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About the Mayan Pyramids

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Secrets and History of the Mayan Pyramids

The Most Notable Mayan Pyramids

Chichen Itza is the best known and perhaps the most studied of the Mayan Pyramids. Located in the Yucatan peninsula, Chichen Itza's main temple towers above the low jungle of the limestone rock that surrounds the complex.

The Tikal complex in Guatemala dates back to 1000 B.C.E. Experts believe that much of the older parts of the city have yet to be excavated.

An unusual pyramid with an elliptical base is found in the old Mayan city of Uxmal. The Pyramid of the Magician stands here. It was constructed in phases which housed individual temple rooms.

Palenque, Coba and Copan contain large pyramids and are considered major Mayan ruins studied extensively by various Mayan scholars.

Chichen Itza from morgueFiles free photo license

Recognizing a typical Mayan pyramid

Limestone is the key ingredient in construction. A base is built followed by a smaller square section which may or may not contain an interior room. The interior rooms were presumably used for religious ceremonies, burial chambers or even for the secret storage of valuable items.

Steps around the pyramid were built if the pyramid was one that was designated for climbing. Not all of the pyramids were meant to be climbed. Some were used for housing only. High ranking members of the Mayan society had pyramid homes.

Religious or other extremely important pyramids were built for height and prominence. Even after reaching the maximum height of the design, another top called a comb was placed on the uppermost platform. The comb was the pinnacle of the structure and stood above the surrounding hills and trees.

Pyramids were used for landmarks and could be seen for many miles. Being built of stone, they also withstood the elements and the ravages of time.

Mayan Pyramids Location Map

Map of Mayan Pyramids Screen shot (HP)

Chichen Itza Pyramid

  • Chichen Itza is a Temple City - a city state complex led by a single ruler in cooperation with other Mayan city states.
  • While no physical evidence for large wheels has been discovered to date, there have been discoveries of Mayan toys with wheels.
  • Chichen Itza sits in the area of Mexico that had frequent trade and dealings with other city states. Roads were built and gold from South America has been found at Chichen. Obsidian from central Mexico was brought to Chichen Itza.
  • Archeological opinion differs regarding the use of metal tools to build the pyramid. Some say yes, and some say no. Mayan jewelry found at the site indicates that the early Maya had the sophistication to melt metals and combine them.
  • The pyramid temple of Kulkulcan at Chichen Itza is incredibly sophisticated in regards to astronomy and mathematics. The Mayans are credited with the first use of the zero in calculations.
  • Archaeologists believe that the area comprising Chichen Itza was founded in the millennia before the common or Christian era. This means that the site is over 2,000 years old.
  • Chichen Itza means Mouth of the well of the Itzas. Their well was a cenote that contained water year round.
  • The temple of Kulkulcan (Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs) is the largest structure at Chichen Itza. It also serves as the most important ceremonial structure. It is used for astronomical study and religious ceremonies.
  • The pyramid is 90 feet tall and was built around 1200 A.D. It is built over previously constructed structures.
  • The architecture was built with precise details incorporated from the Mayan calendar.
  • Each of the four sides of the pyramid has its own stairway of 91 steps. The four sides share one step with the top platform. If you calculate the number of total steps - (91 x 4 +1) you will arrive at the number 365 which is the number of days in one solar year (not including the quarter day which is resolved every four years).
  • In the 1930s, a Mexican excavation discovered an inner staircase under the North side of the pyramid. They found that the current pyramid was built over another pyramid which is a typical scenario for the Mayan architects.
  • Inside the inner pyramid, they found a Chac Mool (a Mayan sculpture for offerings to the Gods). They also found a throne in the shape of a jaguar with red painted spots and inlaid jade. The inner pyramid was closed to tourists in 2006.
  • The outer pyramid has also been closed for climbing since 2006 due to safety reasons.
  • During the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the sun shines on the stairway in such a way as to cause a shadow to move down the steps culminating at the head of the feathered serpent. The shadow appears to be the body of the serpent. This means that the entire pyramid is oriented to specific celestial events during the year.
  • The many other structures at Chichen Itza have been shown to be related to celestial events. The ball court in particular is aligned perfectly with the center of the galaxy every 5,128 days. This ends one Mayan Long Count and begins another. The celestial alignment on December 21, 2001 marked the beginning of the current Long Count Era.

The Mayan Pyramid of Tikal

  • At one time Tikal had a population of 100,000 people.
  • There are approximately 3,000 structures at the Tikal excavation site. It is one of the largest Mayan cities yet discovered.
  • The pyramids of Tikal are considered the finest of all the Mayan pyramids. They are all now preserved in a national Bio-Preserve.
  • Temple IV is 230 feet. or 70 meters in height. It is one of the tallest of the Mayan pyramids.
  • Some of the structures at Tikal date back to the 4th century B.C.E (Before the Common or Christian Era).
  • There is some evidence that the Toltecs from Central Mexico actually conquered the city of Tikal.
  • The stone carvings of Tikal list the previous 33 rulers of the city going back in history for about 800 years.
  • The site is so large that much of it has not been excavated as yet by the University of Pennsylvania and the government of Guatemala.
  • There are six very large pyramids at this site. As of 2012, they are not roped off and may be climbed during a visit.

Tikal Mayan Ruins in Guatemala - Family Travel

The Pyramid of Uxmal

  • Uxmal is pronounced phonetically as in Oosh-Mall
  • The architecture of Uxmal is considered to be the finest example of the late Mayan period. This city-state appears to be the pinnacle of Mayan architectural design.
  • The structures, city layout and intricate stone work are all beautiful and fit for kings.
  • Uxmal encompasses the neighboring sites of Kabah, Sayil and Labná. There is some evidence to suggest that Kabah may have been as large as Uxmal and that the history of all of these sites is connected.
  • Most of the complex was constructed between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 10th centuries A.D.
  • The finest example of a freestanding Mayan arch was constructed at Kabah.
  • The Pyramid of the Magicians at Uxmal is the tallest in the complex. The height is approximately 115 feet.
  • The pyramid design is elliptical and the 'corners' are rounded. This is different than other known Mayan pyramids.
  • The western stairs overlook the nunneries and the staircase is decorated with facial characteristics of the rain god, Chaac. When climbing these stairs, it is said that you ascend with the gods.
  • The design of the "nunneries" forms a large quadrangle and is unique to Uxmal.
  • Uxmal has been under continuous study since the 1950s and plays hosts to high tourist traffic. The four sites have been opened to tourists since the sacbe's (Mayan roads) have been discovered and cleared.
  • About 25,000 Mayans once occupied Uxmal.
  • A legendary tale is told of a magician dwarf that built the pyramid of the magician overnight.


Pyramid of Uxmal from morgueFiles free photo license

Palenque, Cobah and Copan pyramids

  • Palenque is most notable for the Temple of the Inscriptions which is a classic pyramid of the Maya.
  • Palenque is located at the foothills of the Tumbalá mountains and close by is the Usumacinta River.
  • The site is surrounded by lush jungle and abundant wildlife. It is also well developed for tourism.
  • The Temple of the Inscriptions is a tomb pyramid once containing the remains of Pakal, a noted Mayan ruler.
  • The stairway to Pakal's tomb descends 80 feet in an almost vertical slope. Special permission is needed to descend to the tomb area.
  • The slab covering Pakal's tomb is famous for its ornate carving and has bee photographed and studied since its incredible discovery.
  • The entire site is a must see for any student of Mayan history.

Two small pyramids at Palenque

Palenque pyramidsfrom morgueFiles free photo license

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