Earth was for the living

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The Maya believed in many (many!) gods. They believed their gods could help or hurt them. They worshiped their gods every day. Religion was at the heart of everything they did.

Gods lived everywhere, but especially in the heavens. The Maya believed in a heaven, an earth, and an underworld.

Earth was for the living.

Heaven was the home of the gods. A piece of the heavens was reserved for the Maya afterlife. They believed their ancestors lived in this little piece of heaven, but kept a watchful eye on their relatives still alive on earth. The poor buried their dead under the floor of the house, to make it easier for their ancestors to know what was going on. Nobles were buried in tombs, but they too believed that their ancestors watched over them.

The Maya also believed in an underworld. This was the Place of Awe. The Maya underworld was not a good place. It was a place where demons lived. If the Maya people did not worship in the right way, the demons would be released and able to leave the underworld and attack the Maya people. This was a huge fear. The Maya held many religious ceremonies to make sure the demons and other evil creatures who lived in the underworld stayed in the underworld. Priests wore masks and costumes at these religious ceremonies to scare the demons. They wanted to appear stronger and more fierce than the demons, so the demons would stay away.

No women in the Maya world ever looked in a mirror. It was too dangerous. The Maya believed that creatures from the underworld could reach through a mirror and yank you into the Place of Awe. Men would look into a mirror as an act of courage.

Sites and Cities

History >> Aztec, Maya, and Inca for Kids

The Maya people built many cities throughout the history of their civilization. The cities acted as city-states where each single large city ruled over the surrounding areas. Maya cities were not planned out in detail like the cities of the Aztecs. They tended to grow out from the center over time. The center complexes, however, do appear to be planned with buildings often built in alignment to the sun.

Each city was home to the local king who lived in a palace within the city. It was also home to large pyramids that served as temples to their gods. Typically cities were located near trade routes and good farmland.

El Mirador

El Mirador was one of the first large city-states of the Maya civilization. It is thought that, at its peak, over 100,000 people lived in the city. The central center of the city covered ten square miles and had over a thousand buildings. Archeologists have found three large temple pyramids: El Tigre (180 feet tall), Los Monos (157 feet tall), and La Danta (250 feet tall). The La Danta temple is considered one of the largest pyramids in the world by total volume.

El Mirador thrived from 6th century BC up to the 1st century AD. It was at its peak around the 3rd century BC. Archeologists think that the city was abandoned around 150 AD and then people moved back in several hundred years later around 700 AD.


Kaminaljuyu was a major city-state located in the Southern Mayan Area in the Guatemala highlands. The city was occupied for around 2000 years from 1200 BC to 900 AD. The city was a major trade location for products such as cacao, fruits, pottery, and obsidian.


Tikal became one of the most powerful city-states in the history of the Maya civilization during the Classic period of Maya history. The city was large and had thousands of structures including six large pyramids. The tallest pyramid is called Temple IV at over 230 feet high. The city likely had between 60,000 and 70,000 inhabitants during its peak years.
The Acropolis at Tikal


Teotihuacan wasn't necessarily a Maya city-state, but was a major city-state located in the Valley of Mexico during the time of the Maya civilization. It was so powerful that it influenced Maya culture, trade, and politics during the Classic period.


Caracol began as a client state to the powerful city-state of Tikal. It was located in what is now the Cayo District of the country of Belize. At around the year 600 AD, Caracol broke away from Tikal and became a power city-state of its own. The city at its peak was much larger than the capital city of Belize is today. It covered around 200 square kilometers and may have had a population as large as 180,000.
Observatory and Caracol

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was the dominant Maya city-state during the end of the Classic period and the Post-classic period. It is the home of many famous structures including:

  • El Castillo - A pyramid and temple built to the Maya god Kukulkan. It is around 98 feet tall.

  • Great Ball Court - The largest of several ball courts in Chichen Itza, the Great Ball Court is 551 feet long by 230 feet wide. The walls on each side of the court are 26 feet tall. Temples of the Jaguar are built into the side of the court.

  • Temple of the Warriors - This temple is a large pyramid with four platforms and an impressive temple on the top. Two sides of the temple are covered with around 200 columns which were covered with a roof system during the time of the Maya.
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