The Maya City

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

The Maya City

  1. What are some common features of Maya cities?
  2. What was the purpose of a Maya stelae?
  3. Compare and contrast the Maya city of Uxmal to your own city or town.

Maya Cities served the specialized roles of administration, commerce, manufacturing and religion that characterize ancient cities worldwide.  Cities tended to be located in places that controlled trade routes or that could supply essential products.  This allowed the elites that controlled trade to increase their wealth and status.  Such cities were able to construct temples for public ceremonies, thus attracting further inhabitants to the city. Those cities that had favorable conditions for food production, combined with access to trade routes, were likely to develop into the capital cities of early Maya states.

The great pyramid at Uxmal, like many other pyramids in the Maya world, was essentially a gigantic throne for the king who sat in the small alcove near the top, surrounded by carved jaguars and other symbols of his power. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

In contrast to the Aztec or the Inca – or for that matter, the ancient Romans – there was no single Maya empire.  The political relationship between Classic Maya city-states has been likened to the relationships between city-states in Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy Some cities were linked to each other by straight limestone causeways, known as sacbeob, although whether the exact function of these roads was commercial, political or religious has not been determined.

A stelae which once proclaimed for all time the great deeds of a king, somewhat disfigured with age, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida. (Merida, Mexico, 2017.)

Maya cities usually had a ceremonial and administrative center surrounded by a vast irregular sprawl of residential complexes. The centers of all Maya cities featured sacred precincts, sometimes separated from nearby residential areas by walls.  These precincts contained pyramid temples, large thrones that were essentially pyramids from which kings could survey their domain, and other monumental architecture dedicated to elite activities such as stelae – essentially stone billboards raised to glorify the king and record his deeds.  Most Maya stelae and temples were probably brightly painted in red, yellow, black, blue and other colors.

City centers also featured plazas, sacred ballcourts, and buildings used for marketplaces and schools.  Most Maya cities tended to grow outwards from the core, and upwards as new structures were superimposed upon preceding architecture.

With the exception of their central cores and in contrast to other Mesoamerican cultures (like Teotihuican or the Mexica), Maya cities show little evidence of formal planning and were subject to irregular expansion, with the haphazard addition of palaces, temples and other buildings.

Image result for uxmal map
The ceremonial center at Uxmal, one of the better preserved of the large Maya cities, located in modern Mexico.
Uxmal as it appears from the top of the Great Pyramid. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)


  1. What were the primary construction materials used in Maya ceremonial centers?  In the homes of commoners?  
  2. What limited the height and interior dimensions of rooms with stone roofs?
  3. Why didn’t the Maya use animals like oxen or horses to transport building materials for their great construction projects?
Throughout most of their history, the Maya would have used Neolithic-style stone weapons and tools like these. (Merida, Mexico, 2017.)

Throughout their history, the Maya built their cities with Neolithic technology using no metal tools; using both perishable materials and from stone. The exact type of stone used varied according to locally available resources, but across a broad swathe of the Maya area, this meant limestone was the main medium of construction for the most impressive Maya structures.  In the Yucatan, the local limestone is relatively soft when freshly cut, but hardens with exposure.

Limestone was burned at high temperatures in order to manufacture cement, plaster, and stucco. Lime-based cement was used to seal stonework in place, and stone blocks were fashioned using rope-and-water abrasion (a rope dragged back and forth like a saw), and with obsidian tools. The Maya did not employ a functional wheel and in any event, there were no pack animals in Pre-Columbian America capable of helping humans to move large burdens, so all loads were transported on litters, barges, or rolled on logs. Heavy loads were lifted with rope, but probably without employing pulleys.

Basic structure of a corbel arch employed throughout the Maya world.  The weight of  the stone at the top pushes outward on the middle portions of the structure, requiring stone supports outside of the arch to keep it from collapsing.

Stone roofs and doorways were created using the corbel arch – constructed by offsetting successive courses of stone so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway (often, the last gap is bridged with a flat stone).  Corbel arches and vaults require significantly thickened walls and an abutment of other stone or fill to counteract the effects of gravity, which otherwise would tend to collapse each side of the archway inwards – meaning that the interior spaces of Maya temples and pyramids tended to be fairly small.

The corbel arch employed in the city of Uxmal.  Notice the large mass of stone required on either side to support the structure. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

Wood was used for beams, and for lintels, even in masonry structures. Throughout Maya history, common huts were built from wooden poles and thatch.

Ball Courts

  1. What were the basic rules of the ballgame?
  2. Why was the ballgame so important in the Maya world?
  3. What similar roles do sports play in your own culture?  How are they different?
Image result for maya ball game
The ball court at Chichen Itza as it must have appeared some 1000 years ago.

As an integral aspect of the Mesoamerican lifestyle, the courts for their ritual ballgame were constructed throughout the Maya realm, often on a grand scale. The playing alleys of ball courts were defined by two long walls. Courts built earlier in Maya history (as at Cobá) had sloped sides, while ones built later (as at Chichén Itzá) had vertical sides. Frequently, the ends were enclosed so as to create an I, heavily serifed.png-shaped court when viewed from above.  The ball court itself was a focal point of Maya cities and symbolized the city’s wealth and power.

The ball court at Chichen Itza as it appears today. (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2017.)

When the Maya played games in the ball courts, the ball was made of solid rubber and was sometimes as much as a foot in diameter. It was passed between teams ranged on opposite ends of the court. The players could hit it only with their knees or hips, much like football or soccer today. Points could be scored when the opponents failed to return the ball correctly.

Ballgame scene, from a ceramic Maya vase.

The rules seem to have changed over the centuries. Certainly two teams played against each other. The number of players varied between 2 and 6 players per team. Sometimes, an additional person is seen in the illustrations, who is believed to be a referee. The ball was put in motion by action of the right hip, the right elbow and the right knee and was not permitted to touch the ground. It could be passed from person to person in each

A stone ring on the ball court at Chichen Itza, some ten feet overhead. (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2017.)

team by propulsion by one of the above body parts. The aim was to move the ball back to the opposite team, preferably through the ring. The goal of the opposition (what today might be termed ‘the defense’) was to force the offense to lose control and to allow the ball to touch the ground. The stone ring was an innovation of the late-classic and early post-classic periods, as seen in Chichen Itza and in Uxmal. Playing the ball off the border wall could intensify the game. The ricochet of the ball could hardly be anticipated, especially if the walls were uneven.

Image result for maya ballgame xcaret
A player relies on hips and thighs to move the ball around the court.

The Maya ball game originated more than 3,000 years ago. The Popol Vuh, a Maya epic in the vein of The Odyssey from Greece, describes a conflict of the forces of darkness and light. By tradition, the twin brothers, Hun Hunaphu and Xbalanque – the stars of the Popol Vuh, known sometimes as the Hero Twins – used their time on earth to play ball. The noise of their play aroused the anger of Vucub Came, the master of the underworld. A fight ensued, from which resulted the form of the ball game as the Maya played it. In the course of the contest, one of the brothers was decapitated and his head was used as the game ball.  From the decapitated trunk of the player, blood escaped in the form of snakes. This blood was interpreted as a symbol of fertility. This scene is depicted in reliefs on the walls of the ball court at Chichen Itza, the largest playing field in the Americas at the time.

Engraving in the great ball court at Chichen Itza depicting sacrifice by decapitation. On the bottom left, note the severed head of the figure on right. His torso spouts blood in the form of serpents from his neck. (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2017.)

The Maya ballgame was more than just an athletic event. It was also a sacrificial and religious event. The Maya believed that it was necessary to play the game for their own survival. The ballgame provided an opportunity to show devoutness to the gods by sacrificing captured kings and high lords, or the losing opponents of the game.

The Popol Vuh: The Mayan Creation Story

For the Maya, the ballgame was based on their creation story called the Popol Vuh. This legend set the stage for the cycle of life, death and rebirth that was central to Mayan everyday life – and the ballgame. 
The first ballplayers are created: 
The gods who created the earth and its inhabitants were also ballplayers. The gods had some difficulty making humans, but finally achieved success with two brothers, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu. Like their creators, the brothers loved to play ball. They played so often that the bouncing rubber ball disturbed the gods who lived in the Underworld of Xibalba.
A trap is set:
To stop the noisy ballplayers, the Lords of Xibalba decided to trap the brothers. They invited Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu to a game. The boys were killed and buried in the ballcourt. As a final insult, the head of Hun Hunahpu was displayed in a tree.
A goddess must flee:
When an Underworld goddess named Xquic approached the tree, the head of Hun Hunahpu spat in her hand. She became pregnant, and was forced to leave the Underworld. Now living on earth, Xquic gave birth to twins who she named Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
The twins become heroes:
Half-god and half-human, the twins grew into greater ballplayers than their fathers, once again disturbing the Lords of Xibalba. The angry Lords made several attempts to trick and kill the twins, but the boys escaped every time. The twins recover the bodies of their father and uncle, placing them in the sky as the sun and the moon. Hunahpu and Xbalanque become known as the Hero Twins, the greatest ballplayers in Mesoamerican history.
Source: www,

Read more on this subject -> The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization  ◦ The Ancient Maya in Time and Space  ◦  Ancient Maya Society  ◦  The Maya City  ◦  The Written Language of the Maya


  1. Use this dictionary to write a short poem in the Maya script, using at least a dozen glyphs.  Does composing in Mayan effect the experience of writing and reading?
  2. The Popol Vuh is one of the few remaining Maya stories dating to before the Spanish conquest.  It was originally preserved through oral tradition throughout the Maya world until approximately 1550 when it was written down.  The Popol Vuh includes the Mayan creation myth, beginning with the exploits of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.  Read some of an English translation of the Popol Vuh, then choose a scene to reenact in a 3-5 minute skit or video in front of your class.
  3. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the 16th century Spanish conquistadors and the 21st century Taliban.
  4. Research the Caste War of Yucatán, which occurred in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the nineteenth century.  Take inspiration from the form and style of the Dresden Codex to tell the story of this late period Maya resistance.
  5. Choose any section from this unit and develop a lesson – in the form of a presentation, a storybook, or a worksheet – that teaches younger students about the Maya.  Make sure the material is age appropriate in content and approach, and create some simple questions to check your audience’s understanding.

Further Reading

The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe.

Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

Uxmal is one of the most stunning sets of ruins in the world. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

A Guided Tour of Maya Mexico, 2017 – Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Supplementary photos and information on the Yucatan, past and present.