Although the immense cities of the Maya were united by a shared culture, they were also fiercely independent, invariably going to war with one another over territory, trade, and political disputes. Despite this independence, all of the great Maya cities shared a role in influencing their culture as a whole, as each contributed the unique characteristics that defined them as individuals.
Believed to be the longest inhabited settlement found anywhere in the Americas, Kaminaljuyu was home to a large Maya population from roughly 1500 BC until about 1200 AD. Dozens of archaeological excavations at the site over the past century have revealed that the city may have been the primary producer of obsidian and jade in the region, and the remnants of more than 100 mounds and ancient structures have been discovered. Unfortunately, commercial construction and development of the surrounding area during the 19th and 20th centuries has all but destroyed the remains of this once great city, leaving only fragments behind.
El Mirador, flourishing from roughly 600 BC until 100 AD, was another great city of the Maya. A settlement of significant size, El Mirador is noted for its numerous elevated roadways, known to the Maya as the "Sacbe." Used to connect structures within the settlement complex as well as distant trade centers, the sacbe were a crucial mechanism in establishing the Maya trade networks. Similar to modern causeways that are raised over stretches of unstable land, the sacbe covered vast expanses, the longest connecting the ancient city of Coba with the smaller settlement of Yaxuna some 60 miles (96 km) away.
Perhaps the best known of the Classic Maya cities, Tikal, served as capital of the powerful Tikal state, an ambitious and aggressive state that often initiated fierce battles against its neighboring rivals. Tikal is thought to have been occupied for nearly 2,000 years, and was home to some 100,000 people at its peak. One of the lesser known innovations found at Tikal, the "Aguada," was an ingenious system of water reservoirs, designed to harvest and collect rain water funneled from the plaster walls of the city.
Chitzen Itza was one of the last surviving Mayan settlements, and as such it's also one of the best preserved of their cities. With extensive constructions covering an area over 2.5 sq. miles (6.5 sq. km), Chitzen Itza features prominent examples of nearly every form of Maya architecture including massive step pyramids, multiple ball courts, and ornately-decorated temples.