The civilizations of ancient Egypt and Maya, while separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, shared a number of recognizable features. Egypt civilization appears to have begun about 4,000 to 3,500 B.C. in northern Africa, while the Mayan civilization appears to have arisen around 3300 B.C. in the Yucatan peninsula of North America, now modern Guatemala. Both of these cultures occupied large areas of land and expanded their domains through military conquest and exploration -- but were ultimately conquered by others.
Pyramids in Common
Both the Egyptians and the Maya built large cities that featured housing, administration buildings, and funerary and religious structures. These cities included large pyramidal structures. In Egypt, these pyramids were tombs for great kings, while in the kingdom of the Maya, pyramids appear to have been used for religious ceremonies.
Egypt’s Nile Valley location was isolated from other influential cultures of the time. The Mediterranean Sea protected the north, vast deserts lay in the east and west, and dense jungle created a southern barrier. This gave Egypt time and area to develop without influence from other cultures. Maya enjoyed a similar independence from outside influences, although evidence shows that the Maya may have inherited some cultural aspects from earlier societies, including the Olmecs.
Hieroglyphic Writing Systems
Both Egyptian and Mayan cultures used hieroglyphs consisting of pictographs or drawings representing words or concepts. Egyptian hieroglyphs included phonograms, placed at the beginning of words, to represent sounds and ideograms to represent objects or ideas. Egyptians used hieroglyphs to record history, prayers and administrative information, and to track the depth of the Nile River from season to season. Mayan hieroglyphs were combination pictographs formed in neat blocks that included phonograms and ideograms. Mayan scribes recorded calendar information, administrative data and genealogies.
Both the Egyptian and Mayan civilizations created calendar systems. The Egyptian agricultural system revolved around the regular flooding of the Nile River, which brought rich silt to the Nile Valley. The cycles of flooding prompted the creation of complex calendar systems. During their Classic period, the Maya developed a sophisticated calendar system of overlapping annual cycles that included a 260-day sacred year and a 365-day secular year. The cycles restarted every 52 years.
Technology and Construction Techniques
The Egyptians developed sophisticated technologies in several areas including metal tools. Surveying and construction techniques allowed the Egyptians to construct vast burial complexes and temples. The Mayan building techniques allowed them to construct great structures and were especially impressive given the fact that they did not have metals or the wheel. They also appear to have combined materials of the rubber tree and the morning glory plant to produce rubber.
Aspects of Religion
Both Egyptian and Mayan cultures were polytheistic with rulers that represented gods on earth. The myths of ancient Egypt revolved around earth and sun gods that were seen as controlling the vital flooding of the Nile. Egyptian rulers or pharaohs were revered as gods who interceded with the gods for the benefit of the people. The populace gave offerings of goods to the gods through the pharaohs and priests. Mayan gods also were based upon natural phenomena, including earth, sun and water. Unlike the Egyptians, the Maya did not appear to have a priestly caste; they believed that only their kings could intercede for the people. Mayan belief in the strength of human blood to appease the gods gave rise to ritualized human sacrifice of wartime captives.
- Timetables of History; Bernard Grun
- Ancient Egyptian Tombs: The Culture of Life and Death; Steven Snape
- Lost Kingdoms of the Maya; Gene S. and George E. Stuart
- Culture and Customs of Guatemala; Maureen Shea
- Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000: Hieroglyphs
- History.com: Mayan Scientific Achievements
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Egyptian Calendar
- Technology of Ancient Egypt; Leslie C. Kaplan
- Nordic Journal of Architectural Research: Retracing Khufu's great pyramid. The "diamond matrix" and the number 7
- University of Chicago: Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond
- Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images