Mayan Architecture [Ultimate Guide] - Buildings That Created New Worlds
Congrats! You survived 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar.
Thanks to Mayan Architecture, we can understand the history of this ancient civilization and understand what that calendar means.
Let's go back in time and see how.
Welcome to the Jungle: Tropical Mayan Architecture
To understand these Mesoamerican civilizations, we have to understand why they were built?
Mayans were surrounded by many resources, but in a risky climate!
(Yes, even riskier than the American East Coast)
They lived in three locations:
Were these Mayans suntanning, building snowmen, or climbing trees?
Yucatan Peninsula climate is an arid subtropical climate. This means they would drown in 6 months of rain, and starve in 6 months of drought.
This subtropical climate came from the jungles around civilizations. These jungles provided Mayans with the diverse resources they needed to live.
Resources like water from nearby rivers, moist soil for agriculture, and animals for domestication.
Not only that, but the environment provided limestone, palm trees, volcanic rock, sand, and sandstone. All in one place!
These resources created the ancient worlds of the Maya. But how were they used for Mayan Architecture? Keep reading to find out!
Building the New World: Mayan Architecture History
History is rarely exciting or even interesting. But that's not the case for the mysterious disappearance of an entire civilization.
To this day, archaeologists are unsure why Mayans disappeared during their decline in the early 1000s.
The lifeline of the incredible Mayan civilization is split into five eras:
Each of these eras were filled with discoveries that made the modern cities we have today.
A 3000 year old diet: The Pre-Classical Era
In the Pre-Classical Era, the Maya developed their own agricultural system. This system included plants like corn, beans, squash, and cassava; laying the groundwork for much of today’s Latin american diet.
Imagine that! The corn based diet in most Latin American countries was actually developed 3500 years ago.
Not only that, but Mayans began trading with the surrounding Olmecs.
This is tremendously important as we think about the exchange of information between the two native civilizations, spreading successful techniques to survival.
(The phrase “It takes a village” comes to mind)
With this, the Maya began building huts in groups and developing public works like plazas. Creating villages.
For The Gods! Classical Era
This Era was when Mayan Civilization began to thrive. A LOT of people were brutally sacrificed to the Mayan Gods. Very brutally.
Other than the development of religion, the Mayans began developing Mathematics, Astronomy, and Mayan Architecture style.
With the developments of Astronomy, the Maya could predict weather conditions, seasons, time of day, and even when it was best to plant and harvest.
These studies gave Mayans a super calendar.
One that would last thousands of years.
Villages became city-states ruled by kings and priests from their Mayan temples and palaces. Mayan culture was practiced through ball games TO THE DEATH (Ulama). Sacrifices and rituals were used to contact ancestors.
Want to know something that’s crazy?
Ulama is still played today, obviously not to the death.
These City-States became hubs of art, carvings, literature, and architecture. All based around religion.
Photo credit: Nora Martinez
All until war raged between city-states.
Stained with Blood: Late Classical Period and the Collapse
The start of the late classical period marked the beginning of the end for the Maya.
Created by: Pierre Joubert
This period of Mayan civilization was teeming with disputes between other Mayan city-states.
It is because of the looming threat of war that entire city-states became abandoned.
But because of war, murals were carved into Mayan Pyramids, paper was invented to exchange information, and many religious events took place (probably because there were too many war prisoners to keep alive).
It was after this late-classical era that the Mayans mysteriously disappeared. And for the longest time, no one knew why.
As the archaeological process changed, scientists began evaluating the soil and limestone sediments of the Mayan settlements. Many theories came out of it; including years and years of drought, famine, war, and even overpopulation.
But as the Mayans disappeared, other central-american civilizations took their place.
Mexican - Mayan period
Not much is known about who exactly settled Mayan civilizations.
Whoever settled the area after the Mayans were heavily influenced by Mayan art, language, and even religion. As seen in this group's carvings.
They continued to be influenced by the Maya way of life until the Spaniards colonized and ravaged the area for their own benefit in 1521.
Luckily, the stone carvings and buildings of the Maya were preserved for thousands of years for us to study their exciting religious way of life.
Building the New World: Mayan Architecture History
Because the Mayans developed language and writing skills, we can actively read about all the ancient sacrifices, beheadings, and dissections that took place in the city centers.
There were of course intricate beliefs and thoughts behind each of these ceremonies.
Their religion didn’t just dominate Mayan way of life, but also it motivated the studies of astronomy, mathematics, and Mayan Architecture.
The Maya believed in many gods, heavens, and even hells, but let's start with the creation of our world.
Mayans believed that Huracán, the god of wind, created earth for animals and plants. Then, Man was made from the earth, and women from men.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber
The Maya even believed in an apocalypse, where humans would be replaced by another godly creation. Just like other practiced religions across the world.
Not only this, but Mayans believed that after death, there were levels of Heaven and Hell for each person: 9 levels of Heaven, 13 levels of the underworld. This is an important concept for Mayan architecture characteristics.
Photo credit: The British Museum
Because these gods were representative of nature, Mayan priests and kings had to please gods for a great harvest and wartime prosperity.
Giving Blood: Religious Rituals
Now here is the exciting part of Mayan religion.
Mayan’s had many different ways of pleasing gods, most violent, some non-violent.
The most famous of these rituals were the Human Sacrifices.
These Sacrifices, done on Mayan pyramids and temples, were reserved for only the greatest Mayan events. In these rituals, Kings and Priests would decapitate, remove beating hearts, or throw people down wells, all to bring prosperity during harvest season and war time.
Another interesting ritual was that of bloodletting. A ritual done by the royal family to communicate with ancestors, celebrate births, and symbolize the blood that gods shed for them.
Non-violent rituals like Dances communicated with gods. These dancers often wore traditional, colorful costumes, held staffs, and wore rattles.
The Mayan practices alone informed almost every aspect of Mayan Architecture where temples, palaces, and cities were built to honor gods.
So, let's give you what you came here for.
The First American Civilization: Mayan Architecture and Styles
Religion dominated the design of buildings in the Mayan City states. But their shape, organization along the north-south axis of city-states, and construction was conceived by the climate and resources.
These are the Characteristics of the Mayan’s Vernacular Architecture.
First, let's start with the smallest scale of Mayan Architecture, the Homes of farmers and peasants.
Mayan Architecture - Homes
To start, Mayan homes were located on the outside of the religious city center in groups or small villages.
Because of the subtropical climate, homes had one room, built with:
Unfortunately, homes were still often destroyed by the flooding of lowland city-states.
Mayan Architecture - Pyramids
These structures are possibly the most famous and used structures in Maya civilization
These pyramids had uses such as:
The most interesting thing about these pyramids was their form. Especially because their form stemmed from Mayan Religious beliefs.
Their form had:
Mayan Architecture - Temples
There were two types of temples: the large temples that topped pyramids, and the small temples, called Triadic Groups, that were shrines to gods and stars.
The Mayan temples that topped these pyramids were, to me, the most interesting part of Mayan Civilization. Because this is where the most building engineering took place.
Temples, where people's heads were often cut off or dissected had:
These temples and pyramids had three varying styles based on location:
These Temples were where kings practiced religious ceremonies, but where did the kings live?
Mayan Architecture - Palaces
Whereas Pyramids were massive, stacked structures that housed the dead; Palaces were massive 1-7 floor buildings that housed many of the priest class.
The most amazing thing about these palaces were the program that they housed, including:
Just like Pyramids and Temples, these massive structures were highly decorated and located among the religious city centers. These centers served as the center for all cultural activities. Even Umala, the ball game played to the death.
Umala was the Mayan sport of choice. Games took place in their own designated courts. These rectangular courts, also made of limestone and cement were comprised of:
Because Umala was considered a religious event, these games attracted entire city states. However, most games were played between one local team and one team of prisoners. Whoever lost was sacrificed. Of course, the prisoners lost the most.
These pyramids, palaces, and ball courts have directly influenced cities and culture of Central American and construction techniques used across the world.
Architecture of the Future
The Maya gave the modern world WAY more than just interesting artifacts and elementary school history classes. They LITERALLY shaped our cities.
Of these influences, 3 remain the most widely used:
Even more literally, one architect named Richard Stacy Judd, Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) took components and decoration directly from these mesoamerican communities in a branch of Art-deco Architecture called Mayan Revival.
That is why studying Mayans is so crucial to understanding ancient civilizations and the architecture we have today!
Go out and See For Yourself!
These buildings preserved advancements in language, writing, sculpting, and construction. They told us the fascinating story of the life and mysterious disappearance of an entire civilization.
Mayan Architecture is an amazing religious testament to this civilization's advanced history and discoveries that still exist for you to see.
Comment below your favorite Mayan buildings you want to see!