Rarely do entire cities fall under our megaprojects banner, but the remains of this large-scale community which once dominated this part of Mexico is something truly special and has gained one of seven places on the New Wonders of the World list.
The name Chichen Itza is now known around the world. Its iconic pyramid might still lag behind its Egyptian cousin in terms of fame, but it isn’t far behind. Yet this is an area that was much more significant than any single structure. Though dates are notoriously vague when it comes to Chichen Itza, and indeed with many Mayan and Inca ruins, it’s generally considered that the early sections date from around 400-500 AD, with a population peak that may have hit around 50,000 inhabitants.
Yes, that is fairly minute compared to modern cities, but when you compare other major population centres on earth around the same time, this was significant. But it remains an area shrouded in mystery. We still know painfully little about these people or how they structured their society. And perhaps most intriguingly, we are yet to understand why or how this large city declined so quickly.
The name Chichen Itza roughly translates from the Mayan language as ‘At the mouth of the well of the Itza’ – Chi means mouth or edge, while Chen means well. The word Itza is a little more complicated as it’s thought to represent an ethnic-lineage group that rose to power in the area, but can itself be translated as ‘enchantment of the water’.
The city of Chichen Itza lies on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, almost halfway between Cancun and Merida. The area is thick with forest and jungle but comes with an interesting quirk in that because it is a karst region (usually an area heavy with caves, tunnels and sinkholes) almost all of the rivers that run through it, are in fact underground.
And this is probably a good place to start with why the city was built where it was. The area around Chichen Itza contains four cenotes, which are natural sinkholes that normally reveal groundwater inside. Most likely, these would have provided the drinking water for the city, but they were also used for some far more – shall we say, Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom reasons – but more on that later.
What we see today at Chichen Itza is sadly only a fraction of what once was. The famed pyramid, now referred to as El Castillo, understandably dominates the attention, but in its day, this was a city that covered at least 5 sq kilometres (1.9 sq miles). While it may not give the impression of a city today, it was once a thriving urban area with nearly 100 sacbeobs (small pathways) linking sites throughout this little metropolis.
Just like our modern cities, it was divided into smaller districts, which were (as far as we know); the Great Northern Platform, The Osario Group and Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) to the south. These districts were broadly divided by low walls and often reveal different architecture and styles which might show how the city grew over time. Before we move on to talk about the history, there are two interesting facts about this area.
Standing amid Chichen Itza you might remark to yourself, what a wonderfully flat area to build a city – well, it’s not natural. OK, this isn’t a particularly mountainous area of the world, but nevertheless, the almost precise flatness of the area was man-made. And considering the size of the area and the limited tools that would have been available at the time, it must have taken quite a while.
The other interesting point that I do urge you to bear in mind when thinking about Chichen Itza was that the Mayan had a love of bright colours. Today we see nothing but weathered stone, but had you been in the same spot over a thousand years ago you would have witnessed an explosion of colour – with red, green, blue and purple colours commonly used on all manner of buildings. This was said to offer a greater sense of completeness while adding to the symbolic nature of the building. I for one love that idea, and wish we could incorporate it much more into our modern – often a little bit too grey – lives.
The Rise and Fall
Chichen Itza appears to have risen towards the end of the Early Classic Period (600 AD) but may not have reached its peak until the early part of the Terminal Period (800 AD). Why this particular site did well is unknown, but there is speculation that the rise of Chichen Itza may have coincided with the decline of other major populated areas in the region, particularly in the southern Maya lowlands. The cities of Yaxuna and Coba located nearby both suffered a dramatic decline around the same time, leading some to speculate that Chichen Itza – or rather those living within it – contributed directly to their downfall.
Chichen Itza grew quickly and began to dominate the Mayan area. It became a key centre for trade, heavily influenced local politics as well as religion and ideology. But this is where things get a little hazy. Most modern archaeologists agree that Chichen Itza had entered a terminal decline before 1100 AD and may have even been sacked by an invading army. Frustratingly, we know next to nothing about why this great city was eventually abandoned.
When the Spanish arrived in the area in 1527, they found a local population, but it’s important to state that it’s not clear whether the Spanish found the local Mayan living in Chichen Itza or nearby. Their first attempt to divide up the land was met with no resistance, although the local people soon fought back and drove the Spaniards from the Yucatan. But it was of course short-lived. The Spanish returned and by 1588, the area had been brought to heel and was now a cattle ranch.
By the mid 19th Century, much of the site had been swallowed up by the surrounding forest, but its fame rose once again with the publication of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens in 1843. Remarkably, in 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson, purchased the whole site and conducted the most detailed examination of Chichen Itza so far while shipping many of the artefacts up the United States.
In 1926, the Mexican government seized the site, while accusing Thompson of theft. The case eventually ended up at the Mexican Supreme Court and in 1944 it ordered that Chichen Itza be returned to Thompson’s heirs, who subsequently sold it on to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.
Great Northern Platform
The Great North Platform dominates the site and is home to two of the most arresting structures in Chichen Itza – El Castillo and the Great Ball Court – but also various platforms, possibly used for sacrificial purposes, temples and even a steam bath.
But let’s start with the main attraction. El Castillo, or to take its original name, the Temple of Kukulcán, has now become one of the most recognizable sights on the planet. The step pyramid stands at 30 metres (98ft) in height and is composed of nine square terraces gradually diminishing in size placed on top of each other, each measuring 2.57 metres (8.4 ft) high. At the summit of the pyramid lies a small temple, 6-metre (20 ft) high.
Like the Great Pyramid of Giza, there is much to stare in awe at here. Considering the relatively limited technology in use at the time, the structure is both remarkably well-built and well proportioned, while giving us a glimpse into the fascinating world of the Maya and their celestial beliefs. Each side has a set of stairs with 91 separate steps and when we combine all four sides, and the steps at the top into the temple, we come to a grand total of exactly 365 steps.
And it gets stranger. Around the spring and autumn equinoxes, El Castillo throws up a truly remarkable sight. On the northwestern corner, as the sun begins to go down, a series of triangular shadows appear that bear more than a striking resemblance to a snake. As the sun continues to set, the shadows make their way down the pyramid giving the impression of the snake slithering its way down. Many have debated whether it’s on purpose, but if it was accidental, it’s a remarkable accident. Others point out that the Maya were remarkably accurate with their calendars – Ok, their doomsday dates are a little off – and that the snakes could have been used as markers for crop planting and harvesting each year.
The mystery around El Castillo deepened when it was found that the pyramid had been built over a smaller pyramid still located inside. Whatsmore, an electrical resistance survey carried out in 2015, revealed that El Castillo sits over a cenote, meaning a potentially deep cavern directly below, which the Mayan may have attributed to the afterlife.
While temples often give us an impression of the grandiose nature of what life must have been like back then, there is another area that feels more down to earth – the Great Ball Court. Archaeologists believe there were as many as 13 different courts in Chichen Itza dedicated to the ancient mesoamerican ball game that must have been a huge favourite. Sadly we know almost nothing about the rules, but the general consensus is that it may have been somewhat similar to racquetball.
Measuring 68 by 70 metres (551 by 230 ft) – roughly the size of an American football field – the Great Ball Court is located close to El Castillo. The court has two large stone platforms running parallel to each other, both measuring 95 metres (312 ft) long and 8 metres (26 ft) high. At the foot of these walls, there are what seems to be benches with sculptures depicting different teams. One member of a team appears to have been decapitated and now has snakes crawling out of his bloody neck – which certainly never happens in racquetball – and has led some to argue that the losers of the game may have even been put to death, which puts sporting pressure in an entirely different category.
The Osario Group
South of the Great Northern Platform is the smaller Osario Group, which has numerous important buildings. The Osario Temple, a smaller step pyramid, may lack the height of its neighbour El Castillo, but it is a remarkably well-preserved structure.
The Casa Colorada is one of the best-preserved structures at Chichen Itza and stands on a large platform with a set of steps running up the front. It’s not known what exactly it was used for, but inscriptions inside correspond to roughly 869 AD.
Las Monjas (the nunnery) stands close by and has long been considered a residential building of some kind, though whether it housed a ruler or priest we aren’t sure. Inside it contains more rooms than any other building in Chichen Itza, but it’s clear that it is a structure that has been rebuilt or added to many times over.
Old Chichen lies further south and includes the Initial Series Group, the Phallic Temple, the Platform of the Great Turtle, the Temple of the Owls, and the Temple of the Monkeys. 4 km (2.5 miles) south-east of the main settlement are the Caves of Balankanche. These sacred caverns are thought to be the oldest part of Chichen Itza where finds including pottery, stairs and even idols date back over 2,000 years.
As I mentioned earlier in the video, the Chichen Itza site has four major cenotes (sinkholes) in the immediate vicinity – and almost certainly some that we don’t know about. The most significant is thought to be the sacred cenote which lies north of the main city but is connected to it via a 300-metre (980 ft) sacbe (raised pathway).
Some cenotes were no doubt used for drinking water, while others carried a much more grizzly purpose. When the sacred cenote was dredged in the early 20th Century, they found gold, jade, pottery, incense – and plenty of human remains. It’s now thought that the sacred cenote may have been used for sacrificial purposes – or at the very least the disposal of the bodies after the fact.
Unfortunately, this is again one area that we are painfully lacking in detailed information. Large numbers of skeletons have been found in several cenotes, although not all, which might suggest that the Mayan believed certain cenotes as gateways to the underworld. The age and sex of the skeletons vary greatly, but it’s noticeable the number of young males present. Whether these people were still alive when they were thrown into the cenotes it’s impossible to say, but some archaeologists argue that they would have more likely been killed somewhere else then brought to the water.
The artefacts found seemed to suggest a great degree of wealth as many of the materials are not native to the Yucatan area. Whatsmore, many of the items appear to have been slightly damaged as if they too needed to be killed – for a lack of better word.
Nothing lasts Forever
The great Chichen Itza rose and fell in the space of less than 700 years. But it’s clear that at its peak, there were few places on Earth quite like it. It is an area that has retained almost all of its mysteries and really we are still a world away from understanding what life must have been like here.
No doubt once a glorious sight to behold, Chichen Itza is also a reminder that nothing lasts forever – and that empires, and their mighty cities, rise and fall with surprising regularity.