The unlit path leading through the jungle and up to Chichen-Itza was crowded with a processional of people walking up to the archaeological ruins. The focused quiet of everyone as they walked suggested a mood of solemnity. The darkness made everyone overly cautious of their steps as they walked with their heads bowed, watching the path as they stepped over tree roots, rocks, and little holes on the dark and dusty earth. Our first view of El Castillo, or The Great Pyramid, was in the unlit darkness. The giant structure seemed to appear out of nowhere through the leaves and branches of the trees. As we walked, the full moon rose in the clear, cool, night sky behind El Castillo, lending an even more mysterious aura to the ancient site …
Early the next morning I returned to Chichen-Itza, the heat already threatening to swell my fingers and feet, and the sun was taking its time to burn my skin to a crisp. This ancient site was the first and most developed archaeological site that I was to visit in The Yucatan and I wanted to take it slow, to savor the experience, to really get a sense of this mystical place. By the time I arrived, there were already a few enthusiastic climbers on top of El Castillo, taking in the views across the site and the jungle before the crowds arrived for the day.
Chi is the Maya word for mouth, Chen is Maya for well. When the word Chichen is pronounced, both syllables are emphasized as if they were two different one syllable words. Itza is the name of the people who, it is believed, conquered the original inhabitants of Chichen and then held power there for over 300 years. Chichen-Itza, which means Mouth of the Well of the Itzas is named so because of the sacred cenote that exists on the edge of the archaeological site, and the Itzas that came to live and rule in the city.
Water was at a premium in the Maya cities when they were inhabited at full capacity, especially those in the hot inland areas of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was also thought that the name could mean Mouth of the Well of the Water Sorcerers, since the ancient Maya – of which the Itzas may have been a part – worshiped and paid tribute to the Rain God Chaac at the sacred cenote.
As I walked along the dusty paths from building to building, it became increasingly clear how valuable a resource water would be here. I thought that I myself might even be praying to Chaac before I left Chichen.
Walking along, each building or complex I explored gave me more of a sense of just how developed and advanced this culture was. To put it into a white European art historical perspective, these buildings arose while the Romans were losing power in Europe and North Africa. The Roman’s greatest architectural achievements were aqueducts, paved roads, and temples. During this same time while Europe slunk into the Dark Ages, across the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula in what is now Mexico, the Maya people of Chichen and those all over the Yucatan peninsula, were building observatories, temples, nunneries, ball courts, administrative buildings, stone-paved roads, and marketplaces. Their culture was full of life and ceremony, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and mystery. And they were obsessed with the concept of time.
Chichen-Itza is probably the most famous ancient archaeological site on the Yucatan peninsula, next to Palenque. It was certainly the most impressive ceremonial center in southeastern Mexico when it was an active and alive city. It seems to have had three major development periods:
- Chichen was founded in 435 AD by the Maya, with the first structures being built between 495 and 625. Their religion was centered around Chaac, the Maya Rain God.
- Around 900 AD the Itzas arrived, bringing their worship of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, as well as a new architectural style and a new name, Chichen-Itza. It is unclear as to where the Itza came from. Some think they came from the Toltec region of Central Mexico, while others think they were Mayas from Chompoton, or even from the Peten region of Guatamala.
- 1200 – 1400 AD brought internal conflicts to the Itzas when Chichen was conquered by the Cocom, when the Mayapan Alliance fell apart, effectively expelling them and ending their long rule. This was the period in which many buildings in the Toltec military style were built. The city was abandoned for unknown reasons after 1400.
El Caracol, or The Observatory, is one of the the many interesting, and one of the most important, buildings in Chichen-Itza. From here the Maya astronomers recorded the lunar and solar cycles as well as the cycle of Venus, a planet that greatly interested them. They understood the equinoxes and solstices, as well as lunar and solar eclipses from their observations. The Maya studied the constellations, especially Tzab, the one we know as The Pleiades, and plotted the paths of many heavenly bodies. From their observations and exquisite mathematics, they also developed the two Maya calendars, the Haab and the Tzolkin. The Haab being the everyday calendar, made up of 365 days, with 18 months consisting of 20 days each, and 5 empty days. The Tzolkin was a ritual, or astrological, calendar, used in conjunction with the Haab, that could be used to define the destiny of an individual.
Maybe because of the Maya obsession with the concept of time, they also seemed to be obsessed with the concept of death. There are reminders of death all over Chichen-Itza, from the skull carvings on the wall of El Tzompantil, The Ossuary, the possible rules of the ball games played on the Ball Court, to the stories of human sacrifices made in the Sacred Cenote.
The Temple of The Warrior holds the famous sculpture of Chac Mool which sits between two sculptural columns of the feathered serpent Kukulcan. The Nunnery has beautiful lattice work and sculptures on the outside on its walls. The Thousand Columns are a mystery. The Bath House, The Platform of Venus, every building in Chichen-Itza has at least one unique detail to look at, something to learn, something to discover, something to think about, and possibly, something to remember.
Visiting the Site
Think about going to the light show the night before touring the ruins as being within the compound at night gives a haunting sense of the site. The best time to view Chichen-Itza is early in the morning before 11am. The site opens at 8AM and is fairly easy going until about noon when the tour buses start rolling in and the temperature rises dramatically. Plan on spending anywhere from two hours to two days exploring this incredible place, depending on your level of interest in ancient archaeological sites.
Chichen-Itza is a World Heritage Site
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