In the global world of today with air and other speedy forms of travel it may be easy to imagine two similar types of structures created in two distinctly different parts of the earth far apart from each other and separated in time by many centuries. However to students of ancient history and culture the existence of pyramids in Egypt and Central America will always remain a subject of great interest providing insights into larger facets of human civilization in the pre classic age and beyond. The Mayan and Egyptian pyramids not just signified a difference in architecture but also a variation in civilization forms and human development over the ages. The rationale for the gigantic structures is also evident so as to be visible from afar reminding the people that the king and the God were always close to them and watching all their activities. A comparison of the pyramids of Maya and Egypt would also provide a deeper understanding of the processes of human evolution and culture.
Comparison Mayan and Egyptian Pyramids
The pyramid is generally referred to the geometric shape of the structure built as a resting abode for gods and departed kings in Egyptian and Mayan cultures. While each is separated in time by over 2500 years, there are many distinguishing features of pyramids which denote evolution of mankind. The Egyptian pyramids preceded the Mayan structures by many centuries. These are said to have been built as early as 26th Century BC. (Hawas. Mubarak, 2003). On the other hand the Mayan structures came relatively later. The most famous of the Egyptian pyramids are said to have been built after 2900 BC. Thus the pyramid of Khufu was said to have been probably constructed somewhere between 2900 and 2877 BC. On the other hand that of Khafre was constructed somewhere around 2850 BC while Menkure is regarded as been built even later in 2800 BC.
While the Mayan civilization itself has its origin going back to 2500 BC, the evolution of the pyramids is seen in the later part around 250 AD. This civilization spread in a wide area of Central America touching Mexico, Guatemala and the Honduras. The Mayan civilization is said to have gained ascendancy when most other parts of the World and particularly the developed parts today as Europe were still considered in the Dark Ages. The Mayan civilization culminating in settled communities is said to have formed starting with fired clay and pottery gradually leading to sedentary settlements in the Pre Classic period. (Coe, 1999).
The excavated sites of the Mayan pyramids include Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala. Pyramids are also found in Lamanai in Belize as well as Copan in the Honduras. (Coe, 1999) The Egyptian pyramids however are not seen all along the Nile delta but are relatively restricted to a smaller area. (Hawas. Mubarak, 2003). The Mayan pyramids are relatively recent constructions. The Jaguar is of 700 AD vintage while the Temple of Masks is said to be of 699 AD era.
Not withstanding the same there are many facets of convergence as well as difference between the two. Denoting the similarities first, the form of both structures is reasonably similar what is now geometrically designated as a pyramid. Architecturally this is accepted as a sound form of structure and thus may have been evolved by designers of those times.
A detailed review of the structure would also indicate some major differences. The key difference which is apparent even by a cursory examination is that of size. The Egyptian pyramids were imposing structures, the largest, the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is said to have been over 481 feet high though at present a portion of the top has disintegrated. (Hawas. Mubarak, 2003) While the Mayan pyramids are considerably smaller, though not less gigantic. The pyramids had four sides, each tapering upwards into conical tops in the case of the Egyptian while relatively flatter apex in the Mayan case. The Egyptian pyramids had a smooth surface; the Mayan structures on the other hand are distinguished by serrations and protrusions which can assist people to climb these easily. (Lelmer, 1997) Thus it is clear that both structures had an objective of worship as well as utility.
This is also evident with the purpose for which these were designed. The Egyptian pyramid was principally a tomb. There was a temple which was attached to the tomb but as a distinctly separate entity. The Mayan pyramids on the other hand are a combination of temples and tombs. Thus they have steps for people to climb and also in many cases stairways. In quite a few Mayan pyramids there was a flat top on which ceremonial functions could be held. While the Egyptian pyramids were designed mainly as a ceremonial resting place for ancestral monarchs.
The geographic surroundings of these structures are significantly varied and perhaps indicated the external as well as internal design. The Egyptian pyramids are located in the Nile river Valley relatively devoid of dense forest cover whereas the Mayan structures were in areas with thick foliage. The smooth surface of the pyramids of the Nile would have been designed to weather the sand storms of the relatively barren landscape. On the other hand the pyramids of Maya also acted as a navigational aid for travelers denoting to them a place for resting near by. Thus these could be said to have great utility in ancient times.
Another variation which distinctly brings out the periods between the two structures is denoted by the form of construction. While Egyptian pyramids are made of huge blocks of rough stones which have been placed on top of each other and do not necessarily require any cutting and fine implements for laying, the Mayan pyramids denote that some type of tools, say chert could have been used in the construction. Such tools can work on lime stone which is the basic material with which the pyramids have been constructed. However the Egyptians were not totally devoid of the art of construction and seem to have good knowledge of the basics such as stone laying, shaping of blocks and their structural soundness. The most significant facet of the construction is sealing. The pyramids were so effectively sealed that it was much later that these were broken into mainly by robbers to steal precious items which were placed inside. (Lelmer, 1997). The Mayan pyramids are never sealed and these had free access especially for priests and probably some special devotees. However pyramids of Mayan periods were also subject to thefts as much as the Egyptians due to placing valuables as precious stones inside the structures.
The interior of an Egyptian pyramid is also fairly elaborate. This provided comfortable quarters for the pharaohs requirements even when laid to rest as a mummy and also indicated areas for exit of the soul. The Mayan pyramids also provided ideal place of burial for great kings and rulers like the Jaguar who was also offered many items of jewelry and other precious stones. These temple pyramids comprised of more than one room which are likely to have been used for performance of various ceremonies by the Mayans.
The Mayan pyramids had a dual purpose; one was for carrying out rituals including those of sacrifice, while the other was for worship. Based on the function the construction was designed. Thus the pyramid for worship did not have any facility for climbing and was only meant to be touched. The Egyptians on the other hand had a unique purpose for their pyramids which were to be resting places for kings who were mummified after death. These were supposed to provide an abode for the spirit to leave the body and take rebirth. This also affected the manner in which the structures were adorned.
Correlation with Culture
Examination of the design and construction of the pyramids most significantly indicates the variation in cultures. The Egyptian culture of ancient times indicated a powerful belief in life after birth. This led to the structure of the pyramids being hollow inside and containing all the riches and belongings placed by the Pharaohs to fulfill the needs of their after life. As the people also respected the Pharaohs as demi gods, they permitted them to stock the pyramids and even contributed precious jewelry and objects of art. Some of these had a distinct role in the religious rituals which the Pharaoh was designated to perform on behalf of the people. The pyramids in Egypt also contained jars and receptacles which were meant as offering to Gods as well as catered for the Pharaohs after life.
Another key distinction between the two cultures in relation to the pyramids is Egyptian tradition of mummification or embalming remains of the body before placing inside the pyramid. In Mayan era, no such practice is evident. This may have had some relation to the climate of the location, as humidity in Central America would have prevented preservation for long periods. Moreover since the Mayans were not overly concerned about after life, there is no possibility of the process of mummification having taken roots in their culture. The pyramids with the temple on top thus signified that these were abodes of Gods or great kings of the past.
The Mayan pyramids also had religious overtones. The pyramids were built invariably in the honor of gods and the king who represented the people. Thus these are temples and unlike the Egyptian pyramid not burial places for kings. This perception also indicates the wide variation in period in which the tombs of Egypt and Maya were built. Given the vast differential in time of many thousands of centuries, it was possible that the belief in after life in people had been considerably reduced given the spiritual evolution of man. Nonetheless the pyramids signified in some ways an offering to God in both the cultures.
The construction of the pyramids as a rising monument also indicates in some ways an attempt to reach for the skies. This is evident in both cultures. While in the Egyptian pyramid having a smooth surface, the rising was only symbolic; in the Mayan structure the staircases which were formed on the pyramid more than indicate that it was meant to be a pathway to heaven or towards the God. The top of the Egyptian pyramids is said to have been embellished with gold thereby denoting a superior offering to God as well as covering the resting place of the pharaoh with a precious metal. The Mayan pyramid has in most cases a temple on top thus the concept may remain the same, but there was a distinct architectural variation.
The placing of a shrine on top of the pyramid also indicated that the Mayans desired that there should be common access to these structures. In some ways it also denotes a distinct phase of human evolution. The society in Mayan times had perhaps become more egalitarian as the years passed by thus granting access to places of high religious significance as the pyramids to the masses. On the other hand set some 2000 years before, the Egyptians denoted that it was only the pharaohs who would have access to the pyramids as the king alone was considered to be closer to God. One way of interpretation is also that the Pharaoh had the divine right to communicate with God and thus access to the highest structure on top.
Some interpret the building of tombs as a sign of over involvement of the people with the ritual of death. This is evident from the elaborate preparations made for resting of the pharaohs in Egypt as well as the kings in Mayan times. This however may not be a correct interpretation. The resplendent surroundings in which kings were laid to rest signified that even in death these will continue to have all the needs of the times. In the case of Egyptians, being symbols of rebirth, there are strong grounds to believe that the aim of adorning and stocking the pyramids with food and treasures was to provide maximum succor to the soul after rebirth.
The highly developed form of architecture in ancient times is perhaps the most significant information that can be derived from construction of pyramids in both the cultures. That man was enterprising enough to be able to sustain construction and development of the pyramids was a singular and unique feature of the times. (Lelmer, 1997). The construction also signifies not just proficiency in architecture but highly developed skills in other sciences such as mathematics, writing and preservation. These essential facets of ancient cultures of Egypt as well as Maya periods is frequently ignored while focusing on their ritualistic proclivities and spiritual customs which though unique were supported by a development in sciences.
Another significant deduction arising from construction of the pyramids in both the civilizations was that the gigantic structures represented high points in prosperity as well as development. These were as much monuments to the power and well being of the state and the kings as symbols of divinity. Thus a study of these monuments also distinctly provides a view of the development of the civilizations in the particular periods of time.
1. Coe, Michael D. (1999). The Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson
2. Hawas, Zahi. Mubarak, Suzanne H. E. (2003) The Treasures of the Pyramids.
Cairo : American University in Cairo Press.
3. Lelmer, Mark. (1997). The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries. London : Thames & Hudson.