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Today, I’m going to take you on a short trip through the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá. It is not possible to cover all the structures on the site even in a day. But on this blog you will get to know the most prominent among them within a few minutes. So sit back, enjoy this oh-so-cool song and… happy reading 🙂
Chichén Itzá, declared as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in July 2007, is rated amongst the most important archaeological sites of the Maya Civilization and covers an area of approximately six square miles where hundreds of buildings once stood.
Chichén Itzá in Maya language means ‘the mouth of the well of the Itzá’. The place was first occupied as early as in the fifth century AD but was apparently abandoned thereafter. During the flourishing phase of the Classic Period (600AD – 800AD), arts and sciences gained prominence here. It was also at this time that Chichén Itzá became a religious centre of increasing importance; this can be seen from the buildings constructed during this time: the Red House, the House of the Deer, the Nunnery and its Annex, the Church, the Akab Dzib (‘Temple of Obscure Writing’), the Temple of the Three Lintels and the House of Phalli. Toward the end of the Classic Period, the foundations of this magnificent civilization weakened, and the Maya abandoned their religion centres and the surrounding rural land. In the 10th century, the city came under the rule of the Itzá, a migrant Maya tribe from the Petén rain-forest around Tikal in Guatemala. Some experts claim that they may have been a mix of highland Toltec and lowland Putún Maya, a tribe thriving on trade between the different regions of the area.
Around 1000 AD, the Itzá allied themselves with two powerful tribes, Xiu of Uxmal and Cocom of Mayapan, both claiming to be descendants of the Toltec. This alliance was favourable to the Itzá for about two centuries. As the political base of Chichén Itzá expanded, even more spectacular buildings were added to the city: the Observatory, the Pyramid of Kukulkán, and the Temple of the Warriors, the Ball Court, and the Group of the Thousand Columns. Some time between 1194 and 1204 AD, Mayapan broke the alliance. In 1250 AD, it conquered Chichén Itzá and drove away the Itzá, who fled to Guatemala where they kept their traditions alive in their kingdom on the Lake Peten Itzá (the last independent Maya city) before finally surrendering to the Spaniards in 1697.
Chichén Itzá was gradually abandoned and remained only partially inhabited until shortly before the Spanish invasion. In the mid-16th century, Francisco de Montejo used the site as his headquarters in his attempt to conquer the Yucatán Peninsula. Again it was dormant until the late 19th century, when few excavations began. The structures of Chichén Itzá were overgrown with jungle and slowly decayed reducing to mounds till major archaeological excavations began in the 1920s.
Archaeologists have thoroughly excavated about thirty of the several hundred buildings, which are now open to the public. The remaining structures, resembling mounds are yet to be explored. The ruins are divided into two groups. One group belongs to the 7th and 10th century AD, the Classic Maya era when the city became a prominent ceremonial centre. This ‘old’ southern zone consists of purely Maya buildings with Puuc architecture. The other group corresponds to the Maya-Toltec Period, from the late 10th century to the early 13th century AD. Most of the outstanding and well-known ruins which show distinct Toltec influence fall in this northern zone. The Toltec-Maya architecture combines Puuc construction methods with designs of Toltec or Central Mexican origin. Toltec elements at Chichén Itzá include stepped-pyramid temples, long colonnades, low detached platforms faced with carved panels, doorways formed by twin descending feathered serpent columns, altars with figures, carved skulls and crossbones, marching felines, canines and raptorial birds devouring human hearts, and warriors in typical Toltec garb.
Pyramid of Kukulkán
The world-famous Pyramid of Kukulkán also known as El Castillo meaning ‘The Castle’ in Spanish stands right across the main entrance in the centre of the vast open court. Dedicated to the Feathered Serpent God Kukulkán, it is composed of two structures superimposed on one another, with the later larger pyramid built over an earlier original structure that is dated before 900 AD. The newer pyramid is about 55 metres (180 feet) on each side and has nine stepped terraces rising up to 24 metres (78 feet) with a small temple on the top. Archaeologists believe that the nine tiers symbolize the ‘Region of the Dead’ to the ancient Maya.
The architecture of El Castillo is full of symbolism, particularly with reference to the important Maya calendar. The four stairways leading up to the central platform each have 91 steps, making a total of 364; if the central platform is added to this, it equals the 365 days of the solar year. On either side of each stairway are nine terraces, totalling 18 on each face of the pyramid, which is equal to the number of months in the Maya solar calendar. On the face of the terraces there are 52 panels, representing the 52-year cycle when both the solar and religious calendars become realigned.
The base of the northern staircase is made up of two colossal carved heads of feathered serpents which are aligned so that a special effect occurs on the Spring and Fall equinox. On those days, 20th / 21st March and 22nd / 23rd September at about 3 pm, the sunlight creates a series of seven isosceles triangles of light and shade on the ramp of the northern staircase – this creates the impression of the body of a slithering serpent 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. This symbolizes the descent to earth of the Feathered Serpent Kukulkán, and also the beginning or end of the agricultural cycle, according to the Equinox (Spring or Autumn).
El Castillo testifies to the supremacy of the Maya as builders and mathematicians. Inside this grand structure, there is another temple, a red throne or altar in the shape of a jaguar intact with jade spots and inlaid eyes; it also once housed a sculpture of Chac Mool, a male figure in its typical half-reclining position, with its knees drawn up together and head turned up to one side with a vessel held between his hands over the stomach. This has now been moved to the Museo de la Antropologia, the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Chac Mools are found in and around temples in Toltec and other Post-Classic central Mexican sites as well as in the Post- Classic Maya civilization with heavy Toltec influence. Chac Mool is not to be confused with Chac, the Rain God whose masks are featured on the temple on the top of the Pyramid. The entrance to the inner temple is through a small door on the northern side which is now closed to public.
The Ball Court is the largest and best-preserved Mesoamerican ballgame court in the Maya world. It measures 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. The walls on both sides are carved with scenes depicting Maya figures dressed as ball players and decked out in heavy protective padding. There are plenty of carvings showing the violent end of the game, which included human sacrifice. One shows a player holding the severed head of a captive. The stump of his neck spouts serpents – symbols of the spiritual life force contained in blood – which transform into water lilies, showing how the sacrifice opens the way to the spirit world.
Yet, it is not clear whether it was the losing or the winning team that had to join the gods after the end of the game. The ball game called pok-ta-pok in Maya language, tlachtli in Nahuatl, and juego de pelota in Spanish, played an important ceremonial role in Maya society.
Imagine throwing a rubber ball weighing 4 kg using your forearms or hips through the hoop which is high above and see how difficult it is!
There are thirteen ball courts throughout the site. Apparently, only the most skilled players were allowed to play at this important religious centre. The Ball Court is another example of the Maya’s highly evolved building skills. The acoustics of the ball court are so good that you can hear someone talking in a normal voice from one end of the 168 metre long court to the other. The number seven was very sacred to the Maya. There were seven players in each team, the rings were seven metres high and if you clapped your hands or shouted on the court, the sound would echo exactly seven times! The carvings on the stone walls depict seven serpents emerging from the neck of the beheaded team captain. There is a temple at each end of the Ball Court. The North Temple has carved pillars, sculptures, as well as some murals which are now in bad condition.
Wall of Skulls
This is a low platform called Tzompantli (‘Wall of Skulls’). The word ‘Tzompantli’ comes from central Mexico. Its meaning is related to the rows of skulls carved into the stone platform, which represent the heads of sacrificial victims. When the victim’s head was cut off, it was impaled on a pole and displayed on racks erected to display the severed heads and skulls of human beings that had been sacrificed.
Platform of the Eagles
Next to the Wall of Skulls, lies a small ‘Platform of the Eagles’ which has relief panels showing eagles and jaguars clutching human hearts in their talons and claws, as well as a human head emerging from the mouth of a serpent.
Temple of the Jaguars
The Temple of the Jaguars is a small temple with serpent columns and carved panels depicting warriors and jaguars.
Platform of Venus
One of the structures on the site dedicated to Venus is the Platform of Venus. In Maya and Toltec mythology, a feathered monster or a feathered serpent with a human head in its mouth, represented Venus. This structure is also called the Tomb of Chac Mool because of a Chac Mool figure discovered ‘buried’ within the structure.
From the Platform of Venus, an ancient sacbé, or ceremonial causeway heads north to the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote). This open well measuring 60 metres in diameter, was used for ceremonial purposes. In order to obtain rain, sacrificial victims were hurled into this deep natural well together with copper, gold, and jade offerings. Bones of both children and adults were found in the well, along with a fortune in gold and jade. These were dredged out by Edward Thompson, the American consul in Mérida and a Harvard professor, who purchased a hacienda which included Chichén Itzá, for just US $75 early in the 20th century. A lot of gold and other artefacts were recovered from this cenote when the dredging work began in 1904. This cenote was reserved for rituals involving human sacrifice for invoking Chac, the rain-god. The victims were not only young women, but also children and elderly men and women.
Temple of the Warriors
East of El Castillo is one of the most impressive structures at Chichén Itzá: the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), named so because of the carvings of warriors in bas-relief. It is famous for the statue of Chac Mool found in front of the entrance at the top of the temple.
Rows of columns continue in the adjacent structure of the Thousand Columns which is thought to have served as a market area. Beyond the temple and the market in the jungle, are mounds of rubble, parts of which are being reconstructed.
The Observatory or El Caracol which means ‘conch’ in Spanish, is so named because of its interior winding staircase leading up to the top. The 10th century Observatory is quite unique in Maya architecture and one of the most important buildings on the site. Through slits in the tower’s walls, Maya astronomers could observe the cardinal directions and the approach of the all-important Spring and Autumn equinoxes, as well as the Summer solstice.
The Observatory is part of the buildings in the Southern Section. On the way there are several buildings, some of them unexcavated.
The buildings in this section are mostly Puuc style, with carved facades of animals and flowers.
The Edificio de las Monjas (Nunnery) constructed in Puuc style has many rooms. Some archaeologists believe that it was actually a palace for royalty but for the conquistadors, it resembled a European convent and so it got its name.
Also near the Nunnery lies Akab Dzib which is believed to be the oldest building in Chichén Itzá. Above a door in one of the rooms are some Maya glyphs, which gave the temple its name (the writings have yet to be deciphered), while in the other rooms, traces of red handprints are still visible.
Around the site, there are numerous stalls run by Maya families selling souvenirs crafted from stone, obsidian and wood – Chac Mools, Maya calendars, masks, pyramids, jaguars, pots, key chains as well as brightly coloured striped Mexican rugs, shawls, garments, belts and bags.
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