Map

Map of Mesoamerica

The Maya civilization was spread throughout Southern Mexico and Central America. What was once ancient Mesoamerica, is now modern day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador. In this article we will discuss the locations of the most famous Mayan pyramids.

Yucatan Peninsula (the Mayan Riviera)

Pyramids

Tulum

The area in Mexico known as the Yucatan Peninsula was once a major center for the Mayan civilization. The first Maya were here long before the Spanish came, beginning along side the Olmec, and Toltec civilization.

Overlooking the ocean cliffs, Tulum flourished in the post-classic period between the 13th and 15th century,  Tulum in Mayan means "wall", and was a major trading port for the Maya in this area.

 

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

This is one of the most famous pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula, Chichén Itzá. The name of the pyramid is technically Temple of Kukulkan, but has been popularly named "El Castillo".

Why is the pyramid so important?

The position of the pyramid is so precise that every equinox, the light from the sun creates a lighting effect on the pyramid. This effect creates the illusion of a serpent descending from the sky along the edge of the pyramid. The pyramid was literally a giant physical calendar for the Maya.

During the late Classic period, Chichen Itza was a key focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands. The site features a variety of structures, pyramids to ball courts. Thirteen ball courts have been discovered by archaeologists.

 

 

Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque

Palenque

The Palenque ruins lie on the edge of the jungle of Guatemala in the state of Chiapas in the south-west of Mexico. These immense pyramids are some of the most important Mayan monuments in Mexico.

Palenque is the home to some of the most important discoveries in Mayan archaeology. King Pakal, who's tomb was found inside the great Temple of the Inscriptions, ruled Palenque in the 6th century. During his reign he commissioned a massive building campaign, which has been preserved so well compared to other sites. His son Kan Balam, continued the building frenzy with the famous cross group of temples.

Tonina - Chiapas, Mexico

West of Palenque resides the site of Tonina, who were famous enemies of Palenque. Famous for it's massive terraces, stucco sculptures, and war like reputation.

Tonina is a far trek from any major city in Chiapas, sitting close to 3000 ft. above sea level in the Chiapas highlands.

Tikal - Northern Lowlands of Guatemala

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal

In the northern lowlands of Guatemala is the great site of Tikal.

How to Get to the Pyramids

The best way to explore Mayan sites in Mexico, is to base yourself out of one city for a few days while you explore the neighboring sites.

In Chiapas, Palenque is a great base camp to visit many sites. The city itself has the famous Palenque site, just down the road about ten minutes. From Palenque, you can book day trips to Yax Chilan, Bonampak, Tonina, and also many waterfalls like Agua Azul and Misol Ha.

In the Yucatan, you can either stay on the coast in Cancun or Inland in Merida. In-between these two major cities is Chichen Itza, which is a good day trip. There are many busses and van type tour companies you can book.

South of Merida is Uxmal, which is a very amazing Mayan site famous for the "magicians pyramid".

South of Cancun is Tulum, the Mayan pyramids overlooking the ocean.

Flores, Guatemala is another great base camp for exploring Mayan sites. The city of Flores is on Lake Peten, and has a very European vibe with its cobblestone streets and restaurants.

North of Flores is Tikal, which you can do in a day, but the bus ride is long so it is recommended to stay a night at the site in one of the hotels.

El Mirador, El Zotz, Yaxha  are some more adventures you can do out of Flores.

In this article we will discuss how the techniques and materials that the Pre-Columbian Maya of Mesoamerica used to build their pyramids and create great cities. We will also outline a few of the reasons such monumental architecture was constructed, as well as the meaning that could have been imbued in these buildings. 

What Is a Pyramid?

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal

The definition of a pyramid can be summed up as a structure or monument which usually has four sides and rises to a triangular point at the summit. When discussing pyramids, the first to usually enter the minds eye are those of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. After that the grand structures of the Maya may be thought of, but in truth the only similarity those buildings have with those found in Egypt is the name. And some archaeologists don’t even want to refer to the Maya structures as pyramids!

The biggest reason for this desire to change terminology is because the main use of pyramids, at least for Egypt and the popular knowledge, is as grand royal tombs. The Maya did occasionally use their pyramids as places to bury their royals, but usually that was not the original or sole use of the structure. Instead, they were most often used as temples, with rooms or buildings on the central stairway or at the summit being the place of ceremony or ritual. When the pyramids were used for burials, they became funerary temples. In Egypt, the Great Pyramids had entirely different buildings and complexes where worship would take place. 

How did the Maya build their Pyramids?

Everyone has seen drawings, cartoons, or other witty drawings showing the Egyptians pulling large sandstone blocks which they then piled together to form the Great Pyramid. Because of the prevalence of those images, it’s easy to think that that is how all ancient pyramids were built.

However, the Maya had completely different kind of construction techniques! Maya pyramids are made of a series of square or rectangular terraces that come to a flat surface or building at the summit. The terraced construction gives these pyramids a stepped look, but the top was reached from a dedicated stairway, usually found along the center of the front face. Limestone was the main construction material, as that forms the bedrock for most of the Maya world.

To build the terraces, a construction fill made of limestone (varying in sizes from small pebbles to boulder sizes), soil, plaster, and occasionally residential garbage (such as broken pottery, bones, and other refuse) was used. This would be used to create the bulk of the building, with limestone rocks would be used to create a construction-pen wall. These walls didn’t have to be completely solid, just strong enough to hold back the earth as it was layered together.

The walls that would become that faces of the structure would be more solid and even. These walls would then be covered by precisely cut limestone blocks and held together with limestone plaster. The plaster was made by burning limestone and water, creating a paste that cooled into a hard state. Plaster would hold the blocks together, as well as be used to cover them and then be decorated with paint or carved.

Mayan Pyramid

Uxmal

Uxmal

Renovating Maya Pyramids

Once a pyramid was built, it was very rarely ever left alone. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built for one ruler and then stayed that way, Maya pyramids, temples, and palaces were constantly undergoing renovations and/or remodeling. This was done for both practical and ideological purposes. 

If there were any rooms within the pyramid, they were built using a corbel vaulted arch, which isn’t a true arch. As such, it results in long narrow rooms with a more triangular shaped roof. Because of that, they are not very structurally sound. Once a new ruler was in power, they would often have those rooms filled, and new layers of construction built over top, with construction fill placed before a new face. As such, when archaeologists excavate pyramids, they can see these different layers. If there are pottery inclusions within the construction fill, these different layers can even be dated.

Along with more practical safety reasons, rulers would renovate or remodel pyramids as an expression of their authority and as a way to honor the rulers (often their ancestors) who came before them. It would keep the building looking new and an active place of activity. When the pyramids stopped being remodeled, it wouldn’t take long before they stopped being used at all. Often, when a new ruling dynasty took charge or a city, they would completely bury older pyramids and structures as a means to erase previous rulers. 

Maya Pyramids

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

Maya pyramids vary greatly in design, sizes, and uses depending on location and the time when they were built. They can even vary within the same city! The Maya civilization is ancient, lasting from before 2000 BCE to 1542 CE, so it stands to reason that styles and fashion changed over time. For example, in the Preclassic Period (1000 BCE -  300 CE) it was common for pyramids to be massive mountain-looking structures. The sheer size was more important than the height. In the Classic Period (300 CE – 900 CE) height become more fashionable, at least in cities like Tikal. There would still be variation depending on the city and the time it was constructed. 

Maya pyramids, like any kind of monumental architecture, can mean many things. By building such massive structures, the rulers who ordered the work done are showing the power and authority they have. They would also be showing their wealth, as they could afford the time and labor involved. 

There is also a great deal of ideological meaning behind them as well. Archaeologists believe that the Maya viewed their pyramids as man-made mountains, and as such, were holy places that connected the three levels of the world – the heavens, the earth, the underworld. As such, they were important places for worship, ceremony, and ritual. 

But it wasn’t the pyramid alone that was important. Often a temple sat at the summit, where such activities took place, though there still needed to be people to act as witnesses. That is why the large open courtyard spaces surrounding the pyramids were equally as important as the building itself. It was from there that the cities population would gather to witness and participate in important ceremonies.

Conclusion

Maya pyramids are very different from Egyptian pyramids. They were built differently, used differently, and had a much different kind of life history. It could be argued that the only ways they are the same is how we call them both pyramids. Maybe it is time to change our terminology. 

Poking out of the lush green canopies of the Mayan jungles, are ancient ominous limestone structures. Rivaling the Pyramids of Egypt in size and in number, these overwhelming temples are still shrouded in mystery. These are the Mayan Pyramids. 

The Mayan pyramids are some of the largest and oldest structures in the world. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, Mayan pyramids are ziggurat like step pyramids. With over 4,400 known mayan sites throughout Mexico and Central America, the Maya left a permanent mark in history. 

How Old Are the Mayan Pyramids?

Mayan Pyramids How Old

Tzol'kin Mayan Calendar

The Mayans civilization stretched over the span of thousands of years. Many kings and queens would go off on construction campaigns.

When the Mayan pyramids were first discovered, the pyramids had weathered severely. Some completely covered by the jungle, you would not even know you were standing on a pyramid. 

Many of the Mayan pyramids were built at different times. All over the Maya peninsula, there are cities that have still not been discovered.

Even well known Mayan archaeological sites continue to reveal more and more about the mysterious Mayans. Archaeologists are still uncovering new structures deep in the jungle, and the established knowledge and timeline is changing.

So how old are the Mayan pyramids? To answer this question, one needs to understand that the Mayan civilization was comprised of city states that were constantly at war with one another. City’s would rise and fall, change rulership, and literally be built on top of each other. 

Chichen Itza

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

For example at Chichen Itza the famous pyramid “El Castillo” was built or enhanced onto an existing pyramid the Maya had built centuries previous. 

Archaeologists dub this former pyramid the substructure, and it is said to be built somewhere around 600 A.D. Hundreds of years later around 900 A.D the Maya complete the pyramid in honor of the god “Kukulkan”, which is the Mayan version of the Aztec god “Quetzalcoatl”. 

The Pyramid itself is a calendar. With a total number of 365 steps, representing their solar calendar “The Haab”. The temple also tracks the spring and autumn equinoxes, and is positioned so perfectly that on these two days triangles of light illuminate the staircase to form what looks like a serpent crawling down the pyramid from the sky.

Pyramids of Palenque

Ancient Palenque City

Palenque

In the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico lies one of the most beautiful mayan sites. Famous for its history of rulers, monuments and detailed inscriptions. Some of the city’s earlier structures date back to around 226 B.C. 

Temple of Inscriptions 

Palenque Pyramid

Temple of Inscriptions

Built by the infamous Lord Pakal around 675 A.D in the late Classic period, this massive 9 level pyramid gets its name from the many detailed inscriptions. At the top of the temple like platform, carved into the stone is 180 years of Palenque’s history. The pyramid houses a tomb where Pakal’s body is encased in an elaborate sarcophagus. 

Temple of the Cross, Sun, and Foliated Cross

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

After Pakal’s death his son Kan Bahlam erected the three temples, to commemorate his lineage. Constructed in 692 A.D, these three pyramids all facing a central court yard are very unique.

Pyramids at Tikal

jaguar, stains, look

Jaguar

In the Guatemalan lowland jungles, the Mayans built an enormous city. Tikal was a massive city state that reigned for centuries. Flourishing in the classic period from around 200 A.D to 900A.D. 

Recent discoveries of raised highways and aqueducts, are rewriting the history books about this ancient city. Archaeologists are now saying that the area was home to close to ten million people. 

Tens of thousands of structures hidden by the jungle overgrowth still remain uncovered. 

Temple of the Jaguar

Guatemala Pyramid Jaguar Temple

Temple of the Jaguar

Tikal’s Temple of the Jaguar was constructed around 732 A.D. The temple is 180 ft tall and has 9 levels, representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld Xibalba. 

Jasaw Chan K’awiil ruled Tikal in the Classic period, and was buried the Temple of the Jaguar’s tomb. 

The temple gets its name from a carving of a king sitting on a jaguar throne. Ironically enough this area is one of the few remaining bio reserves that is home to many wild jaguars.

El Mirador’s La Danta

 

North of Tikal, deeper into the dense jungle stands one of the largest pyramids in the world, La Danta. 

At the site of El Mirador, archaeologists have uncovered amazing carvings and reliefs that portray scenes from the Popol Vuh. Many of the structures at El Mirador are Pre Classic Maya. El Mirador lasted between 1000 B.C.- 250 A.D

La Danta is the largest Mayan pyramid at 236 feet tall, by volume La Danta is the largest in the world at 99 million cubic feet. 

Uxmal and the Magician’s Pyramid

At the Mayan site of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula, is the Magicians Pyramid. A fairly large pyramid that was decorated with lattice type design. Uxmal thrived around 600 to 1000 A.D. It is said that the god Itzamna built the pyramid overnight, giving it the name “Magicians Pyramid”.

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