The best-preserved Maya site on the Yucatan peninsula, Chichen Itza continues to confound archeologists. The date of the first settlement in the older, southern part of the site is uncertain, but the northern section was built during a Maya renaissance in the 11th century. Similarities with Tula, the ancient capital of the Toltec empire, and myths of exiled Toltec god-king Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan) settling at Chichen Itza, suggest that the renaissance was due to a Toltec invasion. However, other theories hold that Tula was influenced by the Maya, not vice versa. In its heyday as a commercial, religious, and military center, which lasted until about the 13th century, Chichen Itza supported more than 35,000 people.
A vast array of gods and goddesses were worshiped by the Maya. Some of them were connected to celestial bodies, such as the stars, Sun, and Moon. Others held sway over creation, aspects of daily life, and death. Deities were feared as much as revered and it was essential to appease them as much as possible, often through human sacrifice. Kukulcan, a feathered serpent, was an important deity. Chac, the god of rain and lightning, was venerated, since rainfall was vital to farming communities. Also worshiped was the Sun god Kinich Ahau, who was associated with the jaguar.
EL CASTILLO PYRAMID
Built around 800, the incredible El Castillo pyramid has a perfect astronomical design. The four staircases face the cardinal points, with various features corresponding to aspects of the Maya calendar. At the two yearly equinoxes, a fascinating optical illusion occurs whereby a serpent appears to crawl down the north staircase. The temple at the top of the inner pyramid contains a chacmool, a carved reclining figure with a stone dish on its stomach thought to have held sacrificial offerings. There is also a beautiful, bright-red throne carved as a jaguar and encrusted with jade. The entrance to the temple is divided by snake-shaped columns.
Unlike other Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya did not develop a large, centralized empire, living instead in independent city-states. Once thought to have been a peaceful people, they are now known to have shared the lust for war and human sacrifice evident in other ancient civilizations. Immensely talented, the Maya had an understanding of astronomy and developed sophisticated systems of writing, counting, and recording the passing of time (Observatory). They predicted the phases of the Moon, equinoxes and solstices, and solar and lunar eclipses. They knew that the Morning and Evening Star were the same planet, Venus, and calculated its “year” to within a fraction of the true figure. Remarkably, they achieved all of this without the use of lenses for observing distant objects, instruments for calculating angles, or clocks.
At 5 50 ft (168 m) in length, this is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. Still in place are the two engraved rings that the ball had to pass through.
Also called El Caracol (The Snail) for its spiral staircase, this building was an astronomical observatory. The various slits in the walls correspond to the positions of certain celestial bodies on key dates in the Maya calendar.
Temple of the Warriors
Set on a small pyramid, this is decorated with sculptures of the rain god Chac and the plumed serpent Kukulcan. A chacmool statue and two S-shaped serpent columns guard the entrance.
So called because its small rooms reminded the Spaniards of nuns’ cells, this large structure, built in three stages, was probably a palace. This facade of the eastern annexe has particularly beautiful stone fretwork and carvings.
This building is decorated with fretwork, masks of the rain god Chac, and the bacabs – four animals who, in Maya myth, held up the sky.
Group of a Thousand Columns
Made up of carved stone colonnades on two sides of a huge plaza, this may have been used as a market.
Built on top of an older structure that can also be visited, this 79-ft (24-m) high pyramid was dedicated to Kukulcan, the Maya representation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Its height and striking geometric design dominate the whole site.
A sacbe (Maya road) leads to this huge natural well, which is thought to have been revered as the home of the rain god Chac. Archeological evidence indicates that the well was used for human sacrifice.
The “Wall of Skulls” is a low platform whose perimeter is carved with grinning skulls. Archeologists believe that it was used to display the heads of victims of human sacrifice, which was practiced during Chichen ltza‘s late period.
Thousands of objects, including some made of gold and jade, were cast into the Sacred Cenote as offerings to the rain god. If a human sacrificial victim survived, they were thought to possess the power of prophecy.
c. 750: The Sacred Cenote s used for ritual offering to the rain god.
c. 900 Chichen Itza becomes the center of Maya culture.
1904—10: US archeologist Edward Herbert Thompson dredges the Sacred Cenote.
1988: Chichen Itza is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.