History of Chichén Itzá

The ruins of Chichén Itzá were a huge priority of mine on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. As my first set of Maya ruins of this trip, I have to say, they’re quite a bit different from the temples architecture of Asia – which was great for me because I got really “templed out” in South East Asia.

The Maya ruins are a whole different ball game though; the history behind the temples and the sacrifices and religious ceremonies held at Chichén Itzá are incredibly different from temples and religious beliefs in Asia. I felt very intrigued from the minute we arrived.

We hired a tour guide for the ruins – something that I’m not usually that fond of. On the one hand, I love learning new things and hearing the details from a local and then on the other hand, I prefer to go at my own pace to really take in my surroundings. I’ve recently taken and interest in photography so heading out early before the tour groups arrive is more of a priority for me now.

Saying that, I’m actually so thankful that I chose the guide option. As we pondered around the grounds I learned so much about theories and history surrounding Chichén Itzá. As the tour guide explained the ritual sacrifices that took place at the various temples at Chichén Itzá, I had to take a complete step back from everything that I know about the Catholic Religion I grew up around and even all of the other religions I have learned about while travelling the world. This really was something quite different. It was a completely foreign concept to me and I had to actively work on not to placing judgments on their religion based on my own upbringing and Western ideals.

The ruins are a large pre-Columbian archaeological site built by the Maya civilization located in the northern center of the Yucatan Peninsula (located on the highway which links the cities of Playa del Carmen and Merida). Covering a huge 15 mile radius, the site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, from what is called “Mexicanized” and reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico to the Puuc style found among the Puuc Maya of the northern lowlands. The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.

The first thing I learned about the North Section is that there was a 204 meter wall surrounding the area many years ago but this was knocked down by the Alericans in 1921. I couldn’t help but have a little giggle after the recent American election and some of Donald Trumps ridiculous ideas. Anyway, I will leave it at that with politics and go more into detail with the history of Chichén Itzá, The Northern Yucatán is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called Cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichén, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two Cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous. According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the Cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Remains have been found and the average age of bodies were between 8-12. Again, I was trying hard not to pass judgement while listening to this. The Centoes are not suitable for swimming anymore as the water is stagnant and harbours bacteria.

Dominating the centre of Chichén is the Temple of Kukulkan, often referred to as “El Castillo” (the castle). This step pyramid has a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent – Kukulcan – along the west side of the north staircase. On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun’s movement to the serpent’s head at the base. Each side has 91 steps apart from the north side which has 92 steps making the total number of steps 365.When you stand in front of the main steps and clap your hands between the snakes its makes the loud echo of the sacred quetzal bird. Now I’ve heard echoes before, but this was really strange. The quetzal bird now extinct in Mexico however they are still found in Costa Rico and Guatemala but classed as a highly endangered species.

The elusive quetzal, also known as the kuk, deserved homage. The bird inhabits the cloud forests of Central America, and its feathers, along with jade, were among the most precious commodities in Mesoamerica. To the Maya and Aztecs, the quetzal’s emerald green iridescent tail feathers were more valuable than gold.

 

This limestone Temple took 300 years to build but it could have quite easily been done in 20 years. The Mayans purposely took 300 years because every 52 years a particular movement of stars came into the same apparent position in the night sky. In classic times, these 52 year cycles were celebrated by fire ceremonies and rebuilding temples

The Mayans believe in 164 Gods but certain gods and certain dates have huge representation around The Kukulkan. The 21st September is the beginning of harvest and the 21st March (beginning of spring for Plantation). Kukulcán’s pyramid is notable for the fact that on these dates the sun projects an undulating pattern of light on the northern stairway for a few hours in the late afternoon—a pattern caused by the angle of the sun and the edge of the nine steps that define the pyramid’s construction.
These triangles of light link up with the massive stone carvings of snake heads at the base of the stairs, suggesting a massive serpent snaking down the structure.

Additionally, when one looks at the western face during the winter solstice, the sun appears to climb up the edge of the staircase until it rests momentarily directly above the temple before beginning its descent down the other side. The orientation of the pyramid is approximately 17 degrees east of magnetic north, in an area where the declination is approximately 2 degrees east, so the actual orientation is around 19 degrees east of true north. Several other major structures on the site are oriented in approximately the same way.

The most important factor of The Kukulkan is that as of 2006 the pyramid is no longer climbable, because of an American tourist falling to his death. Unless, of course, you are a wealthy celebrity wanting a dramatic proposal. The funny thing is Coba is taller then Chichén Itzá and still climbable. Despite being inappropriately dressed, I decided to do this anyway. Climbing up wasn’t to bad, but going down was quite slippy as well as steep. There is a rope which you can opt to hold on to, so I basically sat down, and bumped my way to the bottom dragging my Gucci handbag the whole way across the floor these ancient ruins. Not a smart move!

All floors and pathways in Chichén Itzá are made from limestone so that the rainforest can never grown through again. There are lots of stalls set up to buy souvenirs and a very low cost. Please take lots of water as most of the area isn’t shaded- it was very hot when we were there.

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