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Monumental architecture is one of the best legacies the Mayas left after the decline of their civilization. We marvel and awe at the impressive limestone structures that were once, and in many cases still are, hidden in the dense jungles of El Mundo Maya

Apart from archaeological artifacts like pottery, tools, jewelry, and even human remains; architecture has been one of the key elements in deciphering the culture of the ancient Mayas.

As an architect myself, I’ve wondered countless times how the Mayas approached the “construction industry” and how were the relationships between “architect and client” back then.

Thanks to Dr. Jaime Awe, Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Belize –who I had the pleasure of interviewing– and my multiple visits to the most important sites in Belize and other Central American countries, I came to understand how architecture influenced the Maya civilization.

Jaime Awe at Cahal Pech
Dr. Jaime Awe, Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Belize

Being a Maya Architect

So, if I were an ancient Maya architect I would have probably done the following things…

  • My only client would have been the ruler of my city or major settlement.  He would have told me what buildings he wanted and the meaning behind them (like a temple for a specific god, a palace, a market place, a plaza, or other) and I would have been in charge of coming up with the design.
  • My ruler would have selected the site, or location, of the new complex.  Its selection would have been based on many factors that range from sacred locale to military positioning (especially if in a high mountain and with other complexes around that could communicate visually), to functional (a place to have fertile farmlands and/or good trade with other cities).
  • In many cases, my ruler would have wanted to represent (and deify) himself, his dynasty, and its impact in history with hieroglyphs and stelas.
Copan Ruinas, Copan Ruinas, Honduras
A stelae and hieroglyphs at Copan Ruinas – Copan Ruinas, Honduras
  • My preferred material would have been limestone since it is easily available in most of Central America.
  • Since masonry is the technique preferred by the Mayas, it would have made sense for me to build taller buildings as pyramids.  This is not only to build stable structures but also, to represent the mountains – which are part of the sacred landscape.  We create our own sacred “mountains” with our pyramidal temples.
Caracol Archaeological site, Cayo, Belize
The Temple of the Wooden Lintel. A representation of an artificial landscape at Caracol Archaeological Park – Cayo, Belize
  • Building recycling is a concept I would have been very aware of.  If my ruler wanted a new building or wanted to remodel an existing building, I would have probably designed it on top of an existing building.  Maya temples can have many levels of construction hidden under the building we see today.
  • I would have been an excellent planner.  I would have been able to design circulation patterns and enclosures that not only would have made it easy for everyone to navigate around, but that would have also kept my ruler and the elite away from the middle and lower class citizens.  They don’t like to mingle!
  • I would have prioritized the elite’s buildings by raising them in platforms, higher than the rest of the complex.  The higher they are, the more powerful they would seem to be.  In addition, the higher my ruler can be, the closer to the gods he’ll be.
Cahal Pech Archaeological site, Cayo, Belize
The elite raised platform at Cahal Pech Archaeological site – Cayo, Belize
  • I would have wanted the commoners to pay respect to my ruler, even subconsciously, right?  For that, I would have designed the steps to the elite’s plazas and complexes high enough that when they walked up the steps they would feel then need to look down and pay attention to their stepping, like if bowing or in devotion.  Plus, steeper stairs make construction cheaper since they use less material!
Great Plaza and Temple I
The steep pyramid of Temple I in front of the Great Plaza in Tikal – Peten, Guatemala
  • I would have been an expert at building water reservoirs.  For some reason, water was not the most important factor in the selection of the location for a new city. In order for me to provide water to the thousands or millions of residents, I would have designed huge and multiple water reservoirs that would collect rainwater.  (Sadly, this was one of the factors that led to the decline of the Mayas around 950 AD, when a major drought affected Mesoamerica.)
  • In most cases, I would have come up with the design, following the sacred numbers of the heavens, earth, and/or the underworld, or other Maya numerology.  Many of the temples I would have designed would contain 13 entrances, resembling the 13 levels of the heavens, with the 7th entrance being the most important one, the zenith. Also, no even number of doors and windows. It’s all about the odd numbers!
El Castillo at Chichen Itza
El Castillo at Chichen Itza. Numerology plays a big role in the design. Among those is the total of 364 steps (on all 4 sides), with a final top platform to total 365 steps. (the numbers of the days in the year) – Chichen Itza, Mexico.
  • My mathematical system for measuring would have been vigesimal (based in 20s), instead of decimal (based in 10s).
  • Religious symbolism would have been found all around the major building, linking my ruler to the gods, as well as depicting a specific god-like figure (like the jaguar and the sun). This would have influenced the belief of the commoners towards the gods and ruler.
Jaguar temple at Lamanai, Belize
Representation of the Jaguar god at the Jaguar Temple in Lamanai – Orange Walk, Belize
  • My concept of symmetry would not have been the same as we have today.  Maya architecture is beautiful with its quirky proportions and odd symmetries.  Why impose our modern concept of perfect symmetry?
  • Building proportions would not necessarily conform to the body’s anatomy, like today’s architecture.  Steps would have been higher to “force-bow” to pay respect, doorways could be lower than normal (though the Mayas were, and are short, in general), beds and seating areas could be higher or lower than normal (to allow space for burial of loved ones under it or other purposes), among others.
  • My construction workers would have been slaves or “willing” citizens giving their “tribute labor” to pay their deeds and show their respect to our ruler.  Look at it like this… it’s their way to pay their taxes!
  • The only residences I would have designed would have been of my ruler and the highest elites and I would have grouped them in one controlled area.  The commoner’s houses?  They can deal with that on their own!
El Castillo at Xunantunich, Cayo, Belize
Royal Complex at Xunantunich – Cayo, Belize
  • Many of my buildings would have been plastered and painted.  In many cases, the most sacred buildings would have been painted in red.  Red is a sacred color and it represents the color of the rising sun, and blood.
  • Oh, and let’s not forget… I would have been part of the elite!

Without a doubt, religion and power were the most important influences in Ancient Maya architecture, and today, it is one of our richest gateways to appreciating and understanding their interesting culture and civilization.  

Many of the tasks of the profession were completely different in the Maya civilization, but not surprisingly, some of them are still practiced to this day.

Isn’t being an Ancient Maya architect interesting?  What is your favorite Maya building or temple?

Adventure Awaits


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  1. By far, I am dreaming of a Mayan encounter. The first one I had was when my Mexican friends gifted me with a Mayan calendar and this brought me to the thought of what is gonna happen this year 2012.

    Perhaps for this post, I wished I can the grand tower so i can oversee the greatness and vastness of my powerful reach and how my people are making their lives bearable under the circumstance they are in.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. You’re welcome! The Mayas all over Central America had great power. Even though today the power of the Maya empire is not here, you can still see the richness of the culture in the many villages and communities where tradition still rules. 2012 is an interesting year to be in Central America, especial in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

  2. I would make them less steep! Cool idea for a post… I never thought about the idea of building a new temple on top of an old one.

    1. Thanks Scott! Well, I would make them less steep for easier accessibility, but hey, that’s how they liked them! haha. Funny, since the Mayas were small in stature.

    1. Thanks Matt! I think those steep stairways make them really interesting, especially with the meaning behind them. And they are fun to hike! (when allowed)