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why did the mayans build pyramids

why did the mayans build pyramids

why did the mayans build pyramids

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Mesoamerican pyramids

Mesoamerican pyramids form a prominent part of ancient Mesoamerican architecture. Although similar in some ways to Egyptian pyramids, these New World structures have flat tops (many with temples on the top) and stairs ascending their faces. The largest pyramid in the world by volume is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, in the east-central Mexican state of Puebla.

Classic Pyramids

The builders of certain classic Mesoamerican pyramids have decorated them copiously with stories about the Hero Twins, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, Mesoamerican creation myths, ritualistic sacrifice, etc. written in the form of hieroglyphs on the rises of the steps of the pyramids, on the walls, and on the sculptures contained within.
In many of their great city-states, temple-pyramids formed the center of public life and were the site of holy rituals, including human sacrifice.
The best known Latin American pyramids include the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán in central Mexico, the Castillo at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan, the Great Pyramid in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Pyramid at Cholula and the Inca’s great temple at Cuzco in Peru.
why did the mayans build pyramids
why did the mayans build pyramids

Rise of the Pyramid-Builders

Mesoamerican peoples built pyramids from around 1000 B.C. up until the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. (Egyptian pyramids are much older than American ones; the earliest Egyptian pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser, was built in the 27 century BC). The earliest known pyramid in the Americas stands at La Venta in Tabasco, Mexico.

Built by the Olmecs, the first major Mesoamerican civilization (a group famous for other firsts, like chocolate and the use of for sports), the pyramid dates to between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. American pyramids were generally built of earth and then faced with stone, typically in a stepped, or layered, shape topped by a platform or temple structure. They are often referred to as “stepped pyramids.”

Did you know?

At one point, historians concluded that (in contrast with Egyptian pyramids), pre-Columbian pyramids were not intended as burial chambers but as homes for deities. However, more recent excavations have unearthed evidence that some pyramids did include tombs, and there is also evidence that city-states used the pyramids for military defense.

Maya Pyramids

The Maya, another dominant civilization of Mesoamerica, made temple-pyramids the glorious centers of their great stone cities. One of the most famous, the magnificently carved Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Mexico), was a funerary monument to the seventh century king Hanab Pakal. The tallest Maya pyramid, located in Tikal, Guatemala, dates to the eighth century A.D., before the civilization’s mysterious decline.

Another Maya monument, built in the ninth and 10th centuries A.D., is at the center of the city of Uxmal in the Yucatan. Known as the Pyramid of the Magician or Sorcerer, it was (according to Maya legend) built by the god of magic, Itzamná, as a training center for shamans, healers and priests.

Another temple pyramid

The Maya city of Chichén Itzá contains the Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan (“feathered serpent,” the Maya equivalent of Quetzalcoatl). Constructed around A.D. 1100, the 180-square-foot Castillo was constructed over another temple-pyramid built 100 years earlier.

Its four stairways have 91 steps each, which combined with the single step at the entrance to the temple adds up to 365 stairs exactly–the number of days in the Mayan year. (The Maya had a complex astronomical and cosmological system, and often angled their ceremonial buildings, like pyramids, so that they would face sunrise or sunset at particular times of the year.)

why did the mayans build pyramids
why did the mayans build pyramids

How And Why Did The Mayans Build Their Pyramids?

Mayan pyramids are so mysterious and complex that popular conspiracy theories posit they could only have been built by aliens. In reality, a considerable amount of manpower went into creating these awe-inspiring structures.

Like the ancient Egyptians – who also built pyramids – or the ancient Romans – who constructed the Colosseum – the Mayans had to move massive blocks of stone to create their pyramids without the convenience of modern technology. To this day, the Mayan pyramids are revered as major feats of engineering.

The function of the pyramids

Pyramids had multiple functions within Mayan society. Some had temples at the top with stairs and platforms for ritual sacrifice. Others had stairs that were too steep for use.

The height and majesty of the pyramids are themselves a monument to the gods, but they also had a practical use: Visible above the forest canopy, they could be used as landmarks for Mayans to navigate by. The pyramids also served a political purpose: They glorified rulers and acted as the center of Mayan cities.

Archeologists still have a lot to uncover about the history of these long-lasting structures, but what they’ve found in recent years is certainly impressive.

Temples Were Built On Hills And Rose Above The Rest Of The City

Mayans constructed their cities on hills to prevent flooding and to give the Mayans a defensive advantage. The pyramids and their temples towered over traditional buildings and even acted as landmarks for navigation.

Ordinary Mayan citizens built their homes on the land below the temples and radiating out from the center of the city. These smaller structures have since been reclaimed by natural growth or eliminated by inclement weather.

They Were Designed With The Stars In Mind

Many Mayan pyramids were designed to emphasize important astrological events, such as the equinox and solstice. At a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, people still gather to watch the interplay of light and shadow during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. When the sun strikes the stairs of the pyramid, a shadow is cast behind the head of a serpent statue that appears to give it a slithering body.

During the winter solstice at the Temple of Inscriptions, the sun passes across a doorway. It then appears to descend the interior staircase down into the tomb of King Pacal, whose coffin is located within the pyramid.

The Mayans Used Any Available Resources

Mayans used a variety of materials in constructing their pyramids, including limestone, sandstone, and tuff, a rock made from volcanic ash. All these materials were sourced from locations within the Mayan empire.

Builders used mud or concrete made from burned limestone as mortar. High-relief carvings decorated the outside of the structures, which were covered in stucco. Some of the best-preserved pyramids retain their original colored stucco exteriors.

Famous Pyramids El Castillo

This pyramid was built as a temple to the god Kukulcan in the city of Chichen Itza. The total height of the pyramid is just under 100 feet. Each side of El Castillo has 91 steps. When you add up the steps on all four sides and then add in the top platform as a step, you get 365 steps, one for each day of the year.

Temple IV at Tikal – Temple IV at Tikal is part of a number of very tall pyramids in the city of Tikal. It is 230 feet tall and was built to mark the reign of King Yik’in Chan K’awiil. La Danta – This pyramid is thought to be one of the largest pyramids in the world by total volume.

Height and volume

It is 250 feet tall and has a volume of 2.8 million cubic meters. Nohoch Mul – A temple pyramid in the city of Coba, Nohoch Mul is one of the tallest pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula at 138 feet high.Palaces for the Kings Each Maya city-state would have a large palace inside the city for their king and the royal family.

These palaces were sometimes large monuments to powerful kings. One of the most famous palaces is the palace at Palenque built by King Pakal. It was a large complex of many buildings and courtyards including a tall tower that looked over the city.

It was covered with colorful hieroglyphics and carvings of the king and his family. Ball Courts The Maya also built giant ball courts where they would play their game with a rubber ball. Some major cities had multiple courts. Sometimes ball courts were attached to temples. The courts had two long stone walls, sometimes built with sloped sides.

Pyramids Are Neither “Easy” Nor “Obvious” Structures

While the shape, size and age of the pyramids are very different, the symbology and architecture of all world pyramids have striking similarities. They are so similar that it’s hard to imagine them not being connected in some way.

I must say I was disappointed to read such comments as “they are similar only in that they are pyramids” and “pyramids are an obvious architectural technique because of physics”. Such comments are terribly naive and missing the point entirely – especially coming from archeologists.

Pyramids are some of the most incredible structures ever built, designed by perhaps the most talented and accomplished architects to ever live. They are absolute engineering marvels, and to brush them off as “piles of rocks” built. Because pyramids are “an easy architectural shape” is absolutely ridiculous.

why did the mayans build pyramids
why did the mayans build pyramids


The Egyptian pyramids contain some 500,000 pieces of granite and limestone, placed and polished perfectly. The incredible time and resources it would have taken to quarry, transport, shape, polish and place the 20 ton blocks with such precision. Without a single error, it is nothing short of miraculous.

Additionally, the placement and geometry of the Great Pyramid is an entirely different kind of genius. First, it is aligned with perfect precision – less than 1 degree from true north. Second, the polar radius and circumference of the earth is encoded in the geometry of the pyramid with amazing precision.

21st century

It’s obvious that the Egyptians discovered the true size and shape of the earth long before Euclid. Mesoamerican pyramids have similar alignments to the stars and the Earth that reach far beyond chance. They placed these structures with 21st century precision.

Nothing about the construction of the pyramids is “easy” or “obvious”. Mummification & Corbeled Vault Architecture. It’s hard to avoid talking about similarities in the pyramids without also mentioning the cultural rituals that are also strikingly similar. Mummification is an ancient practice that these cultures also shared.

Do you really believe they all decided, independently and across time, to mummify their dead in exactly the same way?

There is also more architectural similarities in the corbeled vault seen in the picture below. Again, nothing about mummification and corbeled vaults is “easy” or “obvious”.

From Cassaro:

“I believe that the existence of pyramids, corbeled vault architecture and mummification on different continents is beyond coincidence:”

The “God Self Icon”

Finally, the symbolism here is simply too hard to ignore. An image of a man holding two serpents or other animals in each hand can be found in nearly every advanced ancient civilization. These images are found all over the pyramidal compounds in both Egypt and Mesoamerica.

Influences & Materials

The Maya were certainly aware of, and were often admirers of, the Mesoamerican cultures which had gone before them, especially the Olmec and at Teotihuacan. And so they took inspiration from this Mesoamerican heritage when developing their own unique architecture.

Maya architects used readily available local materials. Such as limestone at Palenque and Tikal, sandstone at Quiriguá, and volcanic tuff at Copan. Blocks were cut using stone tools only. Burnt-lime cement was used to create a form of concrete and was occasionally used as mortar, as was simple mud.

Exterior surfaces were faced with stucco and decorated with high relief carvings or three-dimensional sculpture. Walls might also have fine veneers of ashlar slabs placed over a rubble core. A feature of buildings in the Puuc region. Walls in Maya buildings are usually straight and produce sharp angles. But a notable idiosyncrasy is seen at Uxmal’s House of the Governor which has outer walls which lean outwards as they rise.

Wall paintings

The whole exterior was then covered in stucco and painted in bright colours, especially red, yellow, green, and blue. Interior walls were often decorated with murals depicting battles, rulers, and religious scenes. Mansard roofs were typical and made in imitation of the sloped thatch roofing of the more modest wooden and wattle dwellings of the majority of the population.

The earliest monumental Maya structures are from the Petén region. Such as the 1st century CE pyramid at Uaxactun known as E-VII-sub. And they are low pyramids with steps on all four sides rising to a top platform. Postholes in the platforms indicate superstructures of perishable material once stood there. The pyramids also carry sculptural decoration, masks in the case of E-VII-sub.

Even at this early stage buildings were constructed on precise plans according to such events as the winter and summer solstices and equinoxes. In addition, the outline of structures when seen from above was also deliberate. And it could form or resemble Maya glyphs for, for example, completion and time. Indeed, many structures were built to specifically commemorate the completion of important time periods such as the 20 year katun.


Maya pyramids soaring above the surrounding jungle. Such as the 65-metre high Temple IV at Tikal. They are amongst the most famous images from the ancient Americas. Pyramids were used not only as temples. And focal points for Maya religious practices where offerings were made to the gods. But also as gigantic tombs for deceased rulers, their partners, sacrificial victims, and precious goods.

Pyramids were also periodically enlarged so that their interiors, when excavated, sometimes reveal a series of complete. But diminishing pyramids, often still with their original coloured stucco decoration. In addition, individual shrines could be amalgamated into a single giant complex over time. As Maya rulers attempted to impress their subjects and leave a lasting mark of their reign.

why did the mayans build pyramids
why did the mayans build pyramids

Year. 700 AD

A good example of this development can be seen at the North Acropolis of Tikal. Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, built c. 700 CE, is a model example of a Maya temple structure. A single steep staircase climbs several levels to reach a top platform topped by a single structure with several chambers.

The pyramid is rich in symbolic meaning with nine exterior levels representing the nine levels of Xibalba, the Maya underworld. And a 13-level secret passageway descending to the tomb of King Pakal in the interior representing the 13 levels of the Maya heavens. In contrast to this standard approach, the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal (after 600 CE) is distinctive for its rounded corners which make it almost oval in shape when seen from above, making the pyramid unique in Maya architecture.

Another two common Maya features of pyramids are a chamfer or deep horizontal groove running around each platform and rounded inset corners. The overall effect of these huge monuments is of a mountain, a feature of the landscape which the Maya held as sacred.

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