Mayan temples date back to 300 B.C. and are found in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and the Yucatan Peninsula. Before the Europeans arrived, they were the America’s highest structures. Over the course of the past several centuries, the Mayan temples have been destroyed and rebuilt with some serving as tombs of royalty or burial monuments, even today. Most however were erected as a sacred destination. The temples were often built tall enough that they were the only structures that could be seen from a distance over the surrounding jungles. This done to serve multiple purposes including bringing these sacred destinations as close to the gods they were honoring as possible and serving as a visual guide so people would find their way back to the acropolis in which the temples were located.
The Mayan’s religious and monumental architecture was developed exclusively using the “Mayan arch” system. This system uses two parallel walls which, once a certain height is reached, then use thrust beams to stabilize the formation of a V shaped arch working upwards. At the top of the arch the remaining range is so narrow that engineers can enclose it with a single layer of bricks; but this type of hollow construction caused a large number of problems, starting with a small maximum interior width of only three meters.
The stairs of Mayan temples have no lateral support leading to people believing that temples are higher than they actually are. Cerros contains the first known temple.
The attention to the interior of Mayan temples was always secondary to the elements used externally. Evidence of this can be found throughout areas like Uxmal, Chichen Itza and Tikal – three major Mayan cities which had temples with small building interiors built over by gigantic constructions.
The temples are recognizable for their steep distinctive vertical train, which strives to reach the heavens to better communicate with the gods. The outside of the temple is where the utmost appreciation was laid. Monumental masks, murals and intricate sculpted mosaic facades flanking the stairs made the temples look glorious. For the people of today, these decorations might not be as impressive due to the destruction caused by time and weather. The art found at Temple 33 in Tikal is a great example of the care that was put into the construction of the temples. The visible remains of stone ears on the sides of a finely crafted stucco mask can be seen.
The Temple of the Great Jaguar, located in Tikal City, is a massive 154 feet tall and was built on the eastern side of the Great Plaza sometime around 700 A.D. The temple got its name because of a motif carving located on a lintel. The Mayans’ believed that the jaguar was the symbol for the right of kings. Building this temple was a tribute to that. It consists of three rooms, and nine stepped levels. King Jasaw Chan K’awiil’s tomb was discovered inside a vaulted chamber and his corpse was surrounded by pieces of jade, alabaster, shells, pottery and pearls. His son is buried just 100 yards away under another temple.
The Maya used their temples for various reasons. During ceremonies where sacrifices or bloodletting were performed, people were stretched across large areas. Sacrificial and bloody ceremonies were performed at the foot of and on top of the huge temple.
Many of the Mayan temples archeologists have discovered were found as part of what is known as an acropolis. An acropolis is essentially a settlement or city that contains several structures. These Mayan structures include temples, palaces, and burial chambers.
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