The study of ancient history is made possible by the remains of great civilizations that are now long gone. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and other disciplines work hand in hand to understand the past, knowing very well that it is the key to understanding the present. Thus, the discovery of paintings, artifacts, ruins and other objects that can help decipher antiquity is highly valued. If a shard of pottery can reveal so much about a particular civilization, how much more information can be extracted from huge and well preserved structure for archaeologists and historians?
This is the case with Egyptian and Mayan pyramids that miraculously survived the ravages of time, fairly intact, and offering so much clues to an ancient way of life. The pyramids are modern day tourist attractions but in their heyday were considered as object worthy of veneration and respect, almost the same way as the gods and deified persons that used them. This paper will look into two great civilizations of Egypt and that of the Mayan people. The scope of this study is limited to their use of ancient buildings that are now popularly known as pyramids.
The official site of the National Geographic pointed out that there is a classical view of pyramids. It is the shape commonly associated with the pyramids found in Egypt; a massive structure with a square base and four triangular sides and having a common vertex. The four-sided structure with a pointed top is an image that was brought to the Western world by historians from Greek, and Roman Empire. When Christianity became the dominant religion in the West the idea that the sons of Israel were the ones used to build these colossal structures became part of Christian lore.
Recent historical works however reveal that pyramids come in different shapes and sizes. Even in Egypt the first pyramids built looked more like ziggurats or step pyramids. The “classical” design came later when the Pharaoh’s perfected the technique of building a four triangular sides on top of a square base. The Cheop’s pyramid considered as the greatest pyramid structure in the world is an example of classic design. Indeed, it took some time before ancient builders perfected the art of making high rise structures that began with crude mounds of earth to towering buildings fit for the gods. But once they had learned the secret of building one, the Egyptians went on to make a massive structure fit for a deity such as the Pharaoah Kufu (a.k.a. Cheops).
The Cheops’ pyramid was the largest pyramid ever built. The builders used 2.3 million stone blocks, weighing an average of 2.5 to 15 tons each (see National Geographic.com). The colossal structure serves primarily as the burial chamber of their god-king Khufu and has three burial chambers one believed to be for Khufu’s wife and the other one for Khufu’s sacred statue. The great pyramid was the focal point in an elaborate complex that included several small pyramids and a mortuary temple.
The same concept of a complex built around a major pyramid can be seen in the Mayan pyramid-temples of ancient Americas. The pyramids found in the Mayan civilization are similar to those that can be found in the Middle East. Just like those in Egypt, Mayan pyramids were designed and constructed using sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. This conclusion is based on the fact that the pyramids are constructed in a way that it will align with the stars – in the case of Cheops it was aligned in such a way that it would be pointing to the North Pole. Such accurate calculations before the invention of high-powered telescopes and computers are very impressive.
On the other side of the world, another ancient civilization was building their own version of empire and pyramids. They do not have an Alexander the Great or a Julius Caesar to speak of their existence and splendor but still the same they built a great nation in the American continent long before the time of Columbus.
As mentioned earlier, there is that “classical design” made popular by the movies and historians who had more incentive to investigate Egyptian history as opposed to that of the ancient ruins of the Mayan civilization. But that design evolved from a more simpler earthen mound traditionally used for burying the dead. Thus, to narrow the scope of this study, a comparison will be made between two major pyramids. The Cheops’ pyramid found in Egypt and the Templo Mayor found in the American continent. The Cheops’ pyramid is a fitting representative of the splendor that was Egypt. It was considered as the greatest pyramid in the world.
At this point all similarities between the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids ends. The Egyptian pyramids, no matter how large and imposing are nothing more than very expensive mausoleums. While Mayan pyramids on the other hand are a combination of temple, altar, and observatory for astronomy all rolled into one. This sentiment is taken from a close reading of Carrasco’s work where one can find the following assertions, “The Egyptian pyramids were basically tombs for the pharaohs and their families. While they are magnificent to look at and are monumental in the extreme, they were ritually important as interior architecture and not basically stages for ongoing public rituals” (1998, p. 21).
Carrasco adds that for the Mayan race the emphasis was on the public display of rituals, calendrical cycles, imperial display that goes on and on as long as the sun rises and sets their way of life revolves around this structure. John Armstrong Crow describes how the Mayan people utilized the pyramids to increase religious fervor and he wrote, “…the temple capped the sub-structure and was the culmination of a harmonious series of ascending planes, calculated to increase the illusion of height by emphasizing the effects of mechanical perspective. When a great religious procession ascended the stairs of a temple the effect must have been stupendous, for the spectators below were conscious only of the massive ascent disappearing into space” (1992, p. 58).
Indeed, the Mayan pyramids are at the center of religious life in the ancient lands of the Mayan people. But it is not simply a place to offer prayers, incense or even animal sacrifice; its purpose is for a more gruesome task and it is to shed the blood of humans in order to offer it to their gods. This maybe the reason why the Spaniards who later came to conquer this part of the Americas will not give them so much as a leeway in the transition from their old religion to that of their conquerors. The brutality of the human sacrifice will be explained much further in the following pages. According to Michael Smith, the fundamental idea of Aztec religion was that the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind can live a better life and he adds:
In one myth the gods threw themselves into a huge fire to crate the the sun; in another they spilled their own blood to create people. These myths established a debtor relationship between humankind and the gods – a debt that could be repaid only through offerings of human blood and life. Human sacrifice and bloodletting, also known as auto-sacrifice, were primary forms of ritual…” (2003, p. 192).
With this belief deeply ingrained in their psyche the need to satisfy their gods is a very powerful force that dictates the way they should live their lives. It is hard to imagine priests plunging crude flint knives into the chest of unwilling victims. And then after the lethal blow the priest practiced in the art of human sacrifice expertly plunge his hands into the chest cavity and pulls out the heart. After offering it to their gods the still beating muscle is discarded just as mindlessly as the now decapitated body of the sacrifice.
In the study of ancient history, the discovery of the pyramids, especially those that can be found in the Mayan world of antiquity is a tremendous source of information. These superstructures obviously offer more information than a hundreds of broken shards of pottery. These structures, which are well preserved is very helpful in providing a window to the past as compared to mere ruins of ancient civilizations. The discovery of pyramids in the ancient American continent is very crucial in understanding how ancient people think and behave. It is now clear that ancient men and women do not have inferior intellect. In fact, the modern mind cannot find easy answers to the question of how they were able to build these massive structures without the use of heavy equipment and other sophisticated machines.
Furthermore, they are not only expert builders and have more than enough knowledge of advanced engineering principles they are also well-educated in the science of astronomy. This people made it possible for modern day inhabitants of this planet to enjoy the use of clocks and calendars. It is now easier to read the seasons, lunar/solar equinoxes etc. because of their pioneering efforts. This leads to the next realization that pyramids are not only centers of religious activities but also served as ancient observatories that allowed the priests to study constellations and the movement of the earth.
This of course leads to another conclusion that the priests are not only religious men versed in the spiritual language of their day but they are also expert mathematicians and gifted astronomers. In order to fully appreciate their talent one has to get an in-depth analysis of the design and lay-out of the pyramid complex which according to some resemble the ordered layout of the solar system.
But more importantly the pyramids are the main conduit between the physical real and the spiritual. In the ancient world, high-rise structures fire up the imagination of their poets, builders, holy men, and national leaders. A high-rise structure is not only a testament to great engineering techniques and admirable building skills, it also an expression of piety towards their gods who live in the heavens. Thus, in order to approach them or in order to be closer to them pyramids must be built to offer the human spirit and human body to the all powerful being living above the earth.
There are areas in the planet that boasts of amazing pyramid structures. In both places one can observe well preserved buildings from antiquity rising more than a hundred feet from the ground. These structures play an important role in both Egyptian and Mayan civilizations. But both nations differ in their usage of pyramids. The above-mentioned discussion was able to show that the pyramids in the old Mayan Civilization had far more uses for their pyramids as compared
It is through their usage of the pyramid that can help people in the modern world understand what these ancients value most. With regards to the Egyptians use of an expensive structure to bury a dead ruler speaks volumes of what they believe will happen to the Pharaoh in the after life. The Egyptian rulers are convinced that they will rule again on the other side as Osiris King of the Dead.
On the other side of the world, the Aztecs utilize their pyramid in a different way. The pyramids found in the Americas are used for human sacrifices. And again this practice is rooted in their religious belief that they owe their lives to their gods. But instead of living a strict moral code to please their gods, they instead sacrificed others – preferably their enemies or members of neighboring tribes – to show their piety to their warrior-god. This study made it clear that the Egyptians do not have a monopoly to the engineering techniques necessary to build high-rise structures. It is also made clear that the design of the pyramids and its use depended much on the religious beliefs of the ancients.
It is just unfortunate that even with all the scholarly work and effort poured into the analysis of both Egyptian and Mayan civilizations there is still no easy answer to the question on how exactly did the ancients constructed a complicated structure with very limited resources. In the case of the Mayan pyramids the mystery is not only in the construction of their magnificent pyramid-temples and their knowledge of astronomy it is also the question on why they suddenly disappeared, leaving a majestic city in ruins. It is good to know that the remains of these two civilizations are here to stay and that the next generation of archaeologists and scientists are welcome to probe the secrets of the pyramids once again.
Carrasco, D. (1998). Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth. Westport, CT:
Crow, J.A. (1992). The Epic of Latin America. CA: University of California Press.
Dupre, J. (2002). From Pyramids to Skycrapers: Building in the Americas. New York:
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National Geographic. Introduction to Pyramids. Available from:
<http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pyramids/pyramids.html> Retrieved 10 December
Smith, M. (2003). The Aztecs. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Zuravicky, O. (2004). Exploring Pyramids Around the World. New York: The Rosen Publishing