Civilizations like the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and Inca all built pyramids to house their deities, as well as to bury their kings. In many of their great city-states, temple-pyramids formed the center of public life and were the site of holy rituals, including human sacrifice. The best known Latin American pyramids include the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán in central Mexico, the Castillo at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan, the Great Pyramid in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Pyramid at Cholula and the Inca’s great temple at Cuzco in Peru.
The rhythm of mathematics and geometry dance with shadows of light in one of the most impressive and symbolic edifices of time, El Castillo or The Temple of Kukulkan, which, partnered with the sun, reflects the Equinoxes and Solstices of our solar year with outstanding precision in worship to the god Kukulkan (the feather serpent). It is an amazing feat in combination of both astronomy and architecture.
The structure incorporates four sides, each containing 91 steps that ascend to a top platform, giving a total of 365 steps. On the days of Spring and Fall Equinoxes, the sun falls exactly on the corner of the pyramid, leaving one side in darkness and one in light. It is most famous for a phenomena that takes place during vernal and autumnal Equinoxes when the sunlight reflects upon the steps creating seven isosceles triangles that imitate the body of a 120-foot snake slithering downward to join the serpent head at the base.
El Castillo temple in Chichen Itza archaeological site in Tinum
Equinox at Chichen Itza.
The main attraction of Chichen Itza is Kukulkan, which has also been given another name by the locals, El Castillo. The Temple of Kukulkan stands at 75 feet and was meant to help the Mayans with their astrological endeavors.
The feathered serpent god, whom the ancient Mayans called Kukulkan, was a prominent deity worshipped by a majority of Mesoamerican people. The Mayans believed that Kukulkan had a human form as well. The feathered serpent god was one out of the three main gods that the Mayan believed created the world. It was thought at the time that Kukulkan showed the Mesoamerican people how to cultivate, how to run an entire civilization and how to make medicine to cure and treat injuries and disease.
The temple of Kukulkan was built by the Toltecs; they created another temple on top of Kukulkan, which was made by the Mayans. Inside the main temple, you will find another temple, which has steps on one side, created by the Mayans of the classical era. Toltecs had a considerable influence on architecture, they built the pyramids with four sides. The Toltecs originated from central Mexico and conquered Mayan inhabited areas in the Yucatan Peninsula, however, most of them also mixed with the Mayans in the post classical era.
Mesoamerican peoples built pyramids from around 1000 B.C. up until the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. (Egyptian pyramids are much older than American ones; the earliest Egyptian pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser, was built in the 27 century BC). The earliest known pyramid in the Americas stands at La Venta in Tabasco, Mexico. Built by the Olmecs, the first major Mesoamerican civilization (a group famous for other firsts, like chocolate and the use of for sports), the pyramid dates to between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. American pyramids were generally built of earth and then faced with stone, typically in a stepped, or layered, shape topped by a platform or temple structure. They are often referred to as “stepped pyramids.”
The most famous single pyramid in Latin America is the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, Mexico. The Teotihuacán was one of the most dominant societies in Mesoamerica; their namesake capital, located northeast of today’s Mexico City, had a population of 100,000 to 200,000 during the fifth and sixth centuries. According to Aztec tradition, the sun and the moon, as well as the rest of the universe, traced their origins to Teotihuacán. More temples have been discovered there than in any other Mesoamerican city.
The Maya, another dominant civilization of Mesoamerica, made temple-pyramids the glorious centers of their great stone cities. One of the most famous, the magnificently carved Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Mexico), was a funerary monument to the seventh century king Hanab Pakal. The tallest Maya pyramid, located in Tikal, Guatemala, dates to the eighth century A.D., before the civilization’s mysterious decline. Another Maya monument, built in the ninth and 10th centuries A.D., is at the center of the city of Uxmal in the Yucatan. Known as the Pyramid of the Magician or Sorcerer, it was (according to Maya legend) built by the god of magic, Itzamná, as a training center for shamans, healers and priests.
The Maya city of Chichén Itzá contains the Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan (“feathered serpent,” the Maya equivalent of Quetzalcoatl). Constructed around A.D. 1100, the 180-square-foot Castillo was constructed over another temple-pyramid built 100 years earlier. Its four stairways have 91 steps each, which combined with the single step at the entrance to the temple adds up to 365 stairs exactly–the number of days in the Mayan year. (The Maya had a complex astronomical and cosmological system, and often angled their ceremonial buildings, like pyramids, so that they would face sunrise or sunset at particular times of the year.)
The Aztecs, who lived in the Mexican valley between the 12th and 16th centuries, also built pyramids in order to house and honor their deities. The elaborate nature of Aztec pyramids and other architecture was also connected to the Aztec’s warrior culture: The Aztec symbol for conquest was a burning pyramid, with a conqueror destroying the temple at its top. Tenochtitlan, the great Aztec capital, housed the Great Pyramid, a four-stepped structure some 60 meters high. At its top, two shrines honored Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of sun and war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and fertility. The Great Pyramid was destroyed along with the rest of the Aztec civilization by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his army in 1521. Underneath its ruins, the remains of six earlier pyramids were later found, evidence of the constant rebuilding process common to the Mesoamerican pyramids.
The Aztecs, who probably originated as a nomadic tribe in northern Mexico, arrived in Mesoamerica around the beginning of the 13th century. From their magnificent capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century. Invaders led by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztec Empire by force and captured Tenochtitlan in 1521, bringing an end to Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.
The Aztec faith shared many aspects with other Mesoamerican religions, like that of the Maya, notably including the rite of human sacrifice. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples, palaces, plazas and statues embodied the civilization’s unfailing devotion to the many Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli (god of war and of the sun) and Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a Toltec god who served many important roles in the Aztec faith over the years. The Great Temple, or Templo Mayor, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the rain god.