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 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 Source: Wikimedia Commons
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 powerful 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.
Caracol Observatory by Ken Thomas
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.
El Castillo at Chichen Itza Photo by Lfyenrcnhan at Wikimedia Commons
Interesting Facts about Maya Sites and Cities
Many of these cities can be visited today. Some of them, such as Chichen Itza and Tikal, are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Around 1.2 million people visit the Chichen Itza site each year.
Archeologists have found at least thirteen different ball courts built in the city of Chichen Itza.
Other important Maya city-states include Coba, Uxmal, Mayapan, Tulum, Palenque, and Kabah.
Palenque was once known as the "Red City" because its buildings were all painted red.
Much is known about the kings of Tikal including some of their interesting names such as Jaguar Paw, Curl Head, Shield Skull, and Double Bird. The city was also ruled by women several times.