Mayan architecture spanned over a thousand years. Many cities contain similar features such as stepped pyramids, temples, palaces and carved stone monuments, but not all of them contain every one. Each city is different, as the Mayans built to accommodate the natural surroundings. Rather than a rigid grid pattern, like that at Teotihuacan, the Mayans followed a more spontaneous approach to urban design.
The Mayans tended to build around a central plaza where they located the most important buildings, those involved with public ceremonies. Around the central plaza are the pyramids, some with a wooden temple built on top, the palaces, ball courts, temples and elite dwellings. Stone walkways linked residential areas with the city center. Farther out, more plazas were built, around which were the homes of common people. All, however, could reach the center for the great religious ceremonies. The heart of every Mayan city was the central plaza.
The main buildings in a Mayan city were huge stone structures, remarkable to us today as they were built without metal tools, wheeled vehicles or draft animals. Most are made of limestone from local quarries where stone workers carved out the great blocks. Limestone is soft enough to work with stone tools while in the quarry but hardens when removed from their beds.
Pyramids and Temples
Mayan stepped pyramids are iconic of the great Mayan cities. Pyramids and temples were aligned astronomically to the orbits of the sun and moon. Some pyramids have temples on top. Mayan priests used the temples in ritual ceremonies and sacrifices. Many have elaborate carvings and glyphs on their sides. Some of the Mayan pyramids are huge, soaring up two hundred feet like that at El Mirador.
The royal family of each Mayan polity lived in the palace, often large, elaborate buildings with many stories. Palenque’s palace, for example, is probably the most beautiful with its courtyards, patios and towers. The size of many palaces included more space than that required for even a royal family’s dwelling. Palaces, in these cases, were also administrative centers where government officials regulated trade and tribute.
Most Mayan cities feature ceremonial platforms of limestone, about 12 feet high, where religious rituals and public ceremonies were held. Highly decorated with carvings and glyphs, these platforms might hold altars or statues.
Ball courts are a common feature of Mayan cities, some with only one, some with many. The basic style is the same, but they varied greatly in size. As noted in the article on the Mayan ball game, it could be played simply for fun and athletics but it also had a deep religious and ceremonial aspect as well. Scholars now think that the winners of a ceremonial ball game were the ones sacrificed, not the losers as had been assumed.
Mayan stelae monuments appear all over Mayan areas, usually in the great cities. Tall, elaborately carved stone pillars or shafts usually relate the lineage and heroic deeds of kings, often paired with round altars on top of ceremonial platforms. The earliest stela dated by the long count calendar appeared in Tikal. Mayan stelae celebrated a king’s divine mandate to rule.