The Mayans are a people that belong to the southern part of Mexico and the northern part of Central America. Their history can be traced back some 3,000 years. According to archaeological evidence, it has been shown that the ancient Mayans began building their characteristic ceremonial structures, known as Mayan Pyramids or Pyramid-Temples, about 3,000 years back, which were at first merely burial mounds, the forerunners of the magnificent stepped pyramids that belong to the Terminal Pre-Classic period and even earlier.
Mayan pyramids are of two types: one being the type that was not meant to be climbed, and the other that was built for climbing up them. The second type was often used for carrying out sacrificial rituals, while the other type was sacred and not supposed to be touched. The steps made on these pyramids were very steep and often had doorways that lead to nowhere.
Most of these Mayan pyramids had a platform on the top on which was constructed a smaller building, dedicated to any of the Mayan deities. When the priests or kings performed their rituals, they ascended the pyramid on staircases, which symbolized rising from the earth to the heavens, since they started from the ground level right up to the temple on top. While some pyramids had two staircases, on either side, others had four, one on each side. Often, there would also be a platform somewhere in the middle of the pyramid that would connect the staircases, where the priest/king would halt and perform a part of his ritual, and then continue on up to the topmost point.
Certain Mayan pyramid-like constructions were also built as burial places for powerful rulers, containing burial chambers within these giant structures, which usually contained treasures like jade. According to some historians, one of the reasons the Mayan pyramids were built so high was that they served as landmarks for the Mayan people, since the tops protruded from the jungle. Also, they served to remind the populace that the gods were always present. To the Mayans, their pyramids also represented mountains, while their temples symbolized caves that led to the underworld, while the doorways were representative of the mouths of monsters, and hence were embellished accordingly. Since they were excellent astronomers, some think that they also used their pyramid structures as observatories.
Mayan pyramids, in fact, were built in a wide variety of forms to serve a wide variety of functions, apart from religious ones, according to the customs of each region as well as period.
The ancient Mayans built these huge structures without the help of domesticated animals or wheels, which had not been invented then, or metal tools, since they were not commonly used in the region they inhabited. The tools they had were very simple like basalt axes and fire axes used on wood, while they used tools made of quartzite, limestone, granite, obsidian and flint on stone. They also used a plumb bob for judging the vertical accuracy of the structures they built.
Given below are some of the great townships that were built during the 1,500 years that the Mayans had flourished in the expanses of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and in the verdant jungles of Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, in which they built their distinctive pyramids, like Chichen Itza, Tulum, Uxmal, Tikal, Cholula, Copan, and Calacmul.
Some of the most famous amongst the Mayan Pyramids are found in this ancient city located in Mexico. Its massive pyramids, including the enormous El Castillo pyramid which contains a jaguar throne, have wonderful murals and carvings. A natural well, or cenote, near it was used for making human sacrifices, dedicated to the rain god.
This is the largest of the Mayan cities, and is located in Guatemala. Covering 60 square miles, it has many pyramids, the most prominent amongst which are the 6 huge step pyramids with temples on their topmost levels, the largest of these being the Temple-Pyramid, measuring 230 feet, or 72 meters, in height. These were built when the city was at its zenith from the latter part of the 7th century to the early part of the 9th century.
Located in Mexico, this is regarded as one of the most beautiful amongst the Mayan cities. It has the ‘Pyramid of the Magician’ or Adivino, which is distinctive because it is the only pyramid that has an oval base, instead of the usual square or rectangular shape. It is also known for its wonderful acoustics, and the terraces on the pyramid provide great views of the surrounding area. There are many other temple-pyramids, monuments, and quadrangles in Uxmal, some of them of considerable size, and in various degrees of preservation.
The ‘Great Pyramid of Cholula’ or the ‘Pyramid of Tipanipa’ is located here, and was considered to be the largest pyramid in the world, with an even larger base than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Later, however, another pyramid found in the ruins of El Mirador, in Guatemala, known as the Danta Pyramid has overtaken it by size, measuring up to 230 feet in height. Nevertheless, the main pyramid in Cholula too is quite big, with a base measuring 400 meters on each side, the whole structure covering 25 acres, and a height of 181 feet, which still makes it the pyramid with the largest base. Now, it first looks like a natural hill with a church on its summit. As a matter of fact, many Mayan pyramids are similarly covered by earth, with a modern Catholic church surmounted on them.
Also known as Kalakmul, this is one of the largest amongst the ancient Mayan cities that have been discovered. It is situated in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, 30 km from the border of Guatemala, in the Petén jungles. The name of this city means ‘City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids.’
There are many more Mayan Pyramids of various sizes and fame in the ancient cities that had been built and inhabited by them in their glorious period in history. As a matter of fact, their presence is a haunting reminder of the sudden collapse and disappearance of their civilization, which occurred around the 10th century, and is one of the enduring mysteries of the world. Recently, the Mayan Pyramids came back into the limelight by being named as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.