Friday, 13 June 2008 00:16

Mayan Temples

Written by  Alexis
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How does one differentiate between “Mayan Temples” and “Mayan Ruins”? Temples and Ruins in modern language have always been mistaken for each other. But in fact, temples are specific structures within a collection of ruins:a part of a whole. Temples where considered the sacred structures where the Kings made important decisions, politicos and philosophers congregated, and structures that were built as homage for the gods.

Notable Mayan Temples include the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, Temple I in Tikal, the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, and the Coba Temple in Coba. These temples had distinct functions and applications that, contrary to popular belief, had little to do with tombs and religious ceremony. The following is an account of the function of temples to shed light on the difference between Mayan ruins and Temples.

The Temple of Kukulkan


The Mayan Temple of Kulkulkan was constructed in Chichen Itza to revere the agricultural fertility feathered-snake god during the spring equinox. The phenomenon could still be seen as the Mayan temple of Kukulkan- although some reconstruction has taken place- has remained in almost perfect condition. During the special day, the sun’s rays shine over the edges of the temple’s 364 steps in such a way that isosceles of light and shadow compose the shape of a serpent. As the day wares on, this remarkable image descends, mimicking the slithering down of a snake. At the bottom of the Temple a statue head of a serpent (the head of Kukulkan) completes the decent, at which point, according to Mayan legend, the grounds are fertilized and renewed for the year.

The Temple I at Tikal

Tikal’s monument temple derived its name, well, literally from a lack of historical information. What is known about the temple, other than the incredible views of the Mayan jungle it provides tourists, is that it was the most important pyramid in Tikal. This theory, according to Mayan historians derives from accounts of inter-civilization, or settlement battles within the Mayan region. Temple I, according to the most popular theories, was a place of warship, above all other function possibilities.


The Mayan Temple of Inscriptions

The Temple of Inscriptions is one of one of Palenque’s most studied Temple. It contains the second largest inscriptions of hieroglyphics in the Mayan world; second only to Copan. What is most interesting about this Mayan Temple is that it is the only temple that contains a tomb, or sarcophagus. Unlike the ancient pyramids of Egypt, which traditionally contained the sarcophagi of its kings, the Mayan temples and pyramids often did not. The anomaly is suggested to be due to the fact that proprietor of the sarcophagus, Pakal the Great, who in fact had the greatest influence over Palenque, founding almost the entirety of incredible Mayan plaza, including the technologically advanced “Governor’s Palace”.


In conclusion temples were created as a specific kind of pyramid in ancient Maya, or Mayan, culture. Their specific purpose varied from ancient Mayan settlement to settlement, some cultures creating them as a passageway between the heavens and earth as was the case with the Temple of Kulkulcan. Very few, if other than Palenque’s Temple of Inscription housed a tomb of one of their leaders. There is no clear explanation for why the Maya did not traditionally erect pyramids for their Kings as did the Egyptians. Cultural differences in religion are most probable but vague. This is not to say that it did not happen more often than we know. One of the great mysteries of the Maya is, in fact, how little we know about their vast and dynamic civilization as a whole. Temple I in Tikal epitomizes this point as it showcases the little knowledge we have of even the buildings, naming it a number rather than a proper name due to, well, lack of documentation. Much of this has to do with the destruction hieroglyphics by the Spanish Conquistadors and the erosion of the stone. Many of them have actually been buried over time, as with the case of Copan, where more than three-quarters of the city is in fact still buried. Other sites in the surrounding region are in the same conditions; under soil and vegetation. But for whatever it’s worth, it is important to know that the Maya, diverse and incredibly important to the ancient history that ultimately comprises modern day humans, differentiated between Temples and general pyramids.

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