Top 10 Ancient Mayan Architecture

The ancient Maya Empire was centered around the tropical lowlands of present-day Guatemala, reaching the peak of power and influence around the sixth century A.D. They were the first great civilization of North America, excelling at agriculture, hieroglyph writing, pottery, calendar-making, and mathematics. 

Likewise, they also left behind an incredible amount of impressive Mayan inventions in the forms of architecture and symbolic artwork. Because of a unified religion, their entire culture had very little outside influence, apart from the Mesoamerican architectural style. 

In like manner, the Mayan architecture deployed the same style of buildings from state to state as they were a provincial civilization. Principle characteristics of Mayan buildings included step-pyramids, multi-level elevated platforms, molded glyphs, and serpent markings. 

Mayan builders mainly used limestone, sandstone, and volcanic rock to construct the structures, with sculpting and cutting tools made from stone. 

Today, the surviving Mayan buildings give us a great glimpse into the once sophisticated and thriving civilization that persisted decades ago. Here are the top 10 Mayan architecture structures-  

What killed the Mayans? 

Most archaeologists conclude that the causes of the decline of one of the oldest civilizations, the Mayan civilization include war, overpopulation, unsustainable practices to feed large populations, and protracted drought. 

Do the Mayans still exist? 

The Maya descendants still live in Central America in modern-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico. The majority of the descendants live in Guatemala, home to Tikal National Park, where the ruins of the ancient city of Tikal are located. 

What is the difference between Mayan and Egyptian pyramids? 

Compared to the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, the Mayan pyramids are smaller but steeper. The Mayan pyramids are also comparatively more ornate, built of stone blocks held together with lime mortar. 

10. Chichen Itza

An aerial view of Chichen Itza - Mayan Architecture
An aerial view of Chichen Itza – Mayan Architecture

A marvel of Mayan architecture, Chichen Itza was a sacred site to the ancient people. It was also a pilgrimage site. The Sacred Cenote, a natural sinkhole, is perhaps one of its most famous attractions. Archeologists have also linked ancient Mayans who made human sacrifices to Chaac, the Mayan God of the rain. 

Similarly, the ancient Mayan architects bifurcated Chichen Itza into sections and built the structure similar to the Classic Puuc style. Likewise, other historic landmarks include the iconic El Castillo or temple pyramid, a massive pyramid constructed out of stones and laden with concrete, limestone, and graphite. 

According to archeologists, the Mayans constructed the pyramid to honor Kukulcan, the legendary serpent deity. The structure, opulently decorated with carved serpents, includes inscribed square pegs with a staircase that reaches the top.

See also  10 Most Beautiful Surviving Maya Pyramids

Visitors of El Castillo can still notice the creep of the shadow on the serpent carvings. The slow envelope of the shadow over the serpents makes it seem like they are slithering down the structure.

9. Temple of the Inscriptions

The front view of the Temple of Inscriptions
The front view of the Temple of Inscriptions

Situated at the heart of Palenque, the Temple of the Inscriptions is the largest pre-Colombian stepped pyramid in the Mexican region. Ancient Mayans constructed the pyramid to commemorate the ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal.

One of the best sources of knowledge on Mayan architecture and civilization, the heliographic inscriptions on the walls offer much detail about the Mayan king and what time was like during his ruling. 

The temple has five entrances at the front, finely carved walls, and a staircase that the builders constructed to reach the crypt inside. Archeologists have also found various tablets in the temple, which offer us immense knowledge on how the ancient Maya understood the notion of time. 

8. Pyramids

One of the Mayan pyramidal monuments - Tikal
One of the Mayan pyramidal monuments – Tikal

Archaeological evidence shows that by the time the Preclassic era rolled around (1000 B.C., approximately 3,000 years ago), the Mayans were already building pyramidal-plaza with ceremonial architecture. The earliest Mayan pyramidal monuments were mainly simple burial mounds, the precursors to stepped pyramids. 

Furthermore, pyramids were perhaps the Maya’s most significant structures. Mayan master builders constructed the pyramids with painstakingly carved curved stones that acted as steps. These steps have rounded inset corners and chamfers around each platform. 

What’s more, the ancient Mayan people often built the pyramids in dense areas of jungle and foliage where the structures could soar high above the treeline. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, the Mayan architecture consisted of a flat top where the people often constructed temples and shrines dedicated to the Gods. 

Ancient Mayan priests also used the pyramids as temples and religious meeting places. However, these pyramids were also used as tombs of deceased patrons and rulers. The dead bodies of sacrificial victims were also often buried there.

7. E-Groups

Image of E Group Uaxactun
Image of E Group Uaxactun

Found in several ancient Mayan settlements, E-Groups are unique architectural complexes central to Maya sites. Like many other civic and ceremonial buildings, the ancient Maya used these E-Groups for astronomical observations. 

Moreover, the ancient Maya builders mainly constructed these structures in the southern and central lowlands of the region. E-Groups were complex and often corresponded to the Sun’s equinox and solstice, a stepped pyramid structure built on a raised west-facing platform.

Another raised and elongated platform was present on the eastern side, with a staircase to provide entry. The western side held thatched buildings. 

See also  Top 10 Ancient Mayan Inventions

The equinox and the solstice were critical religious events for the Maya people, and the construction of these E-Groups also coincided with the astronomical events.

Well-appointed high-ranking Mayan nobles were usually the patrons, and the E-Groups were built with great care.

6. Ball Courts 

One of the images of ancient ball courts
One of the images of ancient ball courts

Used to play high ball games, the Ball courts were large masonry structures the ancient people used in Mesoamerica over 2,700 years ago. The ancient ball game was a variation of the high ball, with its own rules and regulations.

Two opposing teams had to bounce a rubber ball through the high-placed ring without using their arms and legs. A great example of a ball game in action is portrayed in the DreamWorks movie- The Road to El Dorado. 

With sloping slides, the ball court hosted large spectators. In Uxmal, however, the sides were vertical, and in Tikal, the triple court had L-shaped walls.

Sticking to the notion that every building in ancient times was a religious temple and people back then did nothing but pray and hold religious ceremonies, archeologists believe that the ball games too were based on religion.

The Maya built the courts following sacred nature, and players initiated the game from north to south. Continuing the grim nature of the time, the losing team had to make a sacrifice to the Gods. The sport was quite popular in Copan.

5. Temples 

A modern image of Temple of the Cross, Palenque
A modern image of Temple of the Cross, Palenque

A prolific staple of Maya architecture, temples were quite every day for the civilization. Ancient masons built the temples from stone and constructed platforms of differing sizes and shapes.

The temple structures were mainly used for ceremonial purposes, made with wood and thatch. Like the pyramids, the temples also had a high-top platform where Maya priests performed rituals. 

Similarly, master builders, keeping the astronomical concepts and traditions in mind, carved the outer surfaces of the stones with glyphs.

Most Maya temples were also aligned with heavenly bodies, like the sun, the moon, and planet Venus. Equinoxes and solstices determined the temples’ construction as the priests and holy men regarded them as essential periods for rituals. 

4. The Pigeon House 

The pigeon house at Uxmal
The pigeon house at Uxmal

Built for ceremonial purposes, the Pigeon House at Uxmal serves a similar motive to the temples. The building is named so because the intricate facade resembles a dovecote with many apertures. It was built in c. 900 CE. 

The ancient Maya built the structure from rubble and limestone during the early period of the civilization. Like many other structures, the Pigeon House’s exterior and interior walls are carved.

Likewise, the ancient people also painted all the walls in bright colors. Archeologists believed that the Pigeon House was built to track the course of the heavenly bodies and supernatural forces.

See also  Top 10 Ancient Mayan Inventions

3. Sayil Palace

An image of the remains of the Palace of Sayil
An image of the remains of the Palace of Sayil

One of the oldest Maya architecture marvels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sayil Palace is a three-story building in the Yucatan. Each story of the palace is stacked back from the one below.

However, instead of stacking the rooms above the other, they were built side by side. The entire site is laid out along a sacbe, or a causeway, that runs from north to south. The Great Sayil Palace stands at the northern end and is the largest and the most well-known building. 

The whole site of the palace, with its current-day ruins, was made from stone and concrete in the Puuc architectural style. El Mirador, a building within site, is also believed to have been used as an observatory. 

2. Triadic Pyramids

Modern image of El Mirador in Guatemala - one of the Mayan Triadic pyramids
Modern image of El Mirador in Guatemala – one of the Mayan Triadic pyramids

An innovation of the Preclassic Maya civilization, triadic pyramids consisted of a dominant structure flanked by two smaller inward-facing buildings. The entire pyramidal structure was mounted upon a single basal platform. 

El Mirador in Guatemala is the largest known triadic pyramid, enveloping an area six times as large as that covered by Tikal Temple. All three superstructures have stairways that lead up from the central plaza to the top of the basal platform.

For the most part, triadic pyramid structures, at present, are found in early cities in the Maya lowlands, at Nakbe and Peten. El Mirador has around 88 triadic pyramids. 

1. Palaces

The Nunnery Quadrangle in Uxmal
The Nunnery Quadrangle in Uxmal

Built on a grand scale, the Maya architecture consisted of palaces as administration centers. Ancient Maya “corbelled” the palaces, an architectural style where a type of flat stone is piled up with a slight overlap to construct a narrow gap.

The corbelling ensured the structures could be topped with a single capstone. The builders also used wooden crosses to support unbalanced vaults.

The Nunnery Quadrangle in Uxmal is a prime example of this Maya architecture style. Built as a temple pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle’s structure originates from a traditional pattern.

The northern structure has 13 doorways, while the south has nine. Similarly, the west has seven. The ancient Maya built these doorways to represent the levels of heaven, Xibalba, and Earth, respectively. 


The people of the ancient Maya civilization, aside from being extremely rich in culture, were the epitome of master builders and experts at masonry.

Simply looking at some of the surviving buildings gives us sufficient ideation of how the civilization was all those years ago, full of life, art, and exuberance. With very strong traditions, beliefs, and customs, Maya temples and pyramids were all built from similar materials and religious and ceremonial purposes. 

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