How were Mayan cities built

Wikijunior Ancient Civilizations / Mayans

What country did they live in?

Former settlement area of ​​the Maya

The ancient Maya lived in what is now southern Mexico and the northern states of Central America, such as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Settlement began about 4,000 years ago, and about 3,000 years ago the land was densely populated and there were numerous cities. From around 400 BC BC to 250 AD, large Mayan centers arise due to strong population growth and kingship is introduced. While Europe was living in the early Middle Ages, the Mayan culture reached its peak: some cities had more than 10,000 inhabitants and were connected by causeway roads.

What did their buildings look like?

The Kulkulkán pyramid in Chichén Itzá

The Maya were masterful architects. They built pyramids and huge cities. Some of them have been snatched from the jungle in the last few decades and are being studied by scientists and marveled at by tourists.

The Mayan pyramids were made of stone. The stones were processed in such a way that a step-shaped structure was created. At the top of each pyramid was a shrine dedicated to a particular deity. From there they tried to control reality through rituals.

Mayan cities grew around the pyramids. They consisted of squares that were connected by "sacbeob" (raised walkways). It just seems like planning was involved; the topography of the region influenced the types of buildings that were built. For example, cities built on hillsides had tall towers, while cities built on limestone grew into huge urban communities.

The largest squares were in the center of the Mayan cities. There were government buildings and religious buildings, such as the royal acropolis, large pyramid temples and sometimes sports fields. Temples and observatories were always designed to follow the star orbits assumed by the Mayas. Outside these centers were less important temples and shrines. The houses of the common people were on the outskirts.

The Mayans still lacked many tools, such as B. metal tools, pulley blocks, and possibly even the wheel. However, they had an abundance of materials. The most common building material was limestone, which they took from local quarries. Limestone was easy to work with; it only got hard when pulled out of its pit. It could also be used as mortar or stucco. Ordinary houses were built with wooden stakes, adobe (a mixture of straw and sandy loam), and thatch; however, limestone houses have also been found. In the town of Comalcalco, bricks made from baked clay were found to replace stones. The Maya used clay, stone, limestone, thatch, wooden stakes, and metal to build everyday houses.

What did they eat?

Corn was the main food. The Maya also grew a wide variety of crops, such as cassava and sunflowers. These fruits were grown on permanently raised fields, terraces, forest gardens and cultivated fallow fields. They also harvested wild fruits.

How did you dress?

When the king appeared in public, he wore white robes and a crown of gold on his head. Feathers of the quetzal, a Central and South American species of bird, served as decoration. The priests wore belted jaguar skins, both decorated with jade, as well as jade jewelry.

In certain star constellations, the priests called for war (the so-called star wars), and the Mayan warriors dutifully set out to attack their neighbors. During the war, the Maya wore masks. The official costume of the commanders was made of silver and gold.

What did their writing look like?

The Mayans used a series of glyphs (incised letters) to write on ceramics, walls, and bark books. They were also carved into wood and stone and cast in stucco. Each glyph corresponded to a word. The Mayans wrote numbers from top to bottom.

The Mayan script was used until the Spanish emerged. Although many Mayan cultural centers were in decline or completely abandoned during or after this period, many of them were still familiar with the scriptures. The early Spanish conqistadors knew of people who could still write and read script. Unfortunately, the Spaniards were not particularly interested in them and by the end of the 16th century all knowledge about them was lost.

It was not until 1973 that the Mayan writing was partially deciphered. Researchers quickly learned the numbers and were soon able to translate many of the Mayan texts on astronomy and their calendar. Much has been deciphered to this day, the work is still ongoing. The Mayan calendar ends in 2012, where they believed the world will end.

What belief did they have?

According to Maya mythology, there are 13 heavens and 9 hells, each with a god. Elements, stars, planets, numbers, harvest, calendar days, and certain periods of time all had their own god. The supreme god was the corn god (because corn was the main food).

The creation story of the Mayans can be found in the "Popol Vuh" (book of the council or the community). According to the book, the gods Tepeu and Gucumatz decided that in order to protect their rule they had to create beings to worship. The earth was created together with animals. Man was first formed from earth, but immediately fell apart again. Other gods were created and this time man was made of wood, but still had no soul and was too rigid. In the end, it was made out of corn by even more gods, because this material lived and was hard at the same time. The Maya built entire temple cities to worship their many gods and goddesses. The stars, they believed, were gods who came down to earth from time to time.

The Maya had three sophisticated, precise calendars: for everyday life, for religion, and a long-term calendar. They believed that time would cycle through itself.

The Maya fought wars to enlarge their territory and to turn prisoners into slaves. But when the priests discovered a certain constellation in the stars, they called for "star warfare": They fell cruelly on the neighboring cities to make prisoners for human sacrifices. Noble prisoners were sometimes tortured in public and then beheaded.

Why did the Mayan civilization fall?

  1. At the end of the 7th century, the Maya were prosperous and the population grew rapidly. New jungle areas were being cleared and burned to create fields. However, the jungle soil only has a very thin layer of humus. After each harvest, the soil takes several years to recover. The population grew and so new areas had to be cleared every year. Gradually the land became scarce. The fields could be given less time to recover, which caused fertility to decline faster and faster. The food was becoming increasingly scarce.
  2. In the eighth century the climate suddenly changed: the average temperature rose by a few degrees. The rain fell less, but more heavily. The corn grew worse. The erosion washed away the thin layer of humus. With the ever increasing number of wars, the Maya ran out of time to build dams.
  3. At the end of the 7th century there were two city kings in Tical and Calakmul who were equally powerful. There was a balance of power and the forty or so smaller city-states kept quiet. On January 29th, 695 a warrior queen close to the Calakmul kidnapped a nobleman from Tical. Outrageous! What humiliation! And by a woman too! Tical couldn't put up with that. A long period of peace came to an end. A massive war led to the conquest of Calakmul, and the balance of power was over. However, Tical did not succeed in integrating the captured Calakmul. Many little kings now uninhibitedly pursued their own interests. Cities began to build stronger and stronger fortifications, but it didn't help much. In the end, the warlords destroyed each other. The few survivors fled headlong. In 869 Tical fell. The originally red, festive temples were "ritually killed" by painting them completely white (white was the color of death). Never again did a Maya settle in one of the "murdered" cities.

This combination of overexploitation, climate change and wars sealed the fate of the Maya. At the beginning of the 10th century, the jungle had overgrown the cities.

Are some of them still famous today?

The survivors found themselves in a few settlements and tried to preserve their culture. In the 14th century, the Aztecs, coming from the north, immigrated to the area and developed into the new great power. The last Maya empire was subjugated around 1697 by the Spanish who were looking for gold and trying to convert the Maya to the Christian faith. The few remaining documents were burned by them as the devil's stuff. Soon there was no one left who could read the few remaining notes.

What is left of them?


The ancient Maya are not extinct; their descendants still live in Mexico and Central America. (At the beginning of the 21st century, approximately 6 million Maya lived in the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as in the Central American states of Belize, Guatemala and in the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador).

The largest group of today's Maya can be found in Mexico, in the area of ​​Yucatán. They speak both the Mayan language of the Yucatán Peninsula and Spanish and are generally integrated into Mexican culture. More traditional Maya can be found in Guatemala. Many of them wear traditional clothing and practice traditional manners and customs. The most traditional Maya are a group called the Lacandon who avoided contact with outsiders until the late 20th century by living in small groups in the rainforest.


Many Mayan cities have survived to this day. The most important are Chichen Itza, Coba, Copán Kalakmul, Tikal and Uxmal. These cities had been forgotten for centuries until modern researchers rediscovered them. They conducted (and are still doing) archaeological studies and excavations on some of these sites to find out more about Mayan culture. It is important to bring back part of their great past to the people of Central America today. Today some cities are open to tourists.


The text was taken from the English project [1], see authors there.