The Pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya ceremonial center on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The history of this architectural complex, whose name means "at the mouth of the Itza well," inspires a sense of wonder worthy of the name given to its early inhabitants: "water sorcerers."
Surrounded by dense rainforest, Chichen Itza sits in the north central part of the Yucatan, about 75 miles east of the stale capital of Merida. It hides two freshwater sinkholes, or cenotes, within its boundaries: one, known as Xtoloc, the source of drinking water for Chichen Itza; and the deep, emerald-hued Sacred Well where the rain god Chac was invoked to bring water. During droughts, countless jadeite offerings and even some sacrificed maidens or children were flung to the bottom of the well, which glistens within towering walls of blackened rock that seem to lead down into the underworld.
But what is extraordinary about this city, which reached the height of its splendor around the tenth century, has to do not only with the ceremonies that unified the natural beauty of its surroundings with the worldview of the Maya people, but also with a concept of architecture that reflected the movement of the heavenly bodies with remarkable accuracy. This was clear during a visit we made recently, accompanied by one of the most experienced guides at the site, Manuel Pardenillas.
In this land where subterranean waters created underground cavities and deep mysteries, where "sorcerers" explored the passage of time and its relationship to the stars, rituals were organized around the edifices of calcareous stone, built according to precise astronomical calculations. That same search for mystery had led the Maya to become the first people ever to conceive of the number zero, predating even their counterparts in ancient India. But unlike Old World civilizations that found practical uses for their discoveries about space and time--developing, for example, hourglasses and the wheel--the Maya devoted themselves to examining the power of time and its influence on human life. Long before Jorge Luis Borges, they considered the idea of circular time: all that is, already was, and will be again.
The Maya thought in terms of figures as large as those of the Alautun, a period equivalent to more than 63 million years. They were capable of calculating eclipses that had taken place many centuries earlier--and not only did they figure out the exact duration of the solar year and the phases of Venus, but they also conceived of a way to unite architecture with the everyday. They organized their lives in order to make sense of time and to read the stars, looking to the sky to see what was written on the earth.
A trip to Chichen Itza can be made geographically in less than three hours from Cancun or two hours from Tulum, but it represents a journey through time, to the grandeur of pre-Hispanic America. Back then, the power of a city such as this one grew out of its sacredness which did not exempt it from historical dramas such as those that precipitated its fall.
Chichen Itza holds ceremonial vestiges that correspond to different eras. One of the oldest buildings is known as the Nunnery, because its latticework reminded the Spanish of their own religious structures. A grand staircase leads up its north face. This building--like the Observatory and other structures such as the Akab Dzib--dates back to the Classic Period, which began around 600 A.D. Although some structures are older, it was not until the eighth century that Chichen Itza began to emerge as a ceremonial center.
The oldest structures, which contain the famous Maya arch and representations of the large-nosed rain god, reflect the influence of the Puuc architectural style. This same style was used by the great Maya builders in Guatemala's Peten region before they mysteriously disappeared at the peak of their activity, abandoning centers such as Uxmal to the encroaching vegetation.
Different theories have emerged about the waves of occupation of Chichen Itza. The Maya of the Classic Period, who built cities without walls, carved out their scientific knowledge of high-level mathematics and astronomy on stone stelac, calculating their own "long count" calendar back to the year 3113 B.C., in accordance with ah important astronomical event. According to the archaeologist Eric Thompson, the Classic Maya disappeared from this place before the arrival of the Itza people, whose culture would introduce non-Maya influences.
During the Post-Classic Period--which began with the building of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, or El Castillo, as well as the Temple of One Thousand Columns, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Great Ball Court--the architecture and sculpted stone gods underwent a transformation, under the dominion of Toltec peoples from Tula, known as Tollan in Aztec myth. In his books on the Maya, anthropologist Alberto Ruz argues that the Itzaes, "those who made offerings to water," discovered the early structures and settled in Chichen Itza, where they built temples and laid down white paths, known as sac-be. They stayed for a couple of centuries before abandoning the place in the year 632 A.D.
According to The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Itzaes had arrived in the region of Bakhalal, or Bacalar, around the fifth century, when they founded Uc and Abnal, later known as Chichen Itza. But they abandoned this place for Chakanputun, where they are believed to have stayed for almost three centuries, until they were expelled and became dispersed. At that time, in 848 A.D., a group of Itzaes founded Mayapan, establishing the Cocom dynasty, while others went back to Chichen Itza. When they returned, they brought with them hybrid Toltec influences. The "water sorcerers" reestablished themselves in the city and created the impressive buildings of the Second Maya Empire, which would last only a few centuries. As had been prophesized by Balam, "the jaguar priest," there would come a time in which the gods of the Itzaes would no longer matter.
By the end of the tenth century, other priests and warriors had arrived, under the command of the Toltec ruler Kukulcan--the historical figure that gave rise to the myth of the Plumed Serpent-who had been expelled from Tula. This man-god, who tended to sacrifice birds and butterflies instead of human lives, promised to return by way of the East, dressed in black, invested with full powers and bearing a cross. Four centuries later, the Aztecs would confuse him with Heman Cortes. But the Itzaes never held such beliefs, nor would they have trembled at his return, because they had never supplanted their belief in the god Huizchilopochtli, nor did they wage glorious wars to hunt down men and thus impede the fall of their world. Their wars more closely resembled those of the ancient Greeks, though they did not escape the increase in human sacrifices that characterized the Post-Classic Period.
The new style, which brought together Maya and Toltec traditions--as seen by the omnipresent image of the Plumed Serpent, who is also Gucumatz or Kukulcan and Quetzalcoatl--was expanded with a fusion of worldviews that led to modifications in the structures. The Toltec heritage is evident in the growing representation of military images. Sculptures of individual warriors and carvings of processions of warriors began to appear on altars, as well as images of the god of death, Tezcatlipoca, and scenes of hearts being ripped out in sacrifice.
The floor of the main temple at Tula was reproduced in the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. The power of the warrior caste would later increase in Mesoamerica until it reached the bloodlust seen toward the end of the Aztec Empire.
"On every platform there is a figure, and every animal is offering something to the Chac Mool, who wants nothing more than the great human heart," Pardenillas says, referring to the scenes of sacrifice found in the Temple of the Warriors. A mural inside the temple depicts the arrival of the Toltec, who came by sea, and their war against the Maya, who were captured and sacrificed.
The warriors appear as pillars in their temple and are carved on the Temple of the Jaguars--the two Mexica military orders were known as the eagle warriors and the jaguar warriors--which comprise part of the architectural structure of the Ball Court. The ritualistic game was played with two groups of seven athletes, who covered their arms and torso with protective gear, wore sandals on their feet, and had a bat at their waist. In hurling the rubber ball with their hips and shoulders, they symbolically represented the movement of the sun and the stars. When the ball bounced off against the walls, it would produce a sound considered sacred. If a player managed to put the ball through the stone ring, Pardenillas explains, he was destined to be sacrificed to the gods. The murals show the image of a kneeling man who has been decapitated, but instead of blood, serpents pour out of his head. One of these turns into a flowering plant, a symbol of the triumph of life over death.
By the tenth century, Chichen Itza was a metropolis inhabited by 50,000 people in a social pyramid that included the Halach Unich, or "true man," along with the nobility, the warrior caste, merchants, and peasants. Three centuries later, due to wars recorded in ancient epic poetry, Chichen Itza would fall. However, the traces of that world left behind in the stones of its temples, and in the carvings that mark the passage of time and the stars, reveal that this was a culture steeped in the contemplation of numbers and the heavens. There was good reason for the nineteenth-century explorer Sylvanus Morley to call the Maya "the most brilliant people on Earth."
The fall of Chichen Itza revolves around a legendary story that recalls the battle of Troy. At the same time the Itzaes governed this ceremonial city, the Cocom ruled in Mayapan--which was never a religious center--while in Uxmal, the Tutul Xiu had established themselves since the arrival of Ah Suytok Tutul Xiu at the beginning of the eleventh century. Under the hegemony of Chichen Itza, the three cities formed a military alliance known as the League of Mayapan and extended their dominion, over the centuries assimilating the warlike shadow of Mexica mercenaries.
The alliance was broken when Canek, the Black Serpent and lord of Chichen Itza, blocked the marriage of Mayapan princess Sac-Nicte, or Blanca Flor, to Ulill, lord of Uxmal. Over time, this episode has given rise to different literary versions. It is said that Blanca Flor and the Black Serpent had loved each other as children and that he burst in at the wedding that was being celebrated at the altar of the Templo Mayor, accompanied by 60 warriors, kidnapping the princess and fleeing with her. When the Mayapan and Uxmal warriors arrived at Chichen Itza, they discovered an abandoned city and vented their rage by sacking and burning it. What is known as historical fact is that the frustration of that marriage led to war among the three cities. Hunac Ceel Cauich, the lord of Mayapan and father of Sac-Nicte, overthrew Chac Xib Chao, head of the Itzaes of Chichen Itza, who had to flee the city and take refuge in Lake Peten-Itza, in what is now northem Guatemala, according to The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel.
The tragedy did not end there: In 1441, there was a rebellion against the family governed by the Cocom, who had depended on aid from the Mexica, and sometime during the next two decades, Ah Xupan Xiu challenged and destroyed Mayapan. Shortly thereafter, the Tutul Xiu abandoned Uxmal and left for Manf. From that point on, the great kingdoms began to decline, and when the Spaniards arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517, they found only minor chiefdoms still at battle with each other, which facilitated their submission to the cross and the sword.
A visit to the temples and sacred centers--built around a celestial model of architecture, as if the spaces connected Cosmos and Earth--begins at the giant ceiba tree located at the heart of Chichen Itza. It grows in the gardens of the Mayaland Hotel, one of the few such places in the world located within an archaeological site. It was built in 1923, 65 years before this place would be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pardenillas, who wept as a child when he could not visit Chichen Itza on a school field trip, has spent four decades of his life getting to know the place. He brings to mind some of the first explorers who arrived here, drawn by the tales of Diego de Landa and Francisco de Orellana. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the British Museum financed visits by Jotm Lloyd Stephens of the United States and the English artist Frederick Catherwood; in 1843, they coauthored the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Among the notes Padernillas carries around with him is a copy of one of the 25 lithographs that Catherwood made using the daguerreotype technique.
As we walk through the Temple of One Thousand Columns, the voice or our guide reconstructs the time of splendor in which the edifice had a palm roof and wood and stone floors covered with red stucco, the color symbolizing the earth. Around 1920, when the restoration of the ceremonial center began, the walls of the Pyramid of Kukulcan had been destroyed, but it was evident that this was the nucleus around which other ritualistic structures had been built. Behind those structures were the common people, says Pardenillas, pointing in the distance to the type of circular thatched huts or palapas in which the Maya lived and which are still seen in the region.
The restoration of El Castillo, or the Pryamid of Kukulcan, revealed that within its walls there was another structure from the Classic Period. "The archaeologists made some openings and found the original stairs and the altar," Pardenillas says. "They built a passageway with 62 steps leading inside, but this was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and has not been reopened." Two of the most impressive figures are those of a reclining Chac Mool figure and a jaguar painted red with 73 jadeite spots, which sat on the throne of the Maya priest before the rival of the Toltec. Our guide notes that when the first 52-year cycle was completed--derived by multiplying the four cardinal points with the esoteric number thirteen, as determined by the Tzolkin ceremonial calendar--the Toltec sealed off that part of the structure, which was not discovered for a thousand years. Inside, besides the jaguars, there were also sculpted serpents and turquoise plates.
But what really captures the world's attention is the descent of the Plumed Serpent, which occurs every equinox, in March and September. It was not an archaeologist but a laborer working on the restoration, Arcadio Salazar, who noticed the phenomenon for the first time in the twentieth century. "In 1936," Pardenillas says, "he told a French photographer that if he would conic al the equinox he would see a play of light and shadows on the pyramid that produced the effect of a descending serpent." The stairs to the north have at their base the head of Quetzalcoatl--whose name means "bird snake"--and nine platforms that, due to the position of the pyramid, project only seven shadows during the afternoon of the equinox. "There are seven shadows and six light areas, which add up to thirteen and which move as the sun goes down, creating the image of a descending serpent," Pardenillas says.
The pyramid's architecture also contains other time-related numbers. Each of the four sides has 91 steps, which together with the top platform add up to 365, the number of days in the year and on the haab or solar calendar. The Maya also used a 260-day lunar calendar. These two calendars were in sync every 18,980 days, equivalent to 52 solar years and 73 lunar years; at tiffs juncture, when the two calendars were synchronized, the Ceremony of the New Fire was held, and the whole symbolic sequence began again.
When asked how the Maya, with no modern scientific instruments, could so accurately determine the passage of time and apply it to their architecture, Pardenillas invites the group to walk toward the Observatory. But first lie points out another wonder of El Palacio that has to do with the acoustic properties of the calcareous stone the builders got from the Yucatan soil. Due to the material's porous quality, the minerals it contains, the way in which the stones are cut, and the structure of the pyramid, the echo of a handclap brings to the imagination the song of the quetzal bird to which the temple Pays homage.
The Observatory., also called El Caracol ("the snail"), is the only round structure at Chichen Itza. Its doors face the cardinal points and in the center, a narrow, snail-like staircase rises from the floor to the upper reaches. The high towers had eight windows through which the astronomer, isolated from everyone else, could observe the passage of the light of day and study the night sky. In one impressive indication of the accuracy of their astronomical calculations, the Maya determined the lapse of time between the appearance of Venus as the morning star and the evening star: some 584 days. The Maya discovered the luminous Serpent and other constellations and stars. They called the north star Xaman Ek--the Great Star that guided their seagoing traders. They could calculate past or future eclipses with astounding accuracy.
In this century, every night people light up the Pyramid of Kukulcan with rays of color and relive the past. Over the loudspeakers conies this reflection: "The surprising history of the Maya is full of unsolved mysteries. The traces of its past not only are the object of archaeological research, but also give us reason to hope in a future worthy of those glorious times of that bygone era, and of the magnificence of the great sacred cities such as Chichen Itza, that majestic, splendid capital of the Itzaes."
Colombian journalist and author Adriana Herrera is based in Miami, Florida.