functions, such as sacred rituals and healing purposes.

Sweat baths consisted of stone walls and low ceilings with a small doorway, and a fireplace where the stones were placed. When water was poured unto the stones, steam was produced. A small hole on the roof served as exhaust conduit for pressurized steam.

Most Maya population lived in huts known as Nah with walls and tilted two sided rooftops made of hay and wooden poles usually in groups of four, facing each other.

The huts had at least two rooms and the floors were covered with a thin layer of stucco. A few small limestone houses have been discovered probably belonging to some of the higher class Maya priests.

The following video is a brief description of Maya architecture.

© 2012 Jose Juan Gutierrez


Jose Juan Gutierrez (author) from Mexico City on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for reading, voting and commenting. I appreciate it.

KenWu from Malaysia on March 16, 2013:


This is a very well written article on the maya architecture. To be frankly, other than mayan prediction, I know close to nothing about them. This hub open my eyes about their knowledge and capability.

Voted up and everything except 'funny.' And shared it too. :)

Jose Juan Gutierrez (author) from Mexico City on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for your comment! I'm glad about it , too.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for this excellent reminder of a beautiful culture and its ancient architecture. And we still play basketball, descended from Pok-at-tok. But I'm glad we've stopped sacrificing the losers!

Jose Juan Gutierrez (author) from Mexico City on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for leaving your commentary on this hub. I appreciate it.

torrilynn on March 16, 2013:


Thanks for the hub

Its always great to learn about the Mayans and what they have accomplished

Voted up and shared

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