Maya architecture is found all over the Yucatán peninsula (from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico) in four Central American countries: Mexico (provinces of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán), Guatemala, Belize and Honduras (see specifications). This vast cultural area called "Maya country" is divided into three geographic zones corresponding to three cultural regions: the Highlands, the Southern Lowlands and the Northern Lowlands (see map). In this exhibition we will discuss only the Lowlands where the classic styles of Maya architecture developped.

The Southern Lowlands, seperated from the Highlands by a volcanic range (Sierra Madre), rest on a limestone plateau (used as construction material) inlaid with flint (used in the making of tools). The surface is relatively flat except for an area of low altitude mountains (Maya Mountains) and the soil is fertile but thin. The territory is crossed by rivers (Motagua, Usimacinta) and strewn with lakes, bajos (depressions becoming swamps in the rainy season) and small areas of savannah. It is however possible that in the Classic period the bajos were shallow lakes and the savannah forest. The vegetation is caracterized by a high, dense and humid tropical forest (Petén forest) composed of large trees such as the ceiba (sacred tree) and a great variety of other plants. The fauna of the interior is composed of a few large mammals such as the jaguar (sacred feline) and abounds with small mammals, birds (ex: quetzal), reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. The coast has lagoons and estuaries abundant in marine mammals, fish, shellfish and mollusks. The Southern Lowlands are home to the most ancient style of Maya monumental architecture including the site of Tikal.

Southern Lowlands. Tikal, Petén, Guatemala.

Northern Lowlands. Uxmal, Yucatán, Mexico.

The Northern Lowlands, resting on the same limestone plateau, are a dryer environment. The surface is relatively flat, except for a zone of hills (Puuc hills), and the soil is extremely thin but very fertile in some areas. Also, the porosity of the limestone prevents surface water. The only freshwater sources are underground. They are natural wells, called cenotes, that preserve rainwater. There are also underground rivers and lakes in caves. The vegetation is low but dense and composed of a brush forest of bushes and small trees. The fauna is composed of a few large mammals, small mammals, birds, reptiles and an abundance of insects. The coast, on the other hand, has beaches, swamps and lagoons rich in salt (of high commercial value) and abundant in marine mammals, fish, shellfish and mollusks. The Northern Lowlands are home to a later style of monumental architecture including the site of Uxmal.

The climate is similar all over the Maya Lowlands, except for the rainfall which is the cause of the north/south contrast. It is a tropical climate. Average yearly temperatures vary from 20º to 30º Celcius to which is added a humidity level of more than 80%. The climate is divided into two seasons: a dry season and a rainy season. The dry season, lasting from November to April, is a season of continuous drought. It is the warmest season of the year. The rainy season, lasting from May to October, is a season of abundant rains that causes a cooling of temperatures. The level of rainfall varies from  250 to 5 000 millimetres yearly, depending on latitude. The further north, the fewer the rains, thus a brushy vegetation in the north and a lush one in the south.

The ancient Maya were organized in city-states governed by rulers who controlled vast territories through commercial networks and military conquest. This civilization reached a high degree of scientific and artristiqc sophistication in the 8th century A.D. before collapsing in the 10th century. Then, came the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century (see chronology). Today the Maya compose the majority of the population of the Maya country and are divided in over twenty ethnic groups with as many languages (Quiche, Itza, Lacandon, etc.). Excluded from economic and political power, they survive in conditions of poverty and persecution. They mostly live in the countryside as extended families (more than 2 generations) in huts grouped into hamlets and cultivate maize with a slash-and-burn technique (called milpa). They are found in small numbers in cities where they sell their products and work seasonally. They are mostly distinguished by their colorful clothing whose designs vary depending on communities, by their music (ex: marimba) which combines European, African and native instruments and  rythms, and by their spirituality which combines Christian and traditonal Maya beliefs and practices.

Maya girl, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.