Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chichen Itza Part 1: Yucatan's ancient enigma

El Castillo, also known as the Pyramid of Kukulcan is the centerpiece of Chichen Itza. Carole and I visited Chichen Itza last February. The ruined Maya city is an icon of Mexico, and El Castillo is its most easily recognizable feature. Chichen Itza is located in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula, a large, flat, thumb-shaped sheet of limestone which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Located on Highway 180, the ancient ruin is 120 km (74.5 mi) east of Merída, about 1/2 way to Cancun. For a map of the area, click here.

Cenote Sagrado was extremely important to early inhabitants of Chichen Itza. Cenote Sagrado means "Sacred Well". Cenotes are a result of the limestone formations that cover Yucatán. Because there are no above-ground rivers on the Peninsula, secure water sources are critical to survival. Rainwater percolates down through the porous limestone and into underground lakes and rivers. The limestone roofs of some of the underground lakes have eroded and collapsed, creating deep, wide wells called cenotes. As people settled around them for easy access to water, the cenotes and associated cave complexes began to assume mystical significance. In fact, the name Chichen Itza means "Mouth of the Well of the Itza (people)". Another important quality of limestone is the ease with which it is shaped and carved, making it a wonderful material for building and decorating long-lasting cities. Maya architects and sculptors made full use of this property. (Photo courtesy to Wikipedia)

Major sites within Chichen Itza. We visited a number of the sites above, some of which are identified in Spanish. For your convenience: Juego de Pelota = Ball Court; Los Guerreros Temple = Warriors Temple; Caracol = The Observatory; and Iglesia = The Church. Ironically, the question of who built the city, and when it fell, is still open. Originally thought to be purely Maya, later archaeologists thought Toltec invaders from Central Mexico were responsible. More recent opinion has credited the Itza, an ethnic group originating on the Gulf coast north of Yucatán who migrated to the area in the later stages of Chichen Itza's history, giving the city its name. There is even some speculation that the influence may have worked in reverse, with Chichen Itza providing the Toltecs with architectural inspiration for their capital of Tollan, far to the north. The most recent archaelogical discoveries indicate that Chichen Itza fell almost 200 years earlier than previously thought, throwing many carefully assembled chronologies into disarray. There is presently some agreement that Chichen Itza may have peaked in the 10th and 11th Centuries AD. Even though it is one of the most heavily visited tourist attractions in Mexico, a curtain of mystery continues to surround the history of this ancient city.

El Castillo of today was built over a previous pyramid. It was common practice throughout Mesoamerica to build new pyramids on top of old ones, and El Castillo is no exception. The Pyramid of Kukulcan contains at least one other pyramid within it. Inside the buried pyramid archaeologists discovered a Chac Mool, associated with human sacrifice, and a throne in the shape of a jaguar. The final pyramid that we see today is 30 meters (98 ft.) tall, and 55.3 meters (181 ft) across. The structure is built in 9 platforms, that correspond to the Maya conception of a nine-stage underworld. There are 91 steps on each of the four staircases, and one additional step to the temple, making 365 steps, equal to the days of the year. The ancient Maya were great astronomers and mathematicians, as well as architects. They utilized all of these sciences to express their mystical world-view.

The serpent Kukulcan frames each of the staircases. The name Kukulcan corresponds to Queztacoatl, the famous feathered serpent common to many ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs. The ancient architects created a remarkable effect with El Castillo that appears each March 20th, the Vernal Equinox. As the sun hits the stepped corners of the 9 platforms, a sinuous shadow is cast on the sides of the staircases which slope at a precise 45 degree angle from the temple down to the heads of the serpents at the bottom. The serpent Kukulcan's shadow appears to writhe his way down the side of the pyramid. Think for a moment of the mathematical, astronomical, and engineering sophistication it took to create this immense effect. Yet, the Maya had no metal tools, no draft animals, and did not use the wheel! It's no wonder that thousands of people come each Vernal Equinox to witness the Maya achievement, as countless thousands did many centuries ago.

On-going investigations continue to reveal new secrets. While we were there, archaeologists were cutting deep trenches around the base of one side of El Castillo. Their efforts revealed that the grassy surface on which the pyramid appears to rest actually covers a additional great platform that extends out from the base of the El Castillo. It's like peeling an archaeological onion. Who knows what lies even deeper?

El Juego de Pelota (The Ball Court)

Ancient athletes played for high stakes. The player shown in relief above is clothed in protective armor with a helmet strapped to his head. The protection may have been necessary because the balls were large, solid rubber, and quite heavy. Injury in play wasn't the only risk. It is clear from the various illustrations around the Ball Court that the game was associated with human sacrifice. In fact, some carvings illustrate beheadings of players. It is unclear whether the players were from the losing side, as has been generally assumed, or from the winning side, as some archaeologists now speculate. The game is closely related to the Maya creation myths in which the Hero Twins sacrifice themselves to help mankind. It may have been a great honor for the winners to give up their lives. The Maya had their own way of looking at things.

Scoring involved propelling the ball through this ring. The ring is mounted 6 meters (20 ft) above the ground, and the hole is a bit smaller than a soccer ball. The precise rules of the game are unknown, but illustrations indicate that the use of hands or feet was forbidden. The primary parts of the body used in play were the hips. It boggled my mind to think of getting a heavy rubber ball through this rather small hole from 20 feet down without the use of hands or feet.

Shaped like an immense "I", the court is bounded on both sides by high stone walls. The size of the court is 146.3 meters (480 ft) long and 36.6 meters (120 ft.) across. It is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, and its very size has led some to speculate that it may have been intended for strictly ceremonial use rather than actual play. In fact, there are about a dozen other, normal sized Maya ball courts at Chichen Itza. You can see the ring set high on the wall directly above the man in black. There is another ring set in a parallel wall across the court.
Temple of the Jaguars sits atop of the wall at one end of the Ball Court. Priests and other officials could get a commanding view of the play on the Ball Court from this perch. Jaguars were powerful symbolic creatures in Mesoamerica, and particularly among the Maya. In addition, the highly militarized Toltec society had several important warrior cults, one of which was associated with jaguars.

Rear of the Temple of the Jaguars. It was through this entrance that the elite climbed to their perch over the playing field. Notice the small stone figure in the middle doorway.

Closeup of the Jaguar Temple's throne. This appears to have been used as a throne by high priests and rulers when they sat viewing the games. It is small enough to have been easily carried up to the front porch of the Temple. A similar throne can be found at Uxmal, a sister city, in front of the Governor's Palace. Behind the throne, on the interior walls, you can still see red pigment from paintings of warriors in brilliant costumes who brandish weapons in a show of military might.

The Tzompantli (The Wall of Skulls)

The Tzompantli is a large platform devoted exclusively to death. The platform was used to display racks of impaled human skulls. The name is actually from the Nahua language of the Aztecs, since the Spanish first observed tzompantlis in active use among them. They are often closely associated with ball courts, as I have seen at both Chichen Itza and at Tollan, the Toltec capital. Archaeologists believe that the heads of the losers (winners?) of the ball game decorated the Tzompantli shown above, as well as war captives. When you consider its impressive size, the Tzompantli could accommodate a lot of skulls.

Decoration on the corner of the Tzompantli. A carved-stone human skull grins cheerfully from a distant time. The rows of stone skulls, stacked 4-high, stretch off into the distance. At one time, before the Maya hieroglyphs were deciphered in the 1970's, many archaeologists believed that the Maya were peaceful astronomers who didn't conform to the pattern of ritual warfare and widespread human sacrifice found elsewhere in Mesoamerica. This is astonishing to me, given that Chichen Itza was thoroughly explored and illustrated by Stephens and Catherwood as early as the 1840s. Anyone who spends even a few minutes examining the Tzompantli and the other illustrations around the Ball Court will leave with the suspicion that something pretty sinister happened here.

Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars.

Warrior cults may have used this platform for military ceremonies. The Eagle and Jaguar cults were elite Toltec-style military groups who ruled Chichen Itza collectively. Unlike many other Maya sites such as Palenque, Chichen Itza has no statues, carvings, or paintings of single rulers. Apparently, leadership of the city came from a council of warriors from the elite warrior societies, in conjunction with the priestly class. The Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars sits about 1/2 way between the Ball Court and the Temple of the Warriors and is overlooked by El Castillo. Everything about this platform exhudes power.

The jaguar, a major power symbol, adorns several sides of the Platform. Above, a relief of a jaguar eating a human heart. Jaguars were the most powerful non-human predator of the forest. They are third in line among the big cats, falling only behind African lions and Indian tigers. They carried deep symbolic meaning to Mesoamerican cultures going all the way back to the Olmecs of 1000 BC and earlier. That a warrior cult would adopt such a creature as its key symbol is not surprising.

The Platform's eagles shared the jaguars' dining tastes. There are also several relief carvings of eagles on the Platform, and all appear to be lustily consuming human hearts. The eagle is the most powerful bird of the air and is thus a fitting symbol for a warrior cult.

Pairs of snake heads adorn the top of the Platform's steps. There are four sets of steps, one on each side of the platform, and each topped by two snake heads. These aggressive-looking snakes portray another version of Kukulcan, the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl. Toltec legends speak of a great leader, closely associated with the hero/god Quetzalcoatl, who left their capital of Tollan in Central Mexico after an intense power struggle. He and his followers traveled to the Gulf Coast and set sail, supposedly on a raft of snakes. Maya legends speak of the arrival of a great figure known as Kukulcan on the coast of the Peninsula at about the same time. He and his followers are supposed to have conquered the Maya city Uucil-abnal which later became Chichen Itza. They rebuilt it into a larger, grander, version of their lost capitol of Tollan. I have seen both Tollan and Chichen Itza and the similarities are truly remarkable. However, wonderful as this old tale sounds, recent discoveries indicate that Chichen Itza may have declined prior to the rise of Tollan, and that the influence may have flowed in the opposite direction. The story keeps changing, so stay tuned for the next version.

The archaeology continues

Palapa covers an ancient wall under reconstruction. The palm fronds of the palapa protect the structure as archaeologists attempt to reconstruct it. The wall is in the area known as the Hall of a Thousand Columns, and the stones are covered by Puuc carvings. Puuc is an abstract style that pre-dated much of the more militaristic Toltec influence. Some of the best examples of Puuc style are at Uxmal, southwest of Chichen Itza, which can be seen in one of my previous postings.

More digs reveal more platforms from earlier incarnations of Chichen Itza. Some archaeological studies indicate that the city, which extends well beyond the restored areas seen today, may have covered an area of 6 square miles. Connecting the different parts of the city, and also Chichen Itza with other great centers, were the sacbeob. These were wide roadways, paved with crushed stone. Some have been found running straight as arrows through wild and remote jungle which was once settled Maya territory.

A limestone cave near the Xtoloc cenote. We stumbled upon this cave entrance on a path near the smaller of the two cenotes within Chichen Itza. The Cenote Xtoloc ("Shtol-ok") provided water, while the Cenote Sagrado was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, including human sacrifice. Caves were places of special significance to the Maya. It was in a cave that the Hero Twins gave up their lives in a contest with the Lords of the Underworld. Caves were believed to be the source of all-important water. The Maya World-Tree sinks its roots into caves, while its trunk grows in the world of day-to-day reality, and the branches connect with Heaven. The limestone of Yucatán provided an ample supply of deep and mysterious caves for the Maya who lived in this area in ancient times.

This completes Part 1 of my 2-part series on Chichen Itza. There is so much material on this spectacular ancient ruined city that I couldn't possibly do more than scratch the surface. I hope you will follow up with some of the links I provided for more information. As always, I appreciate feedback. If you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, Where do you get your information and writing skills? I just can't get over how much detail, research and energy you put into your posts. Are you sure you weren't a professor instead of a union organizer? You leave me hungry for more of your posts. I have been in love with Lake Chapala every since I visited three years ago and I'm anxious to get down there and visit the same places you explore, photo and write about. You make it easy for us by setting a guide and a path for us to follow. One thing I have in common with you is that I was a union rep and spoke my mind like I'm sure you did. Thanks.

  2. Wow Jim,
    Your blog is brilliant! I went to Chichen Itza and felt like I had only scratched the surface with our tour guide. Your information has helped me make more sense of the whole experience.
    Tracey (Queensland, Australia)

  3. The first time I visited Chichen Itza was in 1971 and climbed all the pyramids on both sides -Old and New(Thank Goodness I have kept the old photo shots)...I remember a Tour Guide mention that the steps were rebuilt on the two visible and assessable sides of El Castillo ...could you verify if this is accurate...he mentioned Archeologist markings....I was 17 at the time and maybe I misheard

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I believe the stairs have now been rebuilt on at least three of the four sides of El Castillo. The fourth side is only partially rebuilt. If you go to Google images for El Castillo you can find photos showing the various sides. Tourists are no longer allowed to climb up them, however, because of deaths from falls down the stairs. Fortunately for me, the rule was not in place when I first visited back in 2000.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim