Maya civilization


Cities of the ancient Maya

Maya cities were the administrative and ritual centres for regions which included the city itself and an agricultural hinterland.

The largest Maya cities were home to many people. At the major centre of Tikal, for example, within a six-square-mile area, there were over 10,000 individual structures ranging from temple-pyramids to thatched-roof huts. Tikal's population is estimated at up to 60,000, giving it a population density several times greater than an average city in Europe or America at the same period in history.

A Maya city from the Classic Period usually consisted of a series of stepped platforms topped by masonry structures, ranging from great temple-pyramids and palaces to individual house mounds. These structures were in turn arranged around broad plazas or courtyards. Maya architecture is characterized by a sophisticated sense of decoration and art, expressed in bas-relief carvings and wall paintings. At major sites like Tikal, large buildings and complexes might also have been interconnected by stone roads or causeways.

    The most impressive Maya site is likely Tikal in Guatemala. These photographs show the buildings around the Great Plaza: the Temple of the Giant Jaguar (right-hand side; ca. A.D. 700), the Temple of the Masks (ca. A.D. 699), and the North Acropolis. At the heart of the Temple of the Giant Jaguar is the tomb of a high priest, buried with hundreds of offerings - vases, jade and so on. The sanctuary for worship at the top of the structure sits on a nine-tiered pyramid.

Maya cities were rarely laid out in neat grids, and appear to have developed in an unplanned fashion, with temples and palaces torn down and rebuilt over and over through the centuries. Because of this seemingly erratic pattern of settlement, the boundaries of Maya cities are often hard to determine. Some cities were surrounded by a moat, and some had defensive earthworks around them; however, this was unusual. City walls are rare at Maya sites, with the exception of some recently discovered cities dating from the collapse of Maya civilization, when protective walls were suddenly thrown up around cities under siege from outside enemies.

    (left) The "Castillo" (actually a temple) and part of the walled city of Tulúm (Northern Yucatán, Post Classic period).
    (right) The Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal (Northern Yucatán) has an unusual shape, being built on a great oval platform, but otherwise conforms to the traditional temple-pyramid form. According to Maya legend, the temple was created in the span of a single night by a child prodigy who became ruler of the land. In reality it may have taken as long as 300 years to build what we see today, for it actually comprises five structures superimposed one on top of the other.

Temple-pyramids were the most striking feature of a Classic Maya city. They were built from hand-cut limestone blocks and towered over all surrounding structures. Although the temples themselves usually contained one or more rooms, the rooms were so narrow that they could only have been used on ceremonial occasions not meant for public consumption. The alignments of ceremonial structures could be significant.

Although the temples were the most imposing structures within a Maya city, the bulk of construction at a Maya site was composed of palaces: single-storey structures built like temple-pyramids but on much lower platforms and with as many as several dozen plastered rooms. Unlike temple-pyramids, palaces often contained one or two interior courtyards.

    (left) The "Nunnery" in Uxmal, actually a palace complex, stands adjacent to the Pyramid of the Magician.
    (right) The "Palace" dominates the central area of Palenque; sitting on a large artificial mound, this complex of galleries and courtyards is about the size of a standard North American city block.

There is no real agreement on what the palaces were actually used for. Rulers and other elite might have lived in them, although the rooms are cramped and spartan. Archaeologists suggest that nobles were more likely to have lived in less permanent buildings which haven't survived. Archaeologists also suggest that the cell-like rooms of the palaces could indicate that monks, nuns or priests lived there, although there is little evidence of ecclesiastical or monastic orders among the ancient Maya.

In some regions, groundwater was scarce, and large cities like Tikal would have had large man-made reservoirs to service their populations during the dry season. Many Maya sites had ball courts; others had sweat baths, possibly adopted from Mexico. Important cities also had multiple stelae or pillars placed in the stucco floors of plazas, usually facing important temples and palaces. The stelae were sometimes on platforms, supporting temple-pyramids, and usually had a low, round flat-topped altar in front of them.

Typical Maya architectural features included the corbel vault and the roof comb. The corbel vault has no keystone, as European arches do, making the Maya vault appear more like a narrow triangle than an archway. It has been suggested that this unusual form exists because the Maya never mastered keystone technology. Others suggest that the lack of keystone was deliberate: the Maya vault always had nine stone layers, representing the nine layers of the Underworld. A keystone would have created a tenth layer, outside the Maya cosmology.


The Great Gate at Labna, southern Yucatán, is a fine example of Puuc-style architecture. Architects perhaps sacrificed the functionality of a "true arch" (with keystone) for the symbolism of the Maya vault. The tall structure was once free-standing, probably a ceremonial passageway between two plazas.


The Temple of the Sun, Palenque, was built by Chan-Bahlum ("snake-jaguar"), son of Pacal, ca. A.D. 690. Its roof comb had no structural function, but can be considered analogous to a headdress worn by a king. The Temple's mansard roof is decorated with the beautiful stucco figures for which Palenque is justly famous.

The Maya roof comb was a lattice of stone added despite the height of the temple-pyramids. Perhaps Maya architects didn't feel the temples were grand enough, and so added an upper extension. The roof comb was always highly decorated with painted stucco reliefs, as was the temple facade. Equally decorated were the doorways, doorjambs and facades of many other Maya structures, which were ornamented with heavy carving in stone or wood.