Mayan architecture: building with the sun and stars

Mayan architecture | building with the sun and stars

The tradition of Maya architecture spans several thousands of years thorough the Mesoamerican. A region that extends approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, within which pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Mesoamerica map
Mesoamerica map

Simply put,

Mayan architecture is the architecture of the Mesoamerican civilization of the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, and part of Honduras, from the 1st century A.D. to its peak In the 9th century, characterized by magnificent ceremonial centres with temple-pyramids, ritual ball courts, spacious plazas, and palaces with sculptured facades.

Chicana Structure with Mask. // Chicanná Archaeological Ruins Is Group A, Structure II.
The Mask Probably Represents Itzamna, The Creator-God.

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. The most recognizable as Maya buildings are the stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond.

Chichen Itza // Yucatan, Mexico
Chichen Itza // Yucatan, Mexico


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 (10th century CE) which has outer walls which lean outwards as they rise (called negative batter). 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.


Town Planning

Maya sites display evidence of deliberate urban planning and monuments are often laid out on a radial pattern incorporating wide plazas. Topography usually determined where larger buildings were constructed – see, for example, Palenque where use was made of natural rock rises – but they could also be connected via elevated and stuccoed roadways (bajos) within a single sacred complex. Buildings themselves were oriented along, for example, a north-south axis, and were so positioned to take advantage of solar and other celestial events or sight lines. Buildings might also be sited to take advantage of natural panoramas or even mimic the view itself such as in the ballcourt at Copan.

Copan Siteplan


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. A good example of this development can be seen at the North Acropolis of Tikal.

North Acropolis of Tikal
North Acropolis of Tikal


The larger Maya buildings used as palaces and administrative centres, like the temples, very often have sections with corbelled roofing – that is flat stones were piled one upon another, slightly over-lapping so that they formed a narrow enough gap that it could be spanned with a single capstone.

Doorways are often multiple and of the post and lintel type in wood (usually sapodilla) or stone. They can also present relief carvings of rulers. Doorways could be carved to represent, for example, the mouth of a fierce monster, as in Structure 22 at Copan and the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. These portals represented the mouths of sacred caves, traditionally considered portals to another world. Finally, besides halls, sleeping quarters, cooking areas, and workshops, some palaces, as at Palenque, also had luxury features such as lavatories and steam rooms.

Nunnery, Uxmal, Mexico

Maya architecture would, then, pass on the architectural baton from older Mesoamerica to subsequent cultures such as the Toltec civilization and Aztecs, especially at the noted centres of Xochicalco, Chichen Itza, Mitla, and Tenochtitlan. Maya influence even stretched into the 20th century CE when such noted architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Stacy-Judd incorporated elements of Maya architecture into their buildings.