Mayan Architecture | Main Characteristics of its Architecture

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architecture of the mayas

Mayan Architecture

What is Mayan architecture? Mayan architecture is characterized by pyramidal temples and ornate palaces that were built in all the Mayan centers of Mesoamerica, from Tajin in the north to Copan in the south. In the Mayan civilization, these Mayan constructions that are preserved today are characterized by their elevated multilevel platforms, huge step pyramids, corbelled roofs, monumental stairways and exteriors decorated with sculptures and moldings of Mayan glyphs, geometric shapes and iconographies of religion, such as, for example, Mayan jaguar or serpent masks.


Although knowing that the Maya culture was made up of autonomous city-states, almost all of its buildings had that distinguished use and management of geometry in Maya culture, most of these cities were built with precise attention to the position and distribution of the city. In general, the characteristics of Maya architecture prevailed with an architectural style unique to their region. Interestingly, unlike many other cultures, Maya architecture does not distinguish between religious and non-religious buildings.


The Maya built pyramids, temples, palaces, walls, residences, among others. They decorated their buildings with intricate stone carvings, stucco statues and Maya painting. Today, Maya architecture pdf is very important, as it is one of the few aspects of life that is still available for study.


In the early Classic architectural period, some Maya ceremonial centers continued to retain their importance. In some cases, the profile of the cladding was almost identical to the profile of the classic combination of a slope and a vertical panel typically covered with some painted ornament; burial mounds constructed of earth, volcanic dust and sand; temples with adobe and possibly stone walls, but with a roof of palm leaves.


Classic Period Maya Architecture

During the Classic Period Maya architecture, which lasted from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., the architecture of the Maya culture is considered to have been its Golden Age. The achievements of the Maya were most pronounced in this era, where there were astounding advances in the fields of astronomy, calligraphy and architecture. Historians believe that the Maya expanded in these three areas as they are all associated with faith.


The importance of Tikal's Maya architecture reached greatness during the Classic period. Although the major Maya cities were not laid out according to blueprints, they all included certain features. Each had terraced pyramids, temples, shrines, palaces, drainage systems, saunas, open courtyards, residences, administrative buildings, ball courts and sometimes astronomical observatories.


Maya architects used a variety of techniques. They enhanced important temples and palaces by elevating them on pyramids, platforms and acropolis. They also made extensive use of facades to exaggerate the height and beauty of their buildings.


Materials in Maya Architecture

Maya architects used readily available local materials, such as limestone from Palenque and Tikal, sandstone from Quiriguá and volcanic tuff from Copán. The blocks were cut with stone tools only. Burnt calcareous cement was used to create a kind of concrete and was sometimes used as mortar, although simple mud was also used.


The exterior elements used in Maya architecture were covered with stucco and decorated with high-relief engravings and three-dimensional sculptures. Stone walls could also have thin slabs of ashlar slabs set on a rubble core, a characteristic of buildings in the Puuc region.


Typically, the walls of Maya palaces are usually straight and steeply angled, but at the Governor's House at Uxmal, a remarkable idiosyncrasy can be observed with exterior walls that slope outward as they rise.


The exterior of the house was covered with stucco and painted in bright colors, especially red, yellow, green and blue. Inside, the walls were decorated by hand with murals depicting battles, rulers and religious scenes. The roofs in Maya mansard roof architecture were typical and were made to resemble the sloping paj roofs of the more modest wooden and fallow dwellings used by the majority of the Maya population.


The earliest monumental Maya structures are found in the Petén, such as the 1st century A.D. pyramid at Uaxactún, known as E-VII-sub, with stairways on all four sides rising to an upper platform. The openings in the platforms indicate superstructures of perishable material that once stood there. There is also sculptural decoration on the pyramid, masks in the case of E-VII-sub.


Even in this early stage of Maya architecture, buildings were constructed on precise plans according to events such as the winter and summer solstices and the equinoxes. Moreover, in Maya architecture, the outline of structures, seen from above, was deliberate and could form or resemble Maya glyphs, for example, by their termination and timing. In fact, many structures were built to specifically commemorate the termination of such important time periods as the katun of the 1920s.


Major Maya City-States

The Maya at chichen itza, unlike Aztec architecture in Mexico or the Incas in Peru, were never a unified empire ruled by a single ruler from a single location. Instead, they were a series of small city states that ruled the immediate surroundings, but had little to do with other cities if they were far enough away.


Maya city-states traded with each other and fought with each other frequently, so cultural exchange, including Aztec architecture, was commonplace. Among the most important Maya city-states were Tikal, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Caracol, Copán, Quiriguá, Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. While each Maya city was different, they tended to share certain characteristics, such as the general layout of the city.


Pyramids of Ancient Maya Architecture

In the history of Maya pyramids and their names, they were used not only as temples and focal points for Maya religious practices in which offerings were made to the gods, but also as giant tombs for deceased rulers, for their wives, for victim sacrifices and for their precious possessions.


Some pyramids of Maya architecture were periodically enlarged so that what is inside the Maya pyramids, when excavated, sometimes revealed a series of complete but shrinking pyramids, often with their original colorful stucco decoration. In addition, over time, individual shrines could be amalgamated into a single gigantic complex as Maya rulers sought to impress their subjects and leave a lasting mark of their reign. At the northern acropolis of Tikal, Maya urban planning can be seen as an example of this development.


Mayan pyramids towered above the surrounding jungle, such as Temple IV of Tikal (8th century A.D.), which is 65 meters high, this pyramid is among the most famous monuments of ancient America.


An example of Mayan architecture and how Mayan pyramids were built is the Temple of the Inscriptions of Palenque, built around 700 A.D., constitutes a model of a Mayan temple structure. A single steep staircase leads up several levels to reach an upper platform topped by a single structure with several rooms.


This Mayan pyramid is rich in symbolic meaning of Mayan architecture with nine exterior levels representing the nine levels of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, and a 13-level secret passageway descending to King Pakal's tomb inside representing the 13 levels of the Mayan sky. Contrasting with this standard approach, Uxmal's Pyramid of the Magician is distinguished by its rounded corners that make it almost oval when viewed from above, making the pyramid unique in Maya architecture.


Two other features of mesh architecture most common in pyramids are a deep horizontal chamfer or groove surrounding each platform and rounded corners. All of these monuments have an overall mountain effect, a feature of the landscape that the Maya considered sacred.


Mayan temples and palaces that have stood the test of time often contain stone carvings depicting battles, wars, kings, dynastic successions and more. The Maya people were literate and had a written language and books, of which only a few survive. The glyphs carved on temples and palaces are, therefore, important because very little remains of Maya culture and achievements in their original sculpture.


Elements of Maya Architecture

As in most civilizations, in Maya architecture we can see their work in engineering as much as in Maya sculpture. The buildings they created give us clues to the fabric of their culture. The peak of large-scale construction occurred during the Classic Period. Studies of Classic Maya art show us that this period was rooted in royal culture. The king stood as if he were a god, and Maya art and architecture of the period reflects this.


Although Maya architecture had many commonalities, there were other local influences that varied from place to place. Styles were influenced by the available building materials and topography, as well as local preferences. For example, the Usumacinta style used its mountainous terrain as part of the Maya architectural style of building design. The hillsides were used as supporting architectural elements.


Works of Maya Architecture in Yucatan

During the origin of Maya architecture in the Yucatan Peninsula, the Puuc Route is composed of the emblematic archaeological sites of Labná, Sayil, Kabah, Xlapak, Oxkintoc, Chacmultún, Loltún and the main one is Uxmal. Located about 90 miles south of Merida in Yucatan, Mexico. The Mayan ruins are inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites recognized by UNESCO and share a common architectural style known as Puuc.


The Mayan architecture with its names, from being an important representation of Mayan art and cresteria, is a reflection of their vision of the world and also has a functional character, aligned with the daily life of the ancient inhabitants.


Main characteristics of Mayan architecture:

  • Strong preference for geometric architecture.
  • Large perforated summit decorated with stucco.
  • Distinctive Maya arch with highly polished stone.
  • Numerous masks of the rain god Chac.
  • Use of fretwork as decorative elements.
  • Small columns and false columns embedded in the facades.
  • Stylized Maya huts.


The Chac is a deity associated with a Mayan ideology that is defined as water and rain, to whom people turned to for help to obtain good harvests. The cult in Maya architecture increased especially in areas with water scarcity, such as the Maya cities of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.


The god Chac, used in several Maya cities of the Puuc Route, was characterized by his large eyes, a mouth provided with large fangs and, above all, a prominent nose in the form of a curved horn. Mayan masks are decorated with small pieces of stone, previously cut and then assembled into tiles, which produces a magnificent decorative effect.


One of the archaeological sites where the Puuc architectural style is best appreciated is Uxmal, which means "thrice built". It has one of the most impressive Mayan buildings in Yucatan: the main pyramid called "Casa del Mago" (House of the Magician), 35 meters high and considered the only oval Mayan pyramid.


Surrounded by legends, myths and stories, the great Mayan city of Uxmal is located next to a series of hills or "Puuc", hence the name of the Mayan architectural style of the route.

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