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Influence of Religion: Mayan and Egyptian Pyramids

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Religion is just one of the many influences on architecture throughout history. The need for religion to be reflected in architecture drove innovation and inspired many different styles. It is fascinating to learn that religions separated by miles, even oceans, developed their architecture in similar fashions. This similarity can be seen in the pyramids found in Egypt and Mesoamerica. This essay will discuss the influence religion had on the construction of Mayan and Egyptian Pyramids.

In both Egypt and Mesoamerica, pyramids had a strong connection to their culture and the afterlife. The Egyptian pyramid complexes represented the rebirth of the king ‘up to eternal life in the sky.’ These complexes were built with the intention of helping the king pass on to the next world. Mayan pyramids were built in nine levels to represent the nine levels of the Mayan underworld visible in Fig 1b. Similarly, Egyptian pyramids are often related to the idea of a stairway to heaven. Ancient Egypt is studied from 3100 BCE to 641 CE while Mesoamerica is studied from 500 CE to 1521 CE. There is such a small overlap between the two cultures, which is fascinating when looking at their similarities.

From what remains of Egyptian pyramids during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom (3100 – 2150 BCE), they appear to be uniformly constructed, with four identical sides, minus the entrance. The very top stone of the pyramid was believed to be the king’s eye, from which he could look over his kingdom. Inside the pyramids, there were boats for the king’s journey into the afterlife as well as ‘airshafts’ that led outside. This is an example of the integration of the religious beliefs of the Egyptians and the purpose of the pyramids. The pyramids were both meant to help the king in the afterlife as well as give them a connection to the earthly plane.

In contrast, the Mayan pyramids have two religious connections. Like the Egyptians, the Mayans used pyramids as funerary spaces. However, the Mayan’s constructed their pyramids to mimic the mountain landscape. The altepetl, also known as water mountain, connected underground waters and the sky through stepped pyramids. These mountains were seen as sacred. This is turn would be an influential aspect of the appearance of the pyramids they construct, since they are also used as sacred spaces.

Looking at Egyptian and Mayan pyramids side by side, the Mayan pyramids look to be a baroque version of Egyptian pyramids. In a side-by-side comparison, Kheops Pyramid is very plain and has a perfect pyramid shape. In contrast, Temple 1, is much more ornate with a staircase that leads up to the temple as well as very clear levels of steps. This could be that there is a richer connection to the afterlife shown by the Mayan pyramids, with an obvious physical representation of the layers of the afterlife. Whereas the Egyptian pyramid’s connection to the afterlife is demonstrated by what they contain within. Both pyramids do contain inscriptions and paintings within the walls of the structures that explain not only who is buried there and their accomplishments but also their beliefs of the afterlife. For Egyptian pyramids, the connection to the afterlife shown through the interior is much more discrete whereas Mayan pyramids incorporate their beliefs into the actual design of the structure. Not to say that the Egyptians did not do this as well, their pyramids were constructed with extreme precision to replicate the heavens. But if we were to look at the pyramids side-by-side, the Egyptian pyramids look to be the precursors to the Mayan pyramids. It looks like the Mayans used the same context for building and amplified the decorative aspects.

Stepped pyramids have appeared throughout history, and across the world. They can be found in ziggurats in Mesopotamia, ceremonial centres in the North American Southwest and the punden berundak in Indonesia, to name a few examples other than Egypt and Mesoamerica. Across all these places, religious beliefs were the driving factor for creating these pyramid structures. Though the reasoning does very, a common belief of connecting with the gods, it shows commonality in the human mindset of these civilizations. An unanswered question in my research, is why do these communities develop such similar ideas of building these pyramids to connect with the gods? Is this an aspect of our human nature to believe that the god(s) reside in heaven above? Is that what compels us to create mountainous structures to connect with them?


  1. D. Arnold, ‘Egypt (Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom), c. 3100-2150 BCE.’ In Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture, Volume 1, ed M. Fraser (London, 2019), pp. 59-79
  2. M. Miller, and M. Robb, ‘Mesoamerica, 500-1521’ in Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture, Volume 1, ed M. Fraser (London, 2019), pp. 833-854

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