While modern Guatemalan architecture is moving more towards functional structures, with multi-story concrete apartments on the rise, its sacred Mayan sites are still in use by indigenous populations and contribute significantly to Guatemala’s tourism economy.
Guatemalan architecture has a rich history, from ancient Mayan ruins to charismatic Spanish colonial cities. Each provides evidence of the powers which once ruled over this land and their attempts to defend against frequent earthquakes, invading forces and local environmental considerations.
The Beginning of Guatemalan Architecture: Tikal (800BC to 900AD)
The most famous archaeological site in Guatemala and one of the largest pre-Colombian Mayan centers in the Americas is Tikal, which was once the political and economic hub of the Mayan world. Its thousands of limestone structures lie deep in the jungles of Northern Guatemala, including six stepped temples, palaces, residences, ballgame courts and tombs. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 and archaeological work is still ongoing, gradually uncovering structures which date as far back as 800BC.
Tikal’s original name was Yax Mutal or “Place of Whispers”, with development flourishing in the city during the 1st century AD and reaching its peak during the Classic Period from 200-900AD, making into one of the most powerful in the Maya world. War, disease, natural catastrophe and drought are all thought to have perhaps contributed to its demise, with some of the buildings evidently burned before Tikal was completely abandoned by the end of the 10th century.
The Great Plaza lies at the heart of Tikal and is surrounded by stelae and sculptured altars, as well as residential and administrative palaces. At one end stands the Temple of the Great Jaguar which was built as a funerary pyramid for Jasaw Chan K’awil, while across from the Great Plaza is the Temple of the Mask which is believed to have been dedicated to his wife.
The North Acropolis sprawls to one side and dates to around 350BC, once featuring around 70 stelae carved with hieroglyphic texts. To the south lies the Central Acropolis palace complex with its administrative buildings and patios, while smaller temples and individual shrines surround it. To the west of the Great Plaza is Temple II which features a carved lintel depicting someone clothed in jaguar skin, while the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent is the tallest pyramid at Tikal, built by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son to commemorate his father.
Tikal’s buildings were constructed using locally quarried limestone (with the excavations waterproofed and used as reservoirs to harvest rainwater) and they often designed multi-roomed structures to serve as royal palaces or administrative centers for government affairs. New temples were often built over existing ones, with tombs encased within or beneath these structures.
In the south of Guatemala there is also evidence of Mayan architecture in the Late Post-Classic Kaqchikel Maya Kingdom of Iximche. It served as the capital of the Mayan people of the mid-western highlands from 1470, providing a natural defense from its high ridge which was surrounded by deep ravines. The Kaqchikel created an alliance with the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in the early 16th century and Iximche was declared the first Spanish capital of the Mesoamerican region. However, the Kaqchikel soon broke the alliance and abandoned the city in 1524, with the Spanish burning what was left.
The ruins of Iximche were first described in the late 17th century, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that excavations began and it was declared a Guatemalan National Monument in the 1960s. During the Guatemalan Civil War, a meeting between guerrillas and Maya leaders took place at the ruins in an attempt to defend indigenous rights and in 1989 a ritual was conducted to reestablish the ruins as a sacred place for Maya ceremonies. A set of altars at the far end of the site are still used by the Maya people today, with offerings of flowers, fruit and drinks often seen.
The ruins at Iximche exhibit evidence of fortification, accessed by a bridge which spanned an 8 meter deep ditch. Four large plazas were situated along its ridge and used as a gathering place for political, religious and recreational activities. Palaces, pyramid temples, residences, altars and ball courts are found in the surrounds, with excavations uncovering the remains of painted murals on some of the buildings and evidence of human sacrifice on the site’s circular stone platform.
Spanish colonial period (1519 to 1821)
While the Spanish established their capital at Villa de Santiago de Guatemala (now Tecpan) near Iximche in 1524, Kaqchikel raids on the city resulted in it being moved to Ciudad Vieja in 1527, then on to Antigua in 1541. It is within this beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage-listed city that the Mudéja influenced baroque Guatemalan architecture of the Spanish is most vividly on display in its colonial churches, convents, palaces and fountains.
The grid-like streets of Antigua were inspired by the Italian Renaissance and are all that remains of the 16th-century city which was first established by the Spanish. Most of the surviving buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries in a style that has become known as Barroco Antigueño and is a distinct element in Guatemalan architecture. The Cathedral of Saint James, the Universidad de San Carlos and Las Capuchinas are of particular note, together with the Iglesia de La Merced and Convent of Santa Clara. Decorative stucco work is exhibited on both the interior and exterior of its buildings, with a central window niche on the facades and deeply-carved tympanum above their entrances. Also of note are the low bell towers and squat, thick walls which were designed to withstand the frequent tremors and earthquakes which Antigua was subjected to.
In 1773 the Santa Marta earthquake destroyed much of Antigua and the Spanish colonial authorities ordered the capital’s relocation to what is now Guatemala City. Today its Centro Histórico is still home to the Cathedral of Guatemala City which was constructed from 1782, together with a scattering of other colonial-era buildings which exist alongside the modern skyscrapers.
Other notable cities from the Spanish colonial period include Flores which lies on an island in Lake Petén Itzá. It was built on the ruins of the Itza settlement of Noh Petén – the last independent Maya state to hold out against the Spanish conquerors. It’s renowned for its narrow, cobblestone streets and red-roofed buildings, together with the twin domes of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios y San Pablo Itzá.
Quetzaltenango which lies 200 kilometers to the west of Guatemala City also exhibits the remains of Spanish colonial Guatemalan architecture, most notably in the walls of the Catedral del Espíritu Santo on the southeastern corner of Parque Centro América. However, many buildings in the city date to the late-19th/early-20th centuries, with a mixture of neoclassical and Greek influences, together with the Gothic-inspired Iglesia de San Nicolás.