Chichén Itza – An Iconic Maya City

December 17, 2022
Nick

The ancient city of Chichén Itza is one of the most popular archeological sites in all of Mexico. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, this site contains some of the most well-preserved Maya ruins in the world, including the famous El Castillo pyramid. Visiting the city is an incredible experience, and if you wanted a little more information about what you will see once there, read on!

El Castillo Pyramid

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

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El Castillo is one of, if not THE most iconic structures at Chichén Itza. Any image of the Maya is sure to include this iconic building. This structure stands 30-meters (98 feet) tall made of nine square terraces, with stairs on each of the four sides leading to a temple at the summit. Each stair has 91, which added together with the platform at the summit, equal 365, which may have significance with the Maya Haab or calendar. Rituals and ceremony would have taken places in this temple, with the crowds of onlookers standing in the courtyard below. 

Spanish Conquistadors gave El Castillo (The Castle) that name, though the Maya name for this structure is the Temple of Kukulcán, the Maya feathered serpent deity. The temple was built between the 8th and 12th centuries in the Late and Postclassic Periods. Like most Maya structures, the Temple was not one single construction phase, but underwent multiple building and renovations.

Aside from its shape, the Temple of Kukulcán of iconic for two architectural feats. When people in the courtyard at the base of the temple clap their hands, the sounds travels along the structure and changes, mimicking the cry of the quetzal bird. Along with this sound phenomena, there is also a visual one, seen during the weeks around the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes. In the last afternoon, a shadow forms on the northern side of the temple that appears to be a serpent moving down the staircase, which may represent the deity Kukulcán.

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The Great Ballcourt

Aerial view of ancient Mayan city Chichen Itza

While El Castillo may be the symbol of Chichén Itza, it is far from being its only attraction. There are numerous temples dedicated to various deities such as Chaac (god of rain), Yum Kaax (goddess of fertility), and Kukulkan (serpent god). Along with these, there are other ceremonial and administrative and ritually important structures.

This includes playing alleys where the Mesoamerican ballgame was played. In this game. There are thirteen ballcourts found in the city. This is where the Mesoamerican ballgame was played, where a rubber ball is moved between two teams without using their hands, to try and score points, often by getting it through a hoop on the wall. This game spans nearly all the cultures of Mesoamerica and was played for thousands of years before the construction of Chichén Itza. It even continues to be played today, and as such has a great deal of variation on how it was played.

The Great Ball Court at Chichén Itza northwest of the Temple of Kukulcán is the largest of the thirteen ballcourts found in the city, measuring 168 by 70 meters (551 by 230 feet). It is also the largest ballcourt found in Mesoamerica. The playing alley is flanked by additional temples, including the Temple of the Bearded Man at the north and the Temple of the Jaguar built along the eastern wall, which includes a viewing area. 

The Tzompantli Platform 

The Tzompantli of Skull Platform shows the influence of Central Mexican design and ritual. This stone platform shows hundreds of carved human skulls, which mimics wooden racks or palisades found in Central Mexico where actual skulls would be stored. 

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While this kind of human sacrifice depictions are seen elsewhere in the Maya world, it is much more limited amongst the Maya than among the cultures of Central Mexico, such as the Toltecs and the later Aztecs. The entire city of Chichén Itza has design and architectural mix of Maya and Toltec styles, so while the Tzompantli Platform fits the Maya style, the theme and meaning of it was brought in by the Toltec.

The Sacred Cenote

Much of eastern Mesoamerica has a karst landscape, meaning that the bedrock is limestone. The Yucatan peninsula is the same, with the added difficulty that surface water is very rare, with most water underground in rivers and caves. Limestone, however, is easily broken and dissolved, resulting in many natural sinkholes, which when filled with water become wells or cenotes. 

Chichén Itza was built between two large cenotes, with the name itself meaning ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itza’ (with the Itza being a Maya ethnic-lineage). The Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote, is the larger of the two at around 60 meters (200 feet) in diameter with sheer cliffs that drop 27 meters (89 feet) to the water below. While of course exaggerated for the drama, the cenote of the cartoon ‘Road to El Dorado’ was based on the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itza. 

The Sacred Cenote was a place where ritual and ceremony took place, most notably sacrifices to the gods during times of drought. Archaeologists diving to the bottom of the cenote have found thousands of artifacts, ranging from the everyday to the price-less, as well as human skeletons. Pilgrimages were made to the Sacred Cenote before, during, and after the occupation of Chichén Itza, with Spanish accounts also describing traveling Maya coming to perform rituals at this sacred space.  

Conclusion

Chichén Itza offers visitors an amazing opportunity to explore thousands of years of Maya and Mesoamerican culture. From learning about Maya mythology to simply admiring stunning architecture, there is something for everyone at this historic site—regardless of if you are planning on exploring it alone or with a guide. So pack your bags and don’t forget your camera, sunscreen, and water because you won’t want to miss out on all that Chichén Itza has to offer!

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