Ruins of Chichén Itzá

The mysterious ruined Mayan City of Chichén Itzá has fascinated and intrigued archaeologists, explorers, and historians ever since it was first encountered and described by Bishop Diego de Landa, who wrote about the history of the Yucatan in the late 16th century. Chichén Itzá was at its height from around A.D. 600 to 1200, and was probably the main political and religious center in the whole of the Yucatan at this time. The site itself consists of many elaborated designed and decorated stone buildings, including temple-pyramids, palaces, observatories, baths, and ball courts, all constructed without the use of metal tools. For reasons not exactly understood, the Maya began to abandon Chichén Itzá around the beginning of the 13th century A.D., and before long the ruins were left to the encroaching jungle.

Although the existence of Chichén Itzá was known about for centuries after its abandonment, there was no exploration of the ruins until as late as the 1830s. From 1839 until 1842, American explorer and writer John Lloyd Stephens, together with English architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood, made various journeys through South America visiting countless ancient sites. Their research resulted in two important books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), both written by Stephens and illustrated by Catherwood. Between 1875 and 1883, French antiquarian and photographer Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice undertook the first excavations at Chichén Itzá, and made some incredible stereographs of Mayan sites. However, Plongeon’s conclusions on the Mayans were clouded by his belief that South America was the origin of all the world’s civilizations.

In the following decades there were various other expeditions to the site, including that of the Italian-born Teoberto Maler who, in the 1880s, lived at Chichén Itzá for three months, documenting the ruins more comprehensively than anyone before him. In 1889, English colonial diplomat, explorer, and archaeologist Alfred P. Maudslay visited the site and surveyed and photographed the ruins. Maudslay’s assistant Edward H. Thompson (the U.S. consul to Yucatan), later moved to Chichén Itzá with his Mayan wife, and spent 30 years carrying out investigations among the ruins, including dredging artifacts of copper, gold, jade, and human bones out of the Sacred Cenote (a water-filled limestone sinkhole). Professional archaeologists from the Carnegie Institution at Harvard University began work at Chichén Itzá in 1924. The 20-year long excavation project was directed by Sylvanus G. Morley, who had been a guest of Edward H. Thompson on his first visit to the ruins in 1907.

In 1961, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History undertook a methodical dredging of the sacred Cenote, recovering 4,000 artifacts in the process. Since 1993, the Mexico-based Chichén Itzá Archaeological Project (under the direction of Dr. Peter Schmidt) has been carrying out excavation, research, and conservation work at the site, in order to map the whole area, examine the pottery, and restore the many structures previously left in a partially excavated state. The reason for the Maya locating their sacred city here can be best explained by the presence of natural sink holes, known in the area as cenotes, as the lack of above ground rivers made an all year round water supply essential. The previously mentioned Cenote of Sacrifice or sacred Cenote is the most famous of these sink holes, and was used by the Maya as a place for ritual offerings to their rain god Chase. During periods of extreme drought, it seems that humans were also sacrificed here in order to perpetuate the god. Chichén Itzá is generally thought to have been founded in A.D. 514 by the priest Lakin Chan, also known as Itzamna, and its height comprised several hundred buildings. The ruins of the city can be divided into two groups, one belonging to the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-900) and constructed between the seventh and 10th centuries A.D., and the other belonging to the Maya-Toltec period, which lasted from the late 10th century up to the beginning of the 13th century.

The Toltecs, another Native American people probably originating in central Mexico, made Chichén Itzá their capital in the late 10th century A.D., though whether this was by force or by some kind of agreement with the Maya is not known. It was during the Maya-Toltec period of the site that Chichén Itzá most spectacular ruins were constructed. The structure that people most identify with the Mayan and Chichén Itzá is probably the giant stepped pyramid that dominates the site, called the Temple of Kukulcan and also known by its Spanish name of El Castillo. The El Castillo step pyramid is the center­piece of Chichén Itzá, a very sacred place used in many Maya and Toltec ceremonies. Other major ruins include the Temple of the Warriors, and the Caracol Tower, a round building with a small observation chamber at the top. The Caracol Tower has its main axis aligned to the rising and setting of Venus. Other astronomical obser­vations include the vernal equinox, and the moon setting at its most southern and northern declinations.

Another dominant area in Chichén Itzá is the plaza housing the ball court. A sacred ritual called pok-ta-pok in Maya was played to the death here. The object of this sacred ritual was to bounce a hard rubber ball through stone rings on either side of the court without the use of hands or arms. Relief sculptures in the ball court show the unfortunate fate of a beheaded squad. The El Castillo pyramid is fundamentally the Maya calendar formed in stone. In order to calculate the appropriate time for rituals and planting, the astrolo­ger-priests relied on the highly advanced knowledge of Maya timekeeping — the most accurate calendar system developed by humans to date. The pyramid was specifically designed to represent the solar calendar and its attributes. The bril­liance of the El Castillo design is seen in how it was constructed to show the shadow of a serpent only on the spring and fall equinox days. The serpent was originally a Maya symbol of divine wisdom and is featured in practically every stone structure in the Yucatán. The four flights of the pyramids’ four stairways have 91 steps each, 364 in all, to which there is one final step up to the temple’s sanctum, for a total number equal to that of the solar year. Despite some dam­age along the sides, El Castillo stands relatively intact. Further evidence for the calendrical significance of the temple are its 52 panels (representing the 52-year cycle of the Mayan calendar round), and 18 terraces (for the 18 months in the Mayan religious year).

The pyramid we see today was rebuilt upon an older, previous pyramid. The larger pyramid was superim­posed over a smaller structure by the Toltecs. Other notable Toltec additions are the warriors represented in temple carvings at the top. The El Castillo temple incorporates an inner sanctum containing a jaguar throne and a supreme Toltec figure. After the Yucatán Peninsula was invaded by the Toltec, information recorded in stone reveals the new rainmaking ceremonies and other major sacrificial rites became a theater of blood. The primary deities were aspects of nature and creation, and from atop the pyramid the priests would often request rain, fertil­ity and a plentiful harvest of corn. During the ceremonies, worshippers would assemble at the base of the pyramid, while the nobles would pierce their own tongues and ears and deliver their blood on pieces of bark for presentation to the gods. Splendidly attired priests divided into different orders to officiate the ceremonies. One order held the arms and legs of the victims — usually prisoners of war — while another split open the chests to remove their still-beating hearts. The lifeless bodies were then hurled down the pyramid steps where they would be deposited in a nearby well, along with offerings of gold, jade and copper. At times of famine or prolonged drought, live sacrifices, preferably children, were thrown into the 130-foot (40-m) deep “Well of Sacrifice.”

The artifacts located at the bottom of the well revealed a blood-thirsty culture, among the offerings of priceless jewels and medallions. Inside the earlier of the two pyramid-temples there are narrow steps leading to a secret chamber at the top of the structure, where archaeologists discovered the stone-carved Throne of the Jaguar, painted in brilliant red with jade spots, and also a sculpture of a Chac Mool figure. This latter object is a type of stone altar consisting of a reclining figure holding a bowl or tray over its stomach. It is thought that this tray was used for offerings of incense to the figure, who would act as a messenger to the gods. The bowl may also have been used to hold human hearts cut from sacrificial victims. During the spring or autumn equinox (March 21st and September 21st) when the sun’s light hits the steps on the northern side of the pyramid, it creates the spectacular illusion of the shadow of a moving serpent slithering up the pyramid as the sun moves across the sky.

East of El Castillo stands the Templo de los Guerreros or Temple of the Warriors, a huge, flat-topped, pyramidal structure, which originally possessed a wood and plaster roof. The temple has pillar sculpted in bas-relief in the likeness of warriors, many of which still retain some of their original color. Surrounding the temple are hundreds of columns, the remains of ruined buildings known as the Group of a Thousand Columns. On the western side of the site is The Temple of the Jaguars. This structure derives its name from the procession of jaguars carved on the front of the upper part of the building, and was constructed in the Maya Toltec architectural style from around A.D. 900 to 1100. Inside the temple are some of the most fascinating mural paintings in Chichen Itza, including one example which depicts an ancient battle between the Mayas and the Toltecs.

Adjacent to the Temple of the jaguar is the Ball Court Complex (Juego de Pelota), one of seven courts for playing the Meso-American ballgame discovered at Chchen Itza. The dimensions of this particular court, however, are 544 by 223 feet, making it the largest ball court ever built in central America, as well as the best preserved. No one is quite sure how this ballgame, called Pok-Ta-Pok by the Maya, was played, though it was probably more of a ritual ceremony than a recreational game. Panels along the side walls of the ball court are decorated with events from ball games, including scenes of players dressed in heavy padding and a particularly gruesome illustration depicting the beheading of a player in front of both teams.

Much of the Mayan creation story (the Popol Vuh) is concerned with a ball game played in this world and also in the world of the dead, indicating the religious significance of the game. In one part of the myth, the hero twins play the game for their lives against the lords of the underworld. In another, the use of a ball comprised of a decapitated head encased in rubber is described. More graphic illustrations of the relevance of the human head in Mayan ritual is provided by the Tzompantli, or the Wall of Skulls, a large, centrally located T-shaped stone platform 198 feet long and 40 feet wide. This structure was used as a base for wooden stakes on which the decapitated heads of enemy warriors and sacrificial victims were impaled for public viewing. Its walls are covered in bas-relief sculptures of skulls, as well as carvings of eagles, feathered serpents, and Mayan warriors carrying human heads.

The Wall of Skulls was probably designed to display the strength of the Maya and must have presented a fearsome site to invading armies. In the southern part of the city stands one of the highest accomplishments of Mayan architects at Chichén Itzá. This is the 74 foot high Observatory, or El caracol (the Spanish word for snail, referring to the resemblance of the the building’s internal spiral stairway to a snail’s shell). The Observatory, as it stands today, is actually the ruins of a cylindrical structure, and consists of a tower built on top of a rectangular platform. The building has openings at several points, which probably served as small windows to enable the observing and tracking of stars and planets.

South of El caracol is the Nunnery, also known by its Spanish name of Las Monjas, a colossal structure measuring at its base 230 by 115 feet with a height of 59 feet. This elaborately decorated building was constructed over a period of several centuries, but functioned as the city’s government palace. It is recorded in the mayan Chronicles that in A.D. 1221 the Maya revolted against Maya-Toltec lords the ruling at Chichén Itzá. Evidence of destruction has been found by archaeologists in the form of the burning of the Great Market and the temple of the Warriors. Civil war subsequently broke out, and control of Yucatan moved to mayapan, 30 miles southeast of Merida. The city of Mayapan became the most important center of the Mayan civilization before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. After this shift of power in the early 13th century, Chichen Itza went into decline, its citizen moving elsewhere, and when the Spanish came upon the site in 1517 they found only a city of ghosts, its past glories long vanished.

(Sources : Hidden History by Brian Haughton; Sacred Places Around The World : “108 Destinations” by Brad Olsen)

(Pic source :


lusi said...


dhemz said...

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Cruiselife & Co said...

I have never been here, but next summer I am planning on it

You have won an award from the Ancient Digger. You don't necessarily have to post the (img) of the award, but a little blurb would be appreciated.

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