Made Up of Time

Mayan Architecture
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Mayan cities were ceremonial sites, not commercial centers or fortresses. The ancient Mayan seemed to have been unwarlike: none of their cities were fortified, and their art lacked the gruesome fierceness of the northern tribes, such as the Toltec. Their cities were connected by ceremonial roads called sacbes, now generally overgrown. Because so much Mayan culture, particularly religious ritual and writing, was lost, many of the uses of the awesome structures in Mayan ruins are unknown. But even though their ancient use may be unknown, different sites had similar structures. The principle structures you can see are pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and wells.

Pyramids are the most recognizable Mayan structure. They basic function seemed to be a raised platform for an altar. Some pyramids seemed to have an astronomical use as well.

Palaces are the mysterious structures. They were multi-storied, multi-room buildings, frequently on raised platforms much like the pyramids. If they were domiciles, they would have been most uncomfortable, lacking cooking and sanitary facilities. If they were offices, the Mayans had an unlikely huge level of bureaucracy.

Ball courts were the playing ground for a game that was like basketball meets rugby meets Bluebeard. On a playing ground about the size of a football field, two teams would try to keep a hard rubber ball in the air using their feet, hips, heads -- anything but their hands. The object was to put the ball through a stone hoop. Some people speculate that at some very important games, the losing team would be sacrificed.

Cenotes were the lifeblood of the Mayan community. The Yucatan Peninsula, which was an important Mayan center, is a flat limestone mesa. Instead of running off into rivers, rain seeps right through the porous limestone and is trapped by the harder, insolvent bedrock below. The wells formed by this process were called cenote. A cenote is like an oasis in the rainforest, the thing that made established settlement possible.

The greatest concentration of ruins is in Mexico, but don't overlook the ruins in other countries. Tikal in Guatemala is probably the best restored example of classical Mayan style. But Altun Ha, a ceremonial center in Belize, and Copan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Honduras, also offer rich experiences of classical Mayan cities.

When you visit these sites, keep your senses open, both to what seems vanished in time and to what is still alive and vibrant. As well as the Mayan culture, the Mayan natural environment has endured. The rainforests of Mexico and Central America are among the most biotically diverse in the planet. The birds, animals, and plants that the old Mayan lived with are, for the most part, holding on. Schedule time to spend with the non-human life of the area. They can probably tell you a thing or two about those crazy old stonecutters.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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