The Mayan civilization spread around the Yucatan Peninsula and developed magnificent cities and ceremonial centers, Chichen Itza is probably the most famous archeological site we can find in the whole area; it is consider a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the main temple called EL CASTILLO was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
It is important to mention that the name EL CASTILLO was given by the Spanish conquerors when Chichen Itza was discovered; it means “the Castle” due to the fact that for the Spanish civilization the larger constructions were Castles back in Spain. But for the Mayans it was a temple for the God Kukulkan “the God of Fertility”, the one that descent from the sky in order to provide the fertilization of seeds in which all the population depended to nourish themselves.
Kukulkan was represented as a feathered snake, this cult was brought by the Toltec civilization when they invaded the Mayans around the X century and was known as Quetzalcoatl by the invaders.
For this reason, Chichen Itza has two sections: one before the Toltec invasion known as the “Old Chichen Itza” which flourished between 600 and 900 AD where we can find pure Mayan style constructions, and the other section, where the main entrance is located, constructed after the invasion of the Toltecs from 900 until the time when it was abandoned around 1200 AD.
Even that there is no record of when Chichen Itza was first settled, some early chroniclers said that this happened roughly around 600 AD. The style of construction known as PUUC suggested that the settlements were from tribes coming from the hills surrounding the west part of the Yucatan Peninsula called the Itza and eventually the city of almost four square miles took their name.
The name Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. Itza means “water sorcerers”. So the full translation could be “At the mouth of the well of the water sorcerers”.
A very convenient name for a ceremonial center located about one thousand feet away from a giant sink hole or well called “Sacred Cenote”.
Chichen Itza became the most prominent and prosperous city of the Yucatan Peninsula, and was the driving commercial, religious and political force in the region for a period of 300 years.
Around the X century, another tribe from the central part of Mexico called the Toltecs, invaded the Maya and took over the city of Chichen Itza. This people remade the city in their own image, introduced a new style of architecture and pottery, in doing so, some of the Mayan constructions were lost as the Toltecs build new structures on top of the ancient ones, like in the case of the main pyramid.
Finally between 1185 and 1204 AD, the Mayan revolted against the power of the Itza-Toltecs and after a civil war the chiefs of the remaining cities and powerful families decided to create an alliance and a new capital surrounded by defensive walls, this new city was called “Mayapan” which means “Flag of the Mayan People” and was located only about 60 miles west of Chichen Itza, the powerful and ancient chief of the family “Cocom” was chosen to be the king as well as members of noble families whom were sent to play part in the new government .
This new arrangement lasted for about 200 years until 1441 when “Ah Xupan” organized a revolt and the “Cocom Dynasty” was exterminated and all the family members assassinated, Mayapan was sacked, burned and abandoned, and Yucatan fell apart into different small cities in constant war against each other.
Chichen Itza became famous following a visit in the early 1840s by the American writer called John Lloyd Stephens, whom along with the English Artist Frederick Catherwood, published a bestselling book about the ruins and its surroundings “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, from that moment on, Chichen Itza received visits from prominent explorers and was known around the world.
In 1894, Edward Thompson, the American consul in Merida (a city about 75 miles away from Chichen-Itza) purchased the land, where Chichen-Itza is located, and for 15 years explored the archeological site and dredged up the famous well, in which he found gold, pottery and other valuable objects.
In 1926 the government of Mexico seized the property which at the time was being reconstructed by the Carnegie Institution. The case crawled through the courts and in 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in Thompson’s favor, but at that time, he has been death for almost ten years, so the Title reverted to his heirs, who sold it to the Barbachano family, which owns Chichen Itza today and faces hard legal battles to keep the property since it was recently voted a New Wonder of the World and for that is consider National Property and Patrimony of all Mexicans according to Mexican laws.
From 1924 to 1944, the Carnegie Institution restored several constructions in Chichen Itza, notably the Temple of the Warriors and the Mayan Observatory. Not long before its departure, in 1939, the Mexican Government created an agency called INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), who is in charge of restoring, managing and maintaining the Mexican Archeological Patrimony. Nowadays, Chichen Itza is visited by 1.3 million tourists per year and is expected to duplicate this amount within the next five years thanks to the nomination of New Wonder of the World; new studies are on the way to assure the conservation and security of the site.
The main constructions to visit are:
Leading the impressive monuments of the site, our vision is automatically captured by the magnificent pyramid “El Castillo” located at the main esplanade of the archeological site.
The pyramid has four sides and each side has a stairway of 91 long and narrow steps culminating on a platform with a rectangular temple at the top; each side measures 177 feet wide and the pyramid is 90 feet high. At the north facade we can see two giant serpent heads of stone, one in each side of the stairway base, representing the God Kukulkan, the feathered snake.
The structure of the pyramid is composed by nine platforms superposed (at different times in history), a temple at the top with an entrance of two columns with the figure of feather snakes carved in stone, the snake’s heads are at the base of the columns and the tails serve as support for the threshold of the main entrance.
Mayans had two calendars, a religious one called Tzolkin of 260 days and a civil calendar called Haab of 365 days, in reference to the main pyramid, this building is consider the most important construction of the complex, as it represents the civil Mayan calendar Haab of 365 days formed by 18 months of 20 days and five extra days added at the end of the year which are all represented on the pyramid in the following way: if we add the 91 steps of each stairway (4 stairways) we have a total of 364 steps plus the base of the temple located at the top is a total of 365 steps or days, from any angle the nine superposed platforms are divided in the middle by the stairways forming 18 corners that represent the 18 months, and if we count the five sculptures at each side of the upper temple ceiling, it gives us 20 figures representing the 20 days of each month. Also in each side of the pyramid we can find 52 rectangles that represent another measure of time Mayans had, every 52 years they added 13 days, this is the equivalent to what we do in the present to adjust time, when we add 1 day to February every four years (leap year), a period of 13 leap years will be equal to 52 years 13 x 4=52.
Archeoastronomical events at the pyramid.
During the equinox, which is the time when the sun crosses the plane of the earth's equator, making night and day of approximately equal length all over the earth and occurring on March 21 (spring equinox) and September 22 (autumnal equinox), an amazing phenomena takes place where we can confirm that the construction is perfectly calculated, built and aligned in astronomical perspective and measurements.
On this dates, between three and five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun projects its rays over the west façade of the pyramid, and one by one the shadows of seven isosceles triangles, which are formed by the north-west corners of the building, emerge from the top to the bottom of the pyramid and over the wall of the stairway on the northern façade, the phenomena continues giving the impression of a light and shadow serpent descending until the last triangle touches the giant serpent’s head sculpture at the base of the pyramid. This is called the descent of God Kukulkan, so by looking at this, the Mayans knew that it was the starting of the fertile and rainy season of the year, a significant message from “Kukulkan” the God of Fertility.