Chichen Itza, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is dominated by gray limestone that was cut by hand and moved without any wheels.
Once home to 30,000 people, Chichen Itza was the last major city developed by the Mayans and a political, economic and religious center. Now it is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chichen Itza’s six square miles features columns, bas-reliefs, sculptures, stone murals, pictographs, monuments, statues and warrior images. Still-buried ceremonial and residential complexes surround its central core. It is a visually stunning, must-see ancient city with an end that is one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries.
The property, about a 21/2-hour drive from Cancun, is owned by the Mexican federal government and managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. There is a first-rate visitor center and museum at the entrance. About 1.2 million people a year visit.
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The most recognizable structure is the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, a four-sided pyramid that is really a calendar made of stone honoring the feathered serpent deity Kukulkan. The temple, which dominates the open-air esplanade at Chichen Itza, is only 79 feet high, but it appears much taller because the side panels get smaller as they slope up the platform atop the pyramid. The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year — 91 steps on each side plus the platform at the top.
In the past, visitors could ascend the steps of the temple, but it is off-limits today.
Twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps and eventually aligns with a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase.
Not far from the temple is another of Chichen Itza’s great buildings, the I-shaped Great Ball Court, the largest blood-sport stadium built in the Americas. Ball courts to play pok-ta-pok — a sport like soccer —were common in Mayan culture and about a dozen small ones have been found in Chichen Itza, but this one is bigger than a football field, 554 feet long and 231 feet wide with 27-foot walls.
Because of its size, some believe that the Great Ball Court was more about pageant than sport. The game was a sacred event, a religious ritual and was used to settle wars and disputes. It reveals a much deeper significance in Mayan tradition and mythology. Gambling on the games was widespread.
During games, players tried to hit a hard rubber ball through stone scoring hoops set 22 feet high on the court walls. The stone hoops feature intertwined feathered serpents. Players used their hips, heads, shoulders, chests, elbows and legs, but not their hands or feet.
Games would last two to three days. There are no written records but pictographs show participants being decapitated at the conclusion of the games. Some say the winners lost their heads and became gods. Others say it was the losers.
Nearby is the grim Tzompantli or the Wall of Skulls with images of armed warriors and eagles devouring human hearts. Some believe captives were sacrificed on the stone platform with their heads left on display. It is, some say, a votive building to exalt death.
The east side of the Great Plaza is dominated by the Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns.
The main building, constructed atop earlier buildings, has four stepped sections and its friezes are decorated with carved reliefs. The temple is famous for its hundreds of elaborate columns and is still covered in carvings of dramatic feather-bedecked warriors, 2,211 men marching in a procession toward the temple. They are bearing weapons and some have suffered wounds.
The Mayans’ astronomical skills were so advanced that they could predict solar eclipses, and they built the impressive and sophisticated Observatory or El Caracol (the Snail) with its circular stairway. Venus was known as Chak Ek or the Great Star. It guided many Mayan activities including war.
The major buildings at Chichen Itza lie off 80 limestone-paved causeways, lined today with merchants selling colorful blankets and clothes, onyx chess sets, wooden carvings and clay Mayan masks. “Just $1” is the message from the sellers, who number in the hundreds. Man-made jaguar calls also abound as merchants use ceramic kazoos to attract buyers.
Chichen Itza relied on a series of sinkhole wells for drinking water. The Sagrado Cenote with its steep walls is about 195 feet in diameter. The water is about 40 feet deep, but it’s a 72-foot drop from the edge of the sinkhole to the water. This is where the Mayans performed human sacrifices to please Chaac, the rain deity. Archaeologists have found the bones and artifacts of victims who died in the cenotes.
Chichen Itza has a complex history. Work on the massive settlement began about A.D. 435-455 by the Mayan Itza people from the island of Cozumel. The name means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” They occupied the original Chichen Itza for about 200 years. It controlled the local trade in salt and was tied to trading routes. In 692, they abandoned the site and moved south into the rain forest.
About 998, their descendants returned to Chichen Itza to restore its glory. It became part of the powerful League of Mayapan. The city also shows Toltec influences from central Mexico. It was destroyed by a civil war in 1204. Two hundred years later, Chichen Itza was abandoned to the jungle. The Mayans-Toltecs left behind no record as to why they abandoned their city.
Scientists have speculated that deforestation was involved as forests were cleared to burn the limestone to create stucco. Droughts, exhausted soils and royal quests may have contributed to Chichen Itza’s downfall.