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Mayan Architecture

Buildings by the Mexican Maya, Past and Present

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Descendants of the Maya still live and work near where their ancestors built great cities on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Working with earth, stone, and straw, early Mayan builders designed structures that shared striking similarities with architecture in Egypt, Africa, and Medieval Europe. Many of the same building traditions can be found in the simple, practical dwellings of modern-day Mayans. Let's look at some of the universal elements found in homes, monuments, and temples of the Mexican Maya, past and present.

Note: Select the photos for a larger view.

What type of houses do the Maya live in today?

Mayan stone hut with thatched roof
Mayan stone hut ©2009 Jackie Craven

Some Maya live in houses today that were built from the same mud and limestone used by their ancestors. From roughly 500 BC to 1200 AD Mayan civilization flourished throughout Mexico and Central America. In the 1800s, explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood wrote about and illustrated the ancient Maya Architecture they saw. The great stone structures survived.

Modern Ideas and Ancient Ways

Mayan hut made of sticks and thatched roof.
Mayan Hut ©2009 Jackie Craven

The 21st century Maya are connected to the world by cell phones. Often you can see solar panels near their simple huts made of rough wooden sticks and thatched roofing.

Although well-known as a roofing material in certain cottages found in the United Kingdom, the use of thatch for roofing is an ancient art practiced in many parts of the world.

Ancient Mayan Architecture

Photo of a thatched roof example on ancient ruins in Tulum.
A thatched roof may have adorned these ancient ruins. Photo ©2009 Jackie Craven

Many ancient ruins have been partially rebuilt after careful study and examination by archeologists and historians. Like Mayan huts of today, ancient cities at Chichén Itzá and Tulum in Mexico were built with mud, limestone, stone, wood, and thatch. Over time, wood and thatch deteriorate, pulling down pieces of the more sturdy stone. Experts often make educated guesses about how ancient cities looked based on how the Maya live today. The Maya of ancient Tulum may have used thatched roofing as their descendant do today.

How did the Maya build?

Photo of corbel arch at Tulum, Mexico
Corbel arch ©2009 Jackie Craven

Over many centuries, Mayan engineering evolved by trial and error. Many structures have been discovered built over older structures that inevitably had fallen. Mayan architecture typically included corbeled arches and corbeled vault roofs on important buildings. A corbel is known today as a type of ornamental or support bracket, but centuries ago corbeling was a masonry technique. Think of feathering a deck of cards to create a stack where one card is slightly edged over another. With two stacks of cards, you can build a type of arch. Visually a corbeled arch looks like an unbroken curve, but, as you can see from this Tulum entrance, the top frame is unstable and quickly deteriorates.

Without continued repair, this technique is not a sound engineering practice. Stone arches are now defined by a "keystone," the top stone at the arch center. Nevertheless, you will find corbeled construction techniques on some of the world's greatest architecture, such as the Gothic pointed arches of medieval Europe.

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Ancient Skyscrapers

El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza
El Castillo ©2009 Jackie Craven

The Pyramid of Kukulcan El Castillo at Chichén Itzá was the skyscraper of its day. Centrally located within a large plaza, the stepped pyramid temple to the god Kukulcan has four staircases leading to a top platform. Early Egyptian pyramids used a similar terraced pyramid construction. Many centuries later, the jazzy "ziggurat" shape of these structures found their way into the design of art deco skyscrapers of the 1920s.

Each of the four staircases has 91 steps, for a total of 364 steps. The pyramid's top platform creates the 365th step—equal to the number of days in the year. The height is achieved by layering stones, creating a nine-stepped terraced pyramid—one terrace for each Mayan underworld or hell. Adding the number of step layers (9) to the number of pyramid sides (4) results in the number of heavens (13) symbolically represented by the architecture of El Castillo. Nine hells and 13 heavens are intertwined in the spiritual world of the Maya.

Acoustical researchers have found remarkable echo qualities that produce animal-like sounds from the long stairways. Like the sound qualities built into the Mayan ball court, these acoustics are by design.

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Kukulkan El Castillo Detail

Head of the feathered serpent Kukulkan at the base of the Chichen Itza pyramid.
Head of the feathered serpent Kukulkan at the base of the Chichen Itza pyramid ©2009 Jackie Craven

Just as modern-day architects design structures to capitalize on natural lighting, the Maya of Chichén Itzá built El Castillo to take advantage of a seasonal lighting phenomenon. The Pyramid of Kukulcan is positioned such that the sun's natural light is shadowed off the steps twice a year, creating an effect of a feathered serpent. Called the god Kukulcan, the serpent appears to slither down the pyramid's side during the spring and autumn equinox. The animated effect culminates at the base of the pyramid, with the carved feathered head of the serpent.

In part, this detailed restoration has made Chichén Itzá a UNESCO World Heritage site and top tourist attraction.

Mayan Temples

Photo of Temple of the Warriors in Chichen Itza, Mexico
Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza, ©2009 Jackie Craven

The Temple de los Guerreros—Temple of the Warriors—at Chichén Itzá demonstrates the cultural spirituality of a people. The columns, both square and round, are not so different from the columns found in many parts of the world, including the Classical architecture of Greek and Rome. The Group of the Thousand Columns at the Temple of the Warriors no doubt held up an elaborate roof, which covered those humans being sacrificed and the statues that held human remains.

The reclining statue of Chac Mool atop this temple may have held a human offering to the god Kukulcan, as the Temple of the Warriors faces the great Pyramid of Kukulcan El Castillo at Chichén Itzá.

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Monumental Mayan Architecture

Photo of Castle pyramid in Tulum, Mexico
Tulum Castle ©2009 Jackie Craven

The most grand building of the ancient Mayan city is known to us today as a castle pyramid. In Tulum, the castle overlooks the Caribbean Sea. Although Mayan pyramids are not always built alike, most all have steep stairways with a low wall called an alfarda on each side—similar in use to a balustrade.

Archeologists call these large ceremonial structures Monumental Architecture. Modern architects may call these buildings Public Architecture, as they are places where the public gathers. In comparison, the well-known pyramids in Giza have smoother sides and were built as tombs. Astronomy and mathematics were important to Mayan civilization. In fact, Chichén Itzá has an observatory building similar to ancient structures found around the world.

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Mayan Sports Stadiums

Ball Court in Chichen Itza, Mexico
Ball Court in Chichen Itza, Mexico ©2009 Jackie Craven

The Ball Court at Chichén Itzá is a fine example of an ancient sports stadium. Wall carvings explain the game rules and history, a serpent extends the length of the field, and miraculous acoustics must have brought mayhem to the games. Because the walls are high and long, sound reverberated so that whispers became amplified. In the heat of sports play, when losers were often sacrificed to the gods, the bouncing sound was sure to keep the players on their toes (or slightly disoriented).

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Ball Hoop Detail

Carved stone ball hoop hanging from wall of ancient ball court
Mayan Ball Hoop ©2009 Jackie Craven

Similar to the hoops, nets, and goalposts found in stadia and arenas of today, passing an object through the stone ball hoop was the goal of the Mayan sport. The carved design of the ball hoop at Chichén Itzá is as detailed as the head of Kukulcan at the base of the Pyramid of El Castillo.

Architectural detailing is not so different from the Art Deco designs found on more modern buildings in western cultures—including on the doorway of 120 Wall Street in New York City.

Living by the Sea

Photo of stone structure by the sea.
Tulum by the sea photo ©2009 Jackie Craven

Palaces with ocean views are not unique to any century or civilization. Even in the 21st century, people around the world are drawn to beach vacation homes. The ancient Mayan city of Tulum was built of stone on the Caribbean Sea, yet time and the sea deteriorated the dwellings to ruins—a story similar to all too many of our modern-day vacation homes on the beach.

Walled Cities and Gated Communities

Photo of thick, rock wall around Tulum in Mexico.
Tulum wall ©2009 Jackie Craven

Many of the great ancient cities and territories had walls around them. Although built thousands of years ago, ancient Tulum is really not that different from urban centers or even vacation getaways we know today. The walls of Tulum may remind you of Golden Oak Residences at Walt Disney World Resort, or, indeed, of any modern-day gated community. Then, as now, residents wanted to create a safe, protected environment for work and play.

Learn More About Mayan Architecture:

  • An Album of Maya Architecture by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, originally published in 1946
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  • Maya Art and Architecture by Mary Ellen Miller (1999)
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  • The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, Third Edition: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples by George Kubler (1984)
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