One of New Seven Wonders of the World
Clap your hands at the bottom of the stairs of the 1,100-year-old Temple of Kukulcan, in the ancient city of Chichen Itza, and the responding echo will sound like the cawing of a sacred quetzal bird. Interesting phenomenon or acoustical masterpiece? Many believe the Maya were engineering geniuses, and this is not sheer coincidence.
Imagine four square miles in the midst of a tropical jungle, in the state of Yucatan in Mexico, where the sweat of hundreds of Maya people literally carved a home to create dozens of buildings to form a city called Chichen Itza. Between 800 and 1250 A.D, this ancient city was the center of political, economic, religious, and military power, not only in Yucatan but also the entire southern part of Mesoamerica. This was a time when life was good and plentiful, when this Maya community celebrated its glory and grandeur, building grand temples and palaces.
Before modern conveniences like electricity or motorized vehicles, the Mayans created what is considered one of the most important civilizations to exist in the ancient world. Chichen Itza is pronounced chee-chehn eet-sah, derived from the Mayan language: Chi--mouth, Chen--well, and Itza--the tribe that inhabited the area. These archaeological ruins are probably the best-known classical civilization of Mesoamerica, perhaps even the world.
In addition to its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, the New7Wonders Organization announced in 2007 that Chichen Itza's nomination and subsequent assignment is to represent global heritage throughout history as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Probably the best known is the famous El Castillo, also known as Kukulcan's Pyramid, a structure that stretches 75 feet tall rising regally to the heavens as it is meant to be, celebrating a culture that is now scattered throughout Latin America. Today, the ancient civilization, known as Mundo Maya or Maya World, is alive in a legacy of stone at Chichen Itza and through its seven million descendants.
But who were the Maya and this amazing archaeological masterpiece they left for our enjoyment? Perhaps the best way to get to know these great people is to explore their past before we dig into the ruins of Chichen Itza.
Mystery still surrounds the crumbling ruins of the once magnificent pyramids and temples of Chichen Itza. The biggest mystery of all is why would a successful culture suddenly abandon a commercially successful location? Were they conquered by another people? Or perhaps disease or a drought sent the survivors to a safer haven?
The real reason these amazing inhabitants may have left Chichen Itza may never be known for certain. However, what we do know is that the Maya people were masters at almost any skill they attempted, leaving behind the evidence of highly skilled architects, scientists, and mathematicians, talents formerly only credited to the Egyptians. While Europe was in the midst of the Dark Ages, the Maya had mapped the heavens, mastered mathematics, built pyramids extending into the heavens, and evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas.
Chichen Itza is the second most visited of Mexico's archaeological sites, likely due to its prime location midway between the tourist playground of Cancun and Merida in the northern center of the Yucatan Peninsula in present day Mexico. The remains of the ancient Mayan civilization of Chichen Itza were once hidden beneath an overgrown jungle. This pre-Columbian site has been widely studied, excavated and restored since the early 1800's.
There are numerous stories about the Maya, the Toltecs, and a host of gods, but it is widely agreed the Maya originated in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., rising to prominence around 250 A.D. in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, and western Honduras. Chichen Itza was first populated between 500 and 900 AD by Mayans, abandoned and resettled, invaded by the Toltecs from the North and then abandoned for the last time sometime around 1300. But let's start with its beginning.
Chichen Itza was founded by the priest Lakin Chan, also known as Itzamna, which is why their people were called chanes or itzaes. If you explore the ruins today, you will see numerous reliefs of both the Mayan gods, including Chaac, and the Toltec gods including Quetzalcoatl.
When the Itza merged with the Toltec tribes, the Xio and Cocom, the city was forever changed. The Toltec influence is evidenced by a change in the architecture, depicting their gods and styles. The Toltec religious practice of human sacrifice was also practiced, and archaeologists have found numerous skeletons and skulls revealing that evidence of sacrifice. Upon dredging the Cenote of Sacrifice, archaeologists discovered various types of offerings including jade carvings, pottery, and human skeletons.
Its various structures--the Pyramid of Kukulkan, the Temple of Chaac Mool, the Ball Courts, and the Temple of the Warriors--can still be seen today and demonstrate the Maya's commitment to quality architectural. The Pyramid itself was the last, and arguably the greatest, of all Mayan temples.
The Itza domain was probably the longest lasting rule and included other areas of Mexico: Tabasco, Campeche, the northern Gulf Coast, and a large part of the southern lowlands. The core of its control was based on regional and long distance trade activities, an important internal structure to the Yucatecan communities. All of the approximately 50,000 Maya inhabitants were connected to the ceremonial center, Chichen Itza, by means of roads known as sacbeob.
The area was mostly agricultural, but not because of rainfall. Since the Yucatan Peninsula has no rivers, the Mayas relied on the three natural cenotes at Chichen Itza that provided them with plentiful supplies of water, a source that is always important to a civilization's existence. Because of the abundant water source, this was a perfect place to settle, but not all was perfect as this city also had a dark side.
Two of these cenotes exist today; the most famous is the Cenote of Sacrifice, sacred to the Maya rain god Chaac. Archaeologists have excavated from the bottom of this cenote offerings of jade, pottery, and human skeletons. It is thought that this was also a place of human sacrifice, although there is no proof to the legend that beautiful young women were sacrificed.
About 987, Quetzalcoatl, a Toltec king, arrived with an army from central Mexico to conquer the great city of Chichen Itza, largely due to its great location for trade. Along with local Mayan allies, he made Chichen Itza his capital. This period is when the mix of Maya and Toltec styles takes place in various structures such as the "Temple of the Warriors." Only about thirty of the hundreds of buildings still remain for the viewing pleasure of tourists.
Structure, symbol, and cosmology
Chichen Itza is divided into three sections, grouped by their style. The site combines Toltec and Mayan influences and is ripe with cosmological symbolism. The north group is distinctly Toltec in style, the central from the early period, and the southern section known as Chichen Viejo, "the Old Chichen."
The site's main feature is the Pyramid of Kukulkan. Other interesting buildings include the Caracol (observatory used by Maya astronomers), and the ball court. Located in the center of this great city, the Pyramid of Kukulcan towers above the other buildings and is an example of the Maya's extensive understanding of theology and astronomy. Also known as El Castillo (the castle), it is clear the pyramid was linked to the Maya's interests in astronomy and the calendars. On the northern side are sculptures of Quetzalcoatl, the feather-headed serpent god.
From a distance, the structure appears similar to ancient Egyptian pyramids, but as you move closer, it is a square- based stepped pyramid between 75 and 80 feet tall with square terraces and staircases up each of the four sides to the top of the temple. Each side originally had 91 steps, and when adding the platform at the top as a final step, there are 365 in total for every day of the year.
Still today, the most amazing phenomenon occurs during the vernal equinox (March 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 21), the ceremony of the descent of Kukulcan. At about 3 in the afternoon, the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid's northern stairway where sculptures of plumed serpents run down the staircase. The sunlight causes seven isosceles triangles to form imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Mexican researcher Luis El Arochi calls it "the symbolic descent of Kukulcan" and believes it might be connected with ancient agricultural rituals.
The pyramid was actually built on top of an earlier structure. Archaeologists discovered this when they found a tunnel that lads to the staircase of the original pyramid.
Together with the saebe (white road leading to the Sacred Cenote) the pyramid forms a complex representative of the religious and political power of the Itza people. At the time of conquest, pilgrimages made by people from all over the peninsula paid homage to the rain gods, and probably to Itza ancestors. Inside the top of the pyramid of Kukulkan are located the Chaac Mool sculpture and King Kukulkan's Jaguar Throne, painted red with jade-green spots. At one time, visitors could climb to the top of these steep stairs, but this privilege is rare now as the steps are wearing the signs of overuse.
The Temple of the Warriors and its adjacent Temple of the Jaguar are the most awe inspiring ruins. The temple is another structure built on top of a pyramid. It has a series of columns depicting warriors, evidently in honor of those who had fought and fallen in the past. The columns continue on into the jungle, as a portion is not completely restored.
The Caracol or Observatory is a round building on a large square platform south of El Castillo and another interesting phenomenon from the Maya. The El Caracol means "the snail" for the stone spiral staircase inside. This structure was an observatory with its doors aligned to view the vernal equinox, the Moon's greatest northern and southern declinations, and other astronomical events sacred to Kukulcan, the feathered-serpent god of the wind and learning. The Maya used the shadows inside the room cast from the angle of the sun hitting the doorway to tell when the solstices would occur. The reflection of the stars from large rock cups filled with water and placed around the edge of the observatory helped the Mayas determine their calendar system.
Perhaps the most interesting structure is the large ball court, where Maya men played a deadly game called Pok-ta-pok. Archaeologists identified seven courts and the largest is inscribed with sculptures and carvings of various teams. The Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica, measures 545 by 232 feet (166 by 68 meters). The walls are 12 meters high, and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents.
Anthropologists believe that the object of the game was to score more points than your opponent by bouncing or hurling (without use of hands or feet) a six to ten pound ball through that ring. Much controversy surrounds this game as to whether it was a substitute for war or a morbid amusement to the elite, but most agree that the penalty of a loss was death by decapitation, as depicted on sculpted panels.
Chichen Itza also contains many other archaeological buildings in various stages of ruin, all historically impressive, such as the Temple of Jaguars, The Ossuary, The Red House or Chichan Chob, the House of the Deer, The Nunnery, the Church, The Akab Dzib, temple of the Carved Panels, The Well of Xboloc, and The Temple of the Bearded Man
The final collapse of this culture took place in the north of the peninsula between 1196 and 1441. It is thought that the Itza were politically and commercially more aggressive then the earlier Maya rulers, so the city's history under their rule was marked by much fighting. However, when the Spaniards arrived to Chichen Itza, it had already been abandoned, and homes and temples were burned, perhaps because of internal fighting or lack of food.
Even though the city never recovered, it wasn't quite abandoned as some people still remained although nothing was rebuilt. The Spanish conquistadors found buildings partially in ruins. However, the one constant was the Cenote of Sacrifice, maintained as a sacred site for quite some time.
Chichen Itza has been widely studied, excavated and restored more than any of the other Mayan cities. Compounding the mystery of this great civilization are ancient legends passed down through the Mayan and Toltec tribes. According to Toltec history, in 987 A.D., the legendary ruler Quetzalcoatl, defeated and expelled from Tula, was last seen leaving from the Gulf coast on a raft of serpents. Conversely, the Maya's story records the arrival of a king named Kukulkan, the Serpent God, whose return had been expected. Regardless of the history and mystery, everyone agrees that the Chichen Itza is one of the world's greatest wonders.
Diana Rowe is a freelance writer.