Aztec Vs Mayan Pyramids

July 30, 2022

Pyramids. The word alone inspires grand ideas of majesty, adventure, and excitement. While the Great Pyramids of Giza are likely the first ones most people think about, there are so many more in the world than those found in Egypt. In fact, many can be found on the other side of the world completely, in the jungles and desserts of Central America. 

Archaeologists refer to this area as Mesoamerica and the most famous culture that existed there are the Maya and the Aztecs. It's easy enough to think of these cultures as pretty much the same thing, I’m blaming poor public education for that one. While it's true that there were some similarities between them (such as they both built pyramids and shared some iconography and belief systems), they are actually widely different from each other. 

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Aztec vs. Maya – What are the Differences?

Panorama of Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan. Mexico. View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

For starters, the Maya were around long before the Aztec Empire formed; Maya culture existed from 800 BC-AD 1500 while the Aztecs had their height of power from AD 1300 - AD 1500. That’s a big-time difference, with both cultures only really ending once the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Also, the Aztecs were focused on what is modern-day Mexico, while the Maya held the more eastern parts of Central America (modern-day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and the Yucatan Peninsula). 

So, with some setting out of the way, let’s talk about pyramids. Both the Maya and the Aztecs built pyramids, though only one known Aztec example survives today. That is the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, which was once Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. In contrast, hundreds, if not thousands of Maya pyramids still exist, with the most famous (and awe-inspiring) found at Tikal and Chichén Itza. Though go anywhere in the Maya world, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll see a pyramid.

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What about Teotihuacan, you may be asking? After all, it's pretty famously an entire city right in Central Mexico with dozens of pyramids, including the famous and oft-photographed Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. The simple answer to that is Teotihuacan is not Aztec. Yes, the later Aztec kings claimed the city as the place of their ancestors and gave it its name, but Teotihuacan was occupied from 600 BC – 750 AD, several thousands of years before the Aztecs held the domain of Mexico. In fact, archaeologists consider Teotihuacan to be its own unique culture, one that interacted with the rest of Mesoamerica, including the Maya, until the city was abandoned in the 8th century.

What makes Mesoamerican Pyramids Different?

Mayan Pyramid-Chichen Itza

Mesoamerican pyramids differ from Egyptian ones in several significant ways. The Pharaohs of Egypt built their pyramids as tombs, with chambers and passageways inside to house the wealth and goods they would need for the afterlife. They were constructed of giant blocks of sandstone, carefully cut, shaped, and placed to form towering markers of their power. The Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican cultures had completely different approaches to their pyramids.

Firstly, the structures that we would classify as pyramids were used as temples, rather than tombs. A few may include burials, but most elite tombs were placed in special mortuary temples, which don’t conform to the stereotypical pyramid shape. Secondly, the construction techniques for Mesoamerican pyramids were completely different and as such, there were no chambers or areas within the structure that was used. These were man-made mountains, solid masses of earth, stone, and limestone mortar making up the structure. The shaped and cut stones on the outside of the building were the face of the mountain, with the rest made up of solid layers of fill, held back by construction walls so that they remained in shape. These layers take the shape of multiple terraces, giving them their characteristic stepped shape. The outer cut stones were then covered in limestone plaster or stucco, which was then painted, most often red, as that color was significant to most Mesoamerican cultures.

So, with the interior of the pyramids being solid mountains of stone and earth, there were no chambers or passageways through them. Instead, rooms and buildings were placed on the outside, most often at the top of the pyramid. Because rituals and ceremonies took place on, rather than inside, the pyramids and stairs were needed to get to these rooms. Most often there was one grand staircase, located in the center of the pyramid which allowed access from the ground below to the summit. 

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Egypt vs. Meoamerica

Another way that Mesoamerican and Egyptian pyramids differ is that the Maya built their pyramids in multiple stages over several decades, if not centuries, rather than one construction event for a single pharaoh. It was important for Maya kings to engage in public displays of their power, and remodeling monumental architecture was an easy way to show that power. Well, easy for them; I’m sure the people who had to build the things didn’t find it easy. Sometimes these construction phases were as simple as putting on a new coat of plaster over the old, but it often involved creating a new layer around the existing pyramid, making it wider and taller than it had been before. Often, that involved filling in existing rooms or buildings that had been on the outside of the pyramid and then building a new floor, and then new rooms, over top of the old.

This cycle of reconstruction and additions is what resulted in Mesoamerican pyramids being so big. When you see the grand pyramids of Chichén Itza, Teotihuacan, or Tikal, you are seeing the cumulative work of hundreds of years, several rulers, and likely thousands, if not millions of manual labor.





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