Discover Chichén Itzá, the ancient capital of the Itzae Maya, declared a World Heritage Site in 1988 and voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a 2007 global poll. The name of this impressive city means “mouth of the well of the Itzae” in Maya and may refer to the two huge cenotes at the site.
Chichén’s Early History
Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichén Itzá indicating that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period A.D. 750 -900 that the first stone temples and palaces were built and the city began to expand. Archaeologists have recently deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions found at a temple called the Casa Colorada which reveal the names of long-lost rulers of the city and rival center Ek Balam and give the date of A.D. 869, the earliest found to date at the site. Chichén Itzá’s earliest architects and artists followed the Puuc architectural and artistic style then in vogue in the Yucatán and most closely identified with the rival city of Uxmal. Friezes profusely decorated with masks of the rain god, Chaac, serpents, columns and fretwork characterize this ornate style.
Invasions & Empire Building
At some point during the 10th century, Chichén was invaded and colonized by the Itzae, a Chontal or Putun Maya tribe from the Gulf coast of Campeche and Tabasco. The Itzae were warriors and traders and had close ties with other Mesoamerican cultures in the highlands of central Mexico. Archaeologists studying the similarities between buildings in Chichén Itzá and Tula in Hidalgo long speculated on the possibility of a second wave of invaders of Toltec origin, although in recent years this theory has now been replaced by the concept of the Itzae as “Mexicanized Maya” in reference to the cultural influences they brought with them. Whatever their origin, the Itzae transformed Chichén into a major power using a combination of warfare, alliances and commerce.
The Itzae initiated a second building boom and the influence of highland Mexico is tangible in the monuments they left. The architectural style featured platforms, columns and wide doorways, round buildings, terraced pyramids, temascales or steam baths, and talud tablero platforms with sloping walls decorated with carved panels. Their art was somewhat sinister and very warlike: knights, ball players being sacrificed, skulls, eagles, jaguars devouring hearts, and the feathered serpent. They also erected columns carved in the likeness of warriors called Atlantes and Chac Mools, reclining figures with hands cupped to receive the heart of a sacrificial victim.
At the height of its glory (A.D. 800 – 1150), Chichén Itzá controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. The great metropolis extended for 30 square kilometers with all the major buildings clustered in a core area of six square kilometers. A wall protected the ceremonial heart of the city and a network of 70 sacbes or roads linked different temple complexes, ten ball courts, markets, residential areas and nearby settlements.
The city was cosmopolitan and outward looking and it is quite possible that several groups of different origin could have lived there at one time in distinct neighborhoods. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people inhabited the hinterland, eking out a living on the stony terrain by growing corn, tending orchards, hunting wild game and bee keeping. Cash crops such as cacao, cotton and tobacco were grown in pockets of deeper soil known as rejolladas, and were probably controlled by the elite.
Decline & Discoveries
Chichén Itzá’s power began to wane around 1150 and by 1250 the city had been abandoned. The Itzae migrated south and founded a new city called Tayasal on the shores of Lake Petén Itza in Guatemala. With the coming of the Spaniards, Tayasal was the last city to succumb to the invaders, holding out until 1697.
Mayan pilgrims continued to visit Chichén Itzá to worship at the Sacred Cenote, a tradition that endured after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. Spanish chronicles relate that such was the majesty of the site that Francisco de Montejo, the military leader who conquered the Yucatán, considered making it his capital.
Friar Diego de Landa described Chichén Itzá in his account of Yucatán before the Spanish Conquest, but it wasn’t until the 19th century when news of the city reached the outside world. John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the site in 1841, and you can read about their adventures and see Catherwood’s drawings in the books Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843). Other explorers followed in their wake, including Augustus Le Plongeon (1873), an eccentric who found the first Chac Mool statue at the site and sought to link Chichén Itza with Atlantis and the ancient Egyptians; Desire Charnay (1880), who remarked upon the similarities between Chichén Itzá and the Toltec city of Tula in central Mexico; Alfred P. Maudslay (1888) who produced maps and drawings of some of the buildings; Teobert Maler (1884) who photographed the site and Edward H. Thompson, the American Consul in the Yucatán and an amateur archaeologist who became one of the most controversial figures in Mayan archaeology.
Large-scale excavation projects at Chichén Itzá began with a joint Mexico-Carnegie Institute project in 1924, initially led by American archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley. Since 1993, the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has been excavating and restoring buildings at the site.
Exploring Chichén Itzá
Pyramid of Kukulcán
Dominating the Great Plaza, the 25-meter-high El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcán was built between 1000 to 1150 on top of older temples dating from A.D. 650 -800. The earlier buildings are inside the pyramid we see today and can be visited via a dark, narrow staircase. A chac mool statue guards the entrance to the inner sanctum where there is a magnificent throne in the form of a red jaguar with jade spots and eyes. The jaguar was discovered with an offering of coral, sacrificial flint knives and a turquoise mosiac disc.
The pyramid is a solar clock, aligned to catch the rays of the sun. As it sets on the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September, triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with the stone serpent head at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.
The snake symbolizes Kukulcán (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the harvest season for the Maya.
The pyramid also represents the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.
The Ball Court
The Ball Court in the Great Plaza is the largest in the Maya World. It was here that the Maya played a fast-moving ball game in which teams of warriors had to get a rubber ball through a stone ring high up on the wall of the court with their elbows, wrists and hips without kicking it or using their hands. Priests and nobles would watch the game from the viewing platform in the South Temple.
The ball game had religious and mythological overtones and was linked to the eternal battle between light and darkness, good and evil, death and rebirth. The carved panels on the court walls show warriors, ball players in full regalia and the ritual decapitation of one of the team captains.
The North Temple is also called the Temple of the Bearded Man after a personage that appears in one of the carvings. Bas-reliefs and mural paintings depict Kukulcán, serpents and trees sprouting from the heads of earth monsters. The Temple of the Jaguars is also part of the complex, and the lower temple is accessible from the Great Plaza.
The acoustics in the ball court are incredible – you can literally stand at one end and clap and be heard by someone standing at the other end, 146 meters away.
The Temple of the Jaguars
The jaguar or balam was a sacred animal for the Maya; it was the bearer of the sun on its nightly journey through the Underworld and was associated with war on account of its ferocity and strength. It comes as no surprise that the jaguar was venerated in the warlike city of the Itzae and that it even has a temple to honor it.
Jaguars, Mayan and “Toltec” warriors, feathered serpents and even a battle scene appear in the friezes in the upper and lower temples. The lower temple also has a jaguar throne.
This low platform in the Great Plaza was a skull rack upon which the heads of sacrificial victims or captives were displayed. The wall carvings have a military theme and show skulls, warriors, serpents and eagles devouring hearts.
Eagles and Jaguars Platform
This low platform has four staircases and balustrades carved in the likeness of feathered serpents. The wall panels feature eagles and jaguars eating hearts and a reclining warrior who is thought to be Kukulcán holding a lance.
Also flanking the plaza, this platform has staircases and feathered serpent balustrades. Kukulcán appears in the wall panels as the planet Venus emerging from a jaws of a serpent and the woven mat symbol of kingship is also visible. It was here that Augustus Le Plongeon unearthed the first chac mool statue to be found at the site
Temple of the Mesas
Excavated and restored several years ago, this temple has an altar supported by warriors and yielded offerings of a jade breastplate and figurines, mortars, pestles and obsidian mirror holders. Friezes and murals in the temples are still being reconstructed and feature jaguars, feathered serpents, trees and warriors.
Temple of the Warriors
Built on top of an earlier temple called Chac Mool, the massive Temple of the Warriors is famous for its columns covered with carvings of warriors and priests; panels featuring Kukulcán emerging from the jaws of a snake, jaguars and eagles devouring hearts, a mural showing an attack on a coastal village by seagoing warriors in canoes, Atlantes figures, standard bearers, and a Chac Mool statue on the upper level surrounded by feathered serpent pillars that once supported the temple roof. The architecture is a blend of Mayan and central Mexican elements.
The Court of a Thousand Columns
The colonnades in front of and to the south of the Temple of the Warriors were originally covered with a wooden roof and may have been halls that were used during ceremonies or for gatherings during which nobles discussed city policy. The colonnade extending from the front of the Temple of the Warriors to the northwest consists of 221 pillars, each one carved with a unique portrait of a warrior, priest, noble and captives. The courtyard formed by these walkways housed ball courts, temples, steam baths and the Mercado or Market, also thought to have been the site of the Popol Nah or council chamber.
The Sacred Well
A short walk from the Great Plaza along a sacbe is the Sacred Cenote, a deep sinkhole that was once the site of sacrificial ceremonies to appease Chaac, the rain god. The Maya believed that cenotes and caves were entrances to the Underworld, the home of the gods and therefore holy places.
The well was first dredged in 1904-7 by Edward H. Thompson, who destroyed many artifacts in the process and then even more controversially smuggled the valuable finds out of the country to the Peabody Museum where many of them remain to this day. Later exploration took place under the auspices of INAH in 1960-61 and 1967-8. Over 30,000 artifacts have been recovered from the murky depths of the cenote including golden discs, figurines and jewelry, jade, copper, turquoise, obsidian, copal incense, rubber balls, wooden lances and staffs, pottery, the bones of animals and around 200 people, mostly children and old men who had the misfortune to be selected as sacrificial victims.
Turquoise originated in the American southwest, obsidian is from the Mexican highlands and the gold is thought to have come from northern Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, proof of Chichén Itzá´s vast trade network.
The Sacred Well is one of two large cenotes on the site, the other, Cenote Xtoloc, supplied the city with drinking water.
Also known as the Tomb of the High Priest in reference to the burials found in a cave under the pyramid, the Ossuary was built some time during the 9th century. The wall carvings feature serpents, birds with the face of Itzamna, the chief god in the Mayan pantheon, cacao, fruit, Chaac masks and images of Kukulcan.
En route to the Observatory you see the House of the Deer and the Chichanchob or Colored House, two of the site’s earlier buildings. Archaeologists are currently studying hieroglyphic inscriptions found at the Colored House.
El Caracol, also known as the Observatory, is a round tower on a square platform that was used by ancient Mayan priests and astronomers to study the heavens. It has a viewing platform and wells to mirror starlight, and was aligned to catch sunsets and moonsets on both equinoxes and to mark the course of Venus. Round towers are rare in the Maya World and are a central Mexican innovation. Archaeologists have discovered that the Observatory had at least six building phases.
The Puuc buildings
The group of buildings located to the south of the Observatory was built during the period A.D. 600-900 in the Puuc architectural style typical of southwestern Yucatan and characterized by elaborate friezes featuring curl snouted masks of Chaac, the rain god. The largest building is Las Monjas, which had seven building phases and was christened “The Nunnery” by Diego de Landa because it resembled the convents of Spain. The East Annex and La Iglesia (the Church) are smaller buildings with magnificent upper friezes.
South of Las Monjas, a sacbe leads through the forest to a cluster of buildings known as Old Chichen, a 25-minute walk away. Archaeologists are still working in this area, excavating and restoring the ruined temples that were built between the 7th and 10th centuries. The buildings include the Temple of the Initial Series, the Temple of the Owls, the Temple of the Phallus and the Temple of the Three Lintels.
A labyrinth of caves and underground rivers lies deep in the heart of the limestone landscape of the Yucatán. In ancient times, cenotes or sinkholes, which form when cave roofs weaken and subside, were the only source of fresh water for area inhabitants and settlements were located near these natural wells.
Cenotes and caves were also sacred sites for the ancient Maya who believed that they were the entrances to Xibalbá, the underworld, and the realm of the gods. Priests would visit them in secret to perform rites in honor of their deities.
Located six kilometers to the east of Chichén Itzá on Highway 180 and considered by many archaeologists to be part of the site, Balancanché or “throne of the jaguar” in Maya is one such cave. Incense burners, statues of Chaac, the Mayan rain god and his central Mexican counterpart, Tlaloc, and other offerings ¬were found at the foot of a huge stalagmite which resembles the ceiba or sacred tree of the Maya, when the caves were first explored. They were left in situ and you can see them during your visit to the caves.
You can listen to a guided tour in English, Spanish or French as you explore the caves. Be warned, the narrow path is not for the claustrophobic. There is a tiny museum and a botanical garden at the site.