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The Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico
“I am sugar-free,” our local guide at Chichen Itza explains as he introduces himself.
“As you know, history is written by the winners. It’s called history because his story may not be my story,” he says.
All of this is Felipe’s way of explaining that he’s going to give us an interpretation of the Ancient Mayan civilisation that may be a bit different from some of the more popular stories. It’s not all prophecies and human sacrifice.
And that’s because the Mayan world that we’ve come to know in popular culture is not really an accurate representation of how things were.
As Felipe explains, that’s partly because it helps to sell books and movies if they play up the Mayan prophecies that predicted the end of the world.
But it’s also because when the Catholic Spanish colonised this land, it was in their interest to portray the indigenous people as bloodthirsty heathens, and so they exaggerated stories of human sacrifice.
Here at Chichen Itza in Mexico, it seems like the perfect time to learn a bit more about the Mayan culture, one of the world’s great civilisations.
This is the first stop on my G Adventures tour through Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, during which I’ll be exploring a lot of Mayan history.
I’ve already written about the overall tour and, if you would like to find my overall thoughts about the Mayan civilisation, I would recommend having a read of that story.
It rose to prominence at around the same time that some of the Mayan jungle metropolises further south like Tikal, Palenque, and Calakmul were being abandoned. Although the relation between these two things is a matter of theory, it stands to reason that there was some kind of connection.
It’s estimated that up to 50,000 people could have lived in Chichen Itza at its peak, and the layout of the city shows urban centre would have been quite dense.
To see beyond the myths and legends of the Maya, you need to look at the civilisation as a political system.
It’s believed that Chichen Itza would have been the capital of the region, ruling over smaller settlements in surrounding states. So, it’s no surprise when I visit that I find an impressive collection of grand public buildings.
Our local guide, Felipe, takes us around and shows us the most important ones. Remember, he’s promised not to sugarcoat anything… but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some incredible stories about these buildings and their ancient residents.
For the ancient Maya, the Kukulcán pyramid was representative of the four-sided temple-mountain, or the fourfold partitioning of the world. The name of the deity is a Maya- Yucatec, translation from the name Quetzalcoatl in the nahuatl language, that translates as ‘Quetzal feathered serpent’, the deity from Tula in central Mexico. The archaeological record shows that the feathered serpent ideology spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Maya Classic period (950AD).
Kukulcán is believed to represent the Creation Mountain, with its Feathered Serpents’ head and mouth agape at the base of both balustrades of the north stairway. The serpent symbol, in Maya iconography, appears profusely on numerous stone stelas, temple columns and painted on ceramics. The shedding of the serpent’s skin was perceived as the renewal of time and life through the enduring of nature’s repeated cycles. This perception explains why the serpent symbol, attached to both life and death events, is so widespread throughout the ancient cultures of the Americas, and beyond.
The temple-pyramid is not cardinally oriented, although mythologically it sits at the center of time and space. The pyramid’s corners are lined up on a northeast-southwest axis toward the rising sun at the summer solstice, and its setting point at the winter solstice, making Kukulcán a monumental sun dial for the solar year.
Each of the temple-pyramid’s 52 panels contained in the nine terraced steps, equal the number of years in the Maya and Toltec agrarian calendars. The pyramid’s nine levels are reminders of the nine steps to Xibalba, the underworld. Above all, Kukulcán is an instrument dedicated to the deities of nature and their role in the repeated night-day alternances, as well as that of life and death.
The main doorway of the outer temple at the top of the pyramid opens to the north. The four stairways ascending the pyramid, one on each side have 91 steps each, equal to 364 steps that, with the temple at the top, total the 365 days of the solar year, the haab’, in Maya. The north stairway is the main sacred path, and it is on its northeast balustrade that the sun casts the triangular shadows. Of note is the fact that in Maya culture, north equals the departure from the power of nature and anchors the sun in culture. It is a metaphor associated with the understanding of mankind’s burden and commitment in the universe.
Chichén Itzá, Mexico
I LIVED in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico for six vibrant and shockingly sweaty months. By the time my flight back to the UK touched down, I had learnt how to cycle a bike with no gears and one pedal on a multi-lane roundabout, that all Mexican mums fancy Prince William, and that manically mashing your fists together while exclaiming “…garbanzo! …garbanzo!” (…chickpea! …chickpea!) will not make it apparent that you’re looking for hummus and may in fact be terrifying.
But I also dug out my serious cap and soaked up something of the colourful history of the region, which had long been Maya territory until Spanish conquistadors claimed it as their own… (Maya is the collective name for the many separate, warring groups in this area, who had distinct land and leaders, but shared similarities in culture and language.)
One of the most famous Maya landmarks in the Yucatán is Chichén Itzá. Just before I came back home, my friends and I got our acts together, scraped some last pennies from the bottom of our pay cheques, and jumped on an ADO coach to this fallen Maya city. ADO coaches trundle around eastern Mexico providing superb air conditioning for flustered tourists, who sometimes get off to see the sights.
Chichén Itzá is the area that makes up this once bustling and wealthy city, and is not to be confused with Chicken Itzá, which is the roast chicken shop down the road from where we lived. It was home to 50,000 people in its heyday and is still an active archaeological site (referring to Chichén Itzá now – stop it). The city may date to as far back as 400 AD. It became and remained a powerful place of political, economic, and cultural importance until the 1200s.
In a European context, this means that Chichén Itzá was an established city from when the Roman Empire fell, throughout the Viking invasions in the British Isles, and well into the days of knights, castles, and taking the hobbits to Isengard.
The Plaza of a Thousand Columns, Chichén Itzá. This is believed to have once supported a roof and could have been a meeting hall. Remains of paint indicate that it may have been colourfully decorated inside. Here it is in black and white because it makes it look edgy and dramatic.
Arriving at this UNESCO Wonder of the World, we beelined for the restaurant. Nothing comes between hungry English teachers and a plate of Yucatecan deliciousness. While eating, we were treated to an outrageous display between a flirtatious male iguana and the lady iguana he had his eye on (an example in the art of cool indifference).
One of the most extraordinary dishes I had while living in Mexico was mole negro with nopales – a type of cactus. The name mole comes from the word for “sauce”, and it really is the sauciest of sauces. Shiny, dark, and gloopy, its rich ingredients include cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, garlic, pumpkin seeds, and beautiful Mexican chocolate – though it’s a savoury dish – plus two different types of chillies (of course). The secret to a traditional mole is to retain a little of the last batch for the next one: the flavours intensify each time it’s reheated. (And the secret to beautiful Mexican chocolate, is to eat as much of it as you can.)
Anyway. I haven’t had my lunch and I’m getting out of hand.
An example of a plate of Yucatecan deliciousness from a café in a Mérida market. Because I’m vegetarian, I often just asked for “something vegetarian” in Spanish and then got to have a lil surprise. You cannot go wrong with refried beans.
We bid the horny iguanas “hasta luego” and sauntered down the dusty track towards the Temple of Kukulkan. Sauntering is in fact essential. Between February and October in the Yucatán, moving of any sort is very difficult. The average temperature is around 300 degrees Celsius. Maybe. I spent much of the day in a sluggish heat coma and slowly got lost several times.
The Temple of Kukulkan is a huge, stone step-pyramid and the most famous structure in Chichén Itzá. Kukulkan means “Winged-Serpent”, referring to either a Maya god or a Maya warrior leader depending on sources, and sometimes to prominent English politicians too (although “Eton-Mess” and “Wheat-Devil” also work).
The Maya are well known for being astronomers, and everyone remembers 2012 when we thought the world would end because the Maya calendar stopped. (In reality, it just indicated the start of a new cycle, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the End of the World would not interfere with the Christmas schedule. Who can prepare for the apocalypse when the roast potatoes are meant to go in at 1pm. )
The Temple of Kukulkan is an excellent example of the Maya expertise in this area (astronomy, not roast potatoes). The entire structure is a huge representation of the calendar. It has 364 steps, with the top platform making it 365 – one for each day. Twice a year, on the equinox, shadows cast by the steps form a snake, which slithers down the structure to connect with a stone serpent’s head at its base.
The famous Temple of Kukulkan seen from inside the Great Ball Court (more on that later).
The maths needed to calculate exactly where and how to build the Temple to have this effect is pretty fancy. Legend has it that Maya kings dominated the number round in Countdown for centuries. Carol Vorderman is widely believed to be the reincarnation of Kukulkan himself.
We were not there for the Spring Equinox, and the sun was at that perilous position where nothing has a shadow and the Indiana Jones-types are smugly peeking out from under their wide-brimmed hats. I happily blinked up at the Temple and then wandered off away from everyone else in my little heat coma world.
Finding myself at the Great Ball Court, I was shocked out of my daze. The court is humongous – around five times bigger than a basketball court in both width and length. It has perfect acoustics which mean that if you whisper at one end, your friends can hear you all 545 feet away. So don’t forget to bring your friends. And don’t say anything rude about them.
The game the Maya played here involved throwing a heavy ball through a stone hoop that looked far too small. You weren’t allowed to use your head, hands, or feet. It was particularly (and probably only) rewarding if you had mastered the Force and were a Jedi. Otherwise, it sounds like an all-round nightmare.
The Maya enjoyed a spot of friendly competition, and spiced things up by sacrificing the losers to the Gods – although some suggest that it was the winning team who were given the honour of being sacrificed. Either way, they had their heads displayed on a nearby wall of carved stone skulls, so that’s nice.
I managed to leave the Ball Court without being sacrificed, and made my way to La Iglesia via some lovely shady trees and a wall with hundreds of skulls carved onto it…
Row upon row of skulls. No heads on sticks this time, though.
La Iglesia is Spanish for The Church – the inside of the building reminded conquistadors of a chapel. I believe it also had religious connotations back in the day for the Maya. The building is decorated with protruding stone noses, representing the God of Wonderful Schnozzles, Sean Bean I mean Chaac.
Chaac is the long-snouted deity who controls rain – important for the Maya communities, whose livelihoods depended upon successful harvests. Chaac works his boring 9 – 5 in West Yorkshire, and then heads over to the Yucatán for parties, where he used to enjoy ambushing me with surprise tropical storms as I cycled into work.
There’s a lot to see at Chichén Itzá, and my sun-drenched memory is hazy about the specifics (and, actually, the entire six months that I lived there – next time I’ll go to Iceland). But before we left, I did have a quick peek at one of the cenotes at Chichén Itzá.
There are hundreds of cenotes in the Yucatán. Cenotes are craters, filled with water, thought to have been made when the meteor that lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs smashed into Earth. The cenotes at Chichén Itzá would have been crucial sources of water for its inhabitants. They’re also the kinds of places that you see and think – yeah, this looks like the perfect spot for a sacrifice (you know the ones). And that’s what happened.
Archaeologists have found gold, precious stones, and human skeletons with trauma marks at the bottom of the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at Chichén Itzá.
This is not one of the cenotes at Chichén Itzá, but it is a nice example of one in the region. Don’t worry, no one in the photo was being sacrificed. …Although there were lots of small fish in this one that nibbled our feet, so maybe we were indeed victims to some tiny, sacriFISHal ritual. Ha.
Maya sacrifices sound grisly (and no doubt they were for many involved…), but they were actually linked to rebirth. Sacrifices could come in handy at the start of the harvest for example, to mark the accession of a new king to the throne, or to celebrate a new calendar cycle. Which means we got off very lightly back in 2012.
I could go on and on about Chichén Itzá and the Maya culture, but I won’t, because this blog should end somewhere. I know that many of you will need to get back to your knitting and things (I do). But to finish, I’ll just point out that this was a super skilled civilisation that traces back to 1500 BC in some areas. It was way ahead of its time in maths and astronomy, and had a sophisticated written language. Excavations at Chichén Itzá reveal long, wide roads and pavements, marketplaces, and “suburbs”, indicating that it was once a thriving centre.
In the 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors did their best to supress the Maya people, attacking cities, burning important texts, and eventually ensuring that those of Maya descent were at the bottom of the class system.
The Franciscan monastery of San Miguel was the backdrop for the infamous burning that happened in Maní, under the orders of Friar de Landa in 1561. Thousands of Maya objects, including books detailing their beliefs, history, and astronomy, were labelled as the devil’s work and destroyed as part of an attempt to convert the Maya to Christianity. Many who refused to convert were killed.
Hundreds of years later, between 1847 and 1901, a brutal war broke out in the Yucatán, between the broadly European-descended political class and the native Maya population. The Maya rebellion was unsuccessful, however unrest continued until as recently as 1933.
Today, around a million people can speak Mayan in the Yucatán, and many traditions continue. Sacrifice is not one of them.
My top tips for visiting Chichén Itzá:
1) Learn a spot of Mayan with the help of information plaques dotted around the site – the English, Spanish, and Mayan translations are side by side.
2) Bring a hat. Succumb to the pressure and get the wide-brimmed Indiana Jones one. Not only will it shield your face from the Maya Sun God, Kinich Ahau, it also doubles as a handy bowl when you want to maximise on extra helpings of mole negro with nopales.
Recommended listening: I first heard the Mexican legend of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) around Hanal Pixán – the Yucatecan festival of the Day of the Dead, which has a particularly Maya twist. It’s a sad and creepy tale and the song associated with it is truly beautiful. Listen to the extraordinary Chavela Vargas’ version here.
Here is a lovely long list of the websites I visited to remind myself what on earth I did at Chichén Itzá other than stroll around in the sunshine. The top link takes you to a recipe for mole!
The Great Ball Court
A very famous tourist attraction at Chichen Itza Mayan ruins is the Great Ball Court.
This is not the only ball court in Chichen Itza and so far 13 ball courts have been identified. Nonetheless, the Great Ball Court is by far the largest and most impressive, having measurements of 168 by 70 meters.
At one end of the court is located the North Temple which is also known as The Temple of the Bearded Man. There is very fine bas relief carving on the inner walls of the temple. There is another temple at the southern end but is it in ruins.
The main entry to the Chichén Itzá site is on the west side. A huge visitor centre houses a museum, restaurant, ATM and shops selling souvenirs, film, maps and guides. You can also get in at the smaller eastern gate by the Hotel Mayaland. Either way, you’ll want to go in at opening time, as tour buses from Cancún and Mérida start arriving around 10.30am. Allow about three hours to see the site, and if crowds are light, start with the iconic buildings in the Itzá-era Chichén Nuevo (New Chichén) on the north side, then retreat to the Terminal Classic (Chichén Viejo) to the south, where fewer visitors go.
Though in most minds Chichén Itzá represents the Maya, it is in fact the site’s divergence from Maya tradition that makes it archeologically intriguing. Experts are fairly certain that the city was established around 300 AD, and began to flourish in the Terminal Classic period (between 800 and 925 AD). The rest of its history, however, and the roots of the Itzá clan that consolidated power in the peninsula here after 925 AD remain in dispute. Much of the evidence at the site – an emphasis on human sacrifice, the presence of a huge ball-court and the glorification of military activity – points to a strong influence from central Mexico. For decades researchers guessed this was the result of the city’s defeat by the Toltecs, a theory reinforced by the resemblance of the Templo de los Guerreros to the colonnade at Tula, near Mexico City, along with Toltec-style pottery remains and numerous depictions of the Toltec god-king, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcán to the Maya).
Work since the 1980s, however, supports a theory that the Itzá people were not Toltec invaders, but fellow Maya who had migrated from the south, which would explain why their subjects referred to them in texts as “foreigners”. The Toltec artefacts, this view holds, arrived in central Yucatán via the Itzás’ chief trading partners, the Chontal Maya, who maintained allegiances with Toltecs of central Mexico and Oaxaca.
The main path leads directly to El Castillo (also called the Pyramid of Kukulcán), the structure that sits alone in the centre of a great grassy plaza. It is a simple, relatively unadorned square building, with a monumental stairway ascending each face (though only two are restored), rising in nine receding terraces to a temple at the top. The simplicity is deceptive, however, as the building is in fact the Maya calendar rendered in stone: each staircase has 91 steps, which, added to the single step at the main entrance to the temple, amounts to 365 other numbers relevant to the calendar recur throughout the construction. Most remarkably, near sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the great serpents’ heads at the foot of the main staircase are joined to their tails (at the top of the building) by an undulating body of shadow – an event that lasts just a few hours and draws spectators, and awed worshippers, by the thousands. The effect is re-created nightly in the sound-and-light show.
Inside El Castillo, where visitors cannot enter, an earlier pyramid survives almost intact, and in the temple’s inner sanctuary, archeologists discovered one of the greatest treasures at the site: an altar, or perhaps a throne, in the form of a jaguar, painted bright red and inset with jade “spots” and eyes.
The “Toltec” plaza
El Castillo marks one edge of a plaza that formed the focus of Chichén Nuevo, and in addition to a sacbé leading to Cenote Sagrado, all its most important buildings are here, many displaying a strong Toltec influence in their structure and decoration. The Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), lined on two sides by the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of the Thousand Columns), forms the eastern edge of the plaza. These are the structures that most recall the great Toltec site of Tula, both in design and in detail – in particular the colonnaded courtyard (which would have been roofed with some form of thatch) and the use of Atlantean columns representing battle-dressed warriors, their arms raised above their heads.
The temple is richly decorated on its north and south sides with carvings and sculptures of jaguars and eagles devouring human hearts, feathered serpents, warriors and, the one undeniably Maya feature, masks of the rain god Chac, with his curling snout. On top (now visible only at a distance, as you can no longer climb the structure) are two superb examples of figures called Chac-mools, once thought to be introduced by the Toltecs: offerings were placed on the stomachs of these reclining figures, which are thought to represent either the messengers who would take the sacrifice to the gods or perhaps the divinities themselves.
The “thousand” columns alongside originally formed a square, on the far side of which is the building known as the Mercado, although there’s no evidence that this actually was a marketplace. Near here, too, is a small, dilapidated ball-court.
North of El Castillo is the Plataforma de Venus, a raised block with a stairway up each side guarded by feathered serpents. Here, rites associated with Quetzalcoatl when he took the form of Venus, the morning star, would have been carried out. Slightly smaller, but otherwise identical in design, the adjacent Plataforma de Águilas y Jaguares features reliefs of eagles and jaguars holding human hearts. Human sacrifices may have been carried out here, judging by the proximity of a third platform, the Tzompantli, where victims’ heads likely hung on display. This is carved on every side with grotesque grinning stone skulls.
Gran Juego de Pelota
Chichén Itzá’s ball-court, on the west side of the plaza, is the largest known in existence, with walls some 90m long. Its design is a capital “I” surrounded by temples, with the goals, or target rings, halfway along each side. Along the bottom of each side runs a sloping panel decorated with scenes of the game. Although the rules and full significance of the game remain a mystery, it was clearly not a Saturday afternoon kick-about in the park.
On the panel, the players are shown proceeding from either side towards a central circle, the symbol of death. One player, just right of the centre (whether it’s the winning or losing captain is up for debate) has been decapitated, while another holds his head and a ritual knife. Along the top runs the stone body of a snake, whose heads stick out at either end. The court is subject to a whispering-gallery effect, which enables you to be heard clearly at the far end of the court, and to hear what’s going on there.
Templo de los Jaguares
This temple overlooks the playing area from the east side. At the bottom – effectively the outer wall of the ball-court – is a little portico supported by two pillars, between which a stone jaguar stands sentinel. The outer wall panels, the left and the right of the interior space, are carved with the images of Pawahtuns, the gods who supported the sky and who are thought to be the patrons of the Itzá people. Inside are some worn but elaborate relief carvings of the Itzá ancestors inserted in the Maya creation myth – a powerful demonstration of their entitlement to rule.
The city’s largest cenote lies at the end of the sacbé that leads about 300m off the north side of the plaza. It’s an almost perfectly round hole in the limestone bedrock, some 60m in diameter and more than 30m deep, the bottom third full of water. It was thanks to this natural well (and perhaps another in the southern half of the site) that the city could survive at all, and it gives Chichén Itzá its name (literally “at the edge of the well of the Itzá”). The well was regarded as a portal to the underworld, called Xibalba, and the Maya threw in offerings such as statues, jade and engraved metal discs (a few of them gold), as well as human sacrifices – all of them boys, recent research has shown. The Maya thought that any boy who managed to survive the ordeal had communed with the gods.
The southern half of the site is the most sacred part for contemporary Maya, though the buildings here are not in such good condition. They were built for the most part prior to 925 AD, in the architectural styles used in the Puuc and Chenes regions.
A path leads from the south side of El Castillo to the major structures, passing first the pyramid El Osario (the Ossuary also called the High Priest’s Grave), the only building in this section that shows Toltec-style detail. Externally it is very similar to El Castillo, but inside a series of tombs was discovered. A shaft, first explored at the end of the nineteenth century, drops down from the top through five crypts, in each of which was found a skeleton and a trap door leading to the next. The fifth is at ground level, but here too was a trap door, and steps cut through the rock to a sixth chamber that opens onto a huge underground cavern: the burial place of the high priest.
Follow the main path and you arrive at El Caracol (the Snail, for its shape also called the Observatory), a circular, domed tower standing on two rectangular platforms and looking remarkably like a modern-day observatory. The roof has slits aligned with various points of astronomical significance. Four doors at the cardinal points lead into the tower and a circular chamber. A spiral staircase leads to the upper level, where observations were made.
Immediately to the south of El Caracol, the so-called Monjas (Nunnery) palace complex shows several stages of construction. Part of the facade was blasted away in the nineteenth century, but it is nonetheless a building of grand proportions. Its annexe, on the east end, has an elaborate facade in the Chenes style, covered in small heads of Chac that combine to make one giant mask, with the door as a mouth. By contrast, La Iglesia, a small building standing beside the convent, is a clear demonstration of Puuc design, its low band of unadorned masonry around the bottom surmounted by an elaborate mosaic frieze and roofcomb. Masks of Chac again predominate, but above the doorway are also figures of the four mythological creatures that held up the sky – a snail, a turtle, an armadillo and a crab.
Beyond Las Monjas
A path leads, in about ten minutes, to a further group of ruins that are among the oldest on the site, although they are unrestored this is a good area for bird-watching, with few people around to disturb the wildlife. Just east of Las Monjas, is the Akab Dzib, a relatively plain block of palace rooms that takes its name (“Obscure Writings”) from undeciphered hieroglyphs found inside. Red palm prints – frequently found in Maya buildings – adorn the walls of some of the chambers. Backtrack along the main path to the building opposite El Osario, the Plataforma de las Tumbas, a funerary structure topped with small columns behind it is a jungle path that heads back to the main east–west road via the site’s other water source, Cenote Xtoloc.
Primary sources of Maya history – part five
Controversy is a fact of life. Complete agreement on any subject is hardly to be expected. The study of Maya hieroglyphs is no exception. In fact, scholarly differences of opinion can be just as vicious as political infighting. While most Maya scholars and researchers acknowledge the importance of the breakthrough in the decipherment of the Maya system of writing, not everyone is convinced that this achievement radically changes our conception of the ancient Maya. For example, in The World of the Ancient Maya (Ithaca and London, 1981, 21-23) J. S. Henderson concludes that “…inscriptions cannot provide the primary framework for reconstructing Maya civilization.” Among his reasons are the following: the propaganda value of inscriptions to the rulers involved, complications resulting from the Maya concept of cyclical time, and the possibility that later rulers revised history to their own advantage. While there may be some merit in these objections it does not follow that “…the material record of artifacts and architecture provides a much more inclusive basic framework for Maya history” [i.e. than Maya inscriptions]. It may even be true that some recent Maya epigraphers have at times been somewhat carried away in their boundless enthusiasm over the decipherment of yet another hieroglyphic symbol to add to the growing list of successful and verifiable readings. One might also be a little suspicious at the remarkable number of “ground-breaking discoveries” in the course of the decipherment. However, it is difficult to see how we could even begin to reconstruct Maya dynastic family history and warfare among neighbouring city-states of the ancient Maya without the use of written texts.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Even in the relative absence of specific hieroglyphic texts details of Maya social and political life can be gleaned from symbolic art works, which, in a sense, are written texts in their own right. Chichén Itzá (“The Mouth of the Well of Itza”) in northern Yucatán dates back to the classical period (A.D. 700-900), although it assumed its greatest importance around the 11th to the 13th centuries. The Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá includes the Upper Temple of the Jaguar and the Lower Temple of the Jaguar. These important buildings occupy a strategic position in the architecture and significance of the Ball Court. The Ball Game was not (usually) a sport rather it was a metaphor for life and death signifying the struggle between life and death, warfare, and the gateway into the Otherworld. In playing the game the Maya renewed their concept of creation.
Imagine the wonder and awe of a Maya visitor from the country standing in front of the lower temple and gazing upon the entire dynastic history of the divine ancestors carved on the five registries or panels over the entrance.
Beginning at the first and lowest registry, twenty four ancestral figures walk toward the centre, many accompanied by name signs above their heads. Since these murals are in the form of pictographs rather than complicated hieroglyphics, they could easily be read even by non-literate spectators.
In the second panel the figures walk towards the centre of the panel. They carry a variety of weapons and are identified by the name signs floating above their heads. The central figures are important for showing how the Feathered Serpent was brought in to serve the community. The central figure is a ballplayer who holds a gold mirror, symbol of political authority at Chichén Itz& aacute. The mirror is also the sacred object that opens up the portals of the Otherworld. K’uk’ulkan (Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs), the Vision Serpent, rises up from behind the sorcerer ballplayer towards the panel above.
In the third panel, the head of the Feathered Serpent rises up from the level below and comes up through the ground at the feet of figures marching toward the Feathered Serpent’s head at the centre. The leading figure wears a snake skirt and has female breasts, probably the prototype of the Aztec Cihuacoatl (“Woman-Serpent”) and possibly the forerunner to Coatlicue (“Serpent Skirt”), the Deity of Duality represented by the Aztec statue in the Mexico City museum. This registry signifies the role of the founding ancestors in linking the city to the Otherworld power of the Feathered Serpent.
The fourth panel is above the doors, so that the registry encircles the entire room. Twenty-six figures dressed in “Toltec” warrior garb dance around the panel to meet in the centre of the western, interior wall. The two central figures meet above the Feathered Serpent scenes below. One carries the pointed headdress of rulers, but he bows towards the man in front who carries weapons and dances among the folds emanating from the Feathered Serpent. This is said to represent the moment of creation when the founding ancestors of the Maya received their divine right of conquest from the Feathered Serpent.
In the final and uppermost panel, the narrative reaches its glorious climax. A procession of warriors converges on a large disk representing both the sun and the magical mirror from which the remote ancestors appear. In the centre of the disk is the original ancestor and the first occupant of the Jaguar Throne, the earthly representation of which is actually located at the entrance between the pillars just below and in plain view of the spectators. The Jaguar Throne stone itself was thought to have been set up on the day of creation and so symbolized the power of the Itzá Maya from the very beginning.
These processional scenes represent the creation of the Itzá and the power imparted to them by the Feathered Serpent. From the lowest to the topmost panel a person standing in front of the temple could follow the entire account from the creation of the Itzá Maya to their position of power at Chichén Itz& aacute.
While it is true that the densely packed figures on the murals at Chichén Itzá are more pictographic than hieroglyphic, in some ways the meaning is clearer than in strictly hieroglyphic texts – at least they would have been clearer to a non-speaker of Maya. Likewise, the Mixtec-Aztec writing system with its mixture of pictographic, ideographic, and phonetic elements was actually more universally understood than codices or inscriptions in the Mayan language, where one had to know the underlying language to understand the message.
There is no doubt that Maya history really begins to unfold with the ongoing decipherment of the Maya script. At Copán, for example, we have the famous hieroglyphic stairway 33 feet wide with 63 steps, completed in A.D. 700 and containing thousands of individual glyphs. Yaxchilán, too, is noted for its numerous stelae and panel reliefs and it was from the fine stelae and panel reliefs of Piedras Negras that Proskouriakoff was able to determine that the inscriptions were actually historical accounts and genealogies of dynastic families, not simply astronomical or religious subject matter. At Tikal, especially, we can see history proper begin to emerge from the inscriptions on the stelae and other stone monuments. These records are not, as E. Thompson mistakenly thought, dedicated almost solely to priests and the worship of time rather they are records of rulers and their wars and major conquests.
The picture that emerges, like that in ancient Greece, is one of political intrigue, dynastic rivalry, and, at times, an almost constant state of warfare among neighbouring city-states. In A Forest of Kings (New York, 1990, 145 ff. Another recommended read) Schele and Freidel trace some of these conflicts as revealed in the inscriptions, for example the rivalry between Tikal and Uaxactún. Around A.D.320 – 376 Great-Jaguar-Paw of Tikal came to the throne and changed the destinies of both cities for ever. On this occasion, Tikal defeated Uaxactún on January 16, A.D. 378 under the leadership of Smoking-Frog, a famous warrior. More significantly, the nature of Maya warfare changed radically at this point. Stela 5 at Uaxactún shows Smoking-Frog as victor but in a Tlaloc-Venus costume, indicating a new type of warfare, borrowed partially from Teotihuacán. This was the beginning of the so-called “Star Wars” of the Maya, in which the time and the nature of the conflict was determined by astronomical calculations rather than by expediency alone.
The Caracol-Tikal-Naranjo wars in the 7th century can be at least partially reconstructed from inscriptions on the stelae. Here, as elsewhere, the records show a complex political, economic, and social history of Maya civilization, consisting of alliances, wars, and marriages. While it is true, as critics of the Maya hieroglyphic decipherment like to point out, that the extant records deal almost exclusively with the aristocratic levels of society, we can nevertheless learn a great deal about significant social and cultural changes that must have affected the lives of Maya commoners. For example, the institution of a new concept of warfare in which battles were actually timed to coincide with particular dates in the Venus cycle and other astronomical phenomena tells us something about the social conditions under which the majority of the Maya lived. With the Maya “Star Wars,” we may compare the mystical militaristic concept of Montezuma’s counsellor, Tlacaellel, which resulted in the institution of the Aztec Flowery Wars in which enemy combatants were taken prisoners for sacrifice rather than killed outright. Every little piece of the puzzle adds to the larger picture. We will never have all the answers but it is obvious that the Maya were not simply serene wise astronomer-priests eternally engaged in the contemplation of Time, at least not as envisaged by an earlier generation of Maya scholars. The present historical picture, however, takes nothing away from the real intellectual and spiritual accomplishments of the ancient Maya.
Physical description of The Church in Chichen Itza
Two fringes decorated with frets runs along the whole building, the first one is a simple pattern above the door limited by two moldings. The second fringe comes above the decorated frieze, and it’s made of a band of serrated and zig-zag bars forming inverted triangles that give the impression of a serpent, all within two simple molds.
In the decorated frieze you can see three masks made in the stone mosaic technique, one in the central part and one in each corner, with their noses hooked or rolled representing Chac, the god of rain.
Chac mask of the Church in Chichen Itza
On each side of the central mask, there is a kind of niche with two figures, sitting on a shelf or throne, which have been identified with the Four Bacabes* that held the sky in its four directions.
In the niche from the north you can see a figure with wings and an oval pectoral hanging on a rope or string, as well as another figure with a snail on its back while in the south niche one of the figures carries a kind of shell around the body, and the other has a turtle shell. Some consider the Bacabes disguised as crab, snail, armadillo, and tortoise.
The Church frontal cresting
The Church’s crest in Chichen Itza
A cresting rises on the facade wall that gives more height to the Church in Chichen Itza, profusely decorated with stone mosaic, in the Puuc style. This is composed of a fringe decorated with frets, between two simple moldings, then the frieze decorated with masks of Chac. And finally comes the cornice that tops the building.
Temple of Jaguars
This Temple was built between the years 1000 and 1150. It takes its name from a sequence of jaguars located in front of the structure, it consists of different layers that are intricately carved and show different types of images. Two gigantic feathered serpents formed the columns in the entrance hall, while the interior walls were richly decorated in stone.
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Chichen Itza: An Archaeological Site
Very few have heard the name of Chichen Itza but it is one of the seven wonders of the world and very few know its history, modern history, and its additional structures. So no need to go anywhere, this article will be helpful for you and tell you everything that u should know. So let start….
- Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic period. This archaeological site is located in Tinum Municipality, Yucatan State, Mexico.
- Chichen Itza is occupying an area of 4 square miles (10 square km) in the south-central Yucatan state, Mexico.
- It is located some 90 miles (150 km) east-northeast of Uxmal and 75 miles (120km) east-southwest of the modern city of Merida.
- It is estimated that it was the house of 35000 people and it was the religious, military, political, and commercial center.
- The Chichen Itza was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
- Two big cenotes on the site made it a suitable place for the city and gave the name Chichen Itza which means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”.
- It is assumed that the Chichen was founded about the 6th century CE, by Maya peoples of the Yucatan Peninsula who had occupied the region since the Pre-classic, or Formative period (1500BCE-300CE).
- The architectural style of the Chichen is known as Puuc, which represents the number of divergences from the style of the Southern lowlands.
- The earliest structure was to the south of the Main Plaza and include the Akabtzib (“House of the Dark Writing”), the Chichanchob (“Red House”), the Iglesia (“Church”), the Casa de Las Monjas (“Nunnery”), and the Observatory El Caracol (“The Snail”)
- In the 10th century, after the collapse of the Maya cities of the Southern lowlands, Chichen was invaded by foreigners. These invaders may have been the Itza from whom the site was named.
- The invaders were responsible for the construction of such major buildings as El Castillo (“The Castle”), a pyramid that raised 79feet (24 meters) above the main plaza.
- The El Castillo has 4 sides and each side has 91 stairs and facing the cardinal direction, including the step on the top platform.
- Total combined steps of all four sides are 365 steps that equal the days in the solar year.
- During the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the shadow cast by the setting sun give an appearance of a snake undulating down the stairways.
- A carving of a plumed serpent at the top of the pyramid is the symbol of the Quetzalcoatl (known to the Maya as Kukulcan).
- In 1843, Chichen Itza gained the popular imagination with the book ‘Incidents Of Travel In Yucatan’ by John Lloyd Stephens. The book is about Stephens’s visit to Yucatan & Maya cities including Chichen Itza.
- During the 1870s & 1880s, visitors to Chichen Itza came with photographic equipment & captured the condition of many buildings.
- Augustus Le Plongeon & his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichen in 1875 & called it ‘Chaacmol’. They scooped a statue of a figure on its back, knees were drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach.
- In the 1880s, Teobert Maler & Alfred Maudslay explored Chichen & spent several weeks at the site & took extensive Photographs.
- In 1894, the United States consul, Edward Herbert Thompson visited Yucatan. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the excavation of several graves in the Osario and the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial series. He became most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper & carvedjade. He shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
- The Carnegie Institution was awarded by The Mexican government in 1923 & allowed U.S archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation & restoration of Chichen Itza. Carnegie researchers excavated the Temple of Warriors & the Caracol. The Great Ball Court & El Castillo was excavated by the Mexican Government.
- In 1926, Edward Thompson was charged with theft by the Mexican Government, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado & smuggled them out of the country. Thompson never returned to Yucatan. He wrote about his research of the Maya culture in the book ‘People of the Serpent’.
- Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology & History supervised two projects to excavate & restore other monuments including the Osario, Akab Dzib & several buildings in Old Chichen.
This step pyramid stands about 30m high & consists of a series of nine square terraces. In spring & Autumn, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase.
- The ball court was for playing the game Tlachtli (Pok-ta-Pok) and the court was 545feet (166 meters) long and 223 feet (68 meters) wide.
- An archaeologist has identified 13 ballcourts for playing in the Chichen Itza.
- Six sculpted reliefs run the length of the walls of the court it showed the victors of the game holding the served head of a member of the losing team.
- On the one end of the court, there was a temple of the Jaguars, inside of which a mural showing warriors laying siege to a village and the temple was 150feet (46 meters).
- The Upper Temple of Jaguar overlooks the court and has an entrance guarded by two large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif and inside there was a large mural that depicts a battle scene.
- The entrance of the Lower Temple of Jaguars opened behind the ball court and there was another Jaguar throne, similar to the one in the inner temple of El Castillo. The outer columns and inner walls of the temple were covered with elaborated bas-relief carvings.
The Tzompantli (Skull Platform), shows the clear cultural influence of the central Mexican Plateau. Unlike the tzompantli of the highlands, however, the skulls were impaled vertically rather than horizontally.
PLATFORM OF THE EAGLES AND THE JAGUARS
It is immediately to the east of the Great Ballcourt. It was built by the combined style of Maya and Toltec styles with a staircase ascending each of its four sides. The sides were decorated with panels depicting eagles and jaguars consuming human hearts.
THE PLATFORM OF VENUS
This platform was dedicated to the planet Venus. In its interior, there were collections of large cones carved out of stones. This platform is in the north of El Castillo, between it and the Cenote Sagrado.
THE TEMPLES OF TABLES
It is the northernmost of a series of buildings to the east of El Castilo. Its name came from a series of altars at the top of the structure that was supported by small carved figures of men with upraised arms, called “atlantes”.
It was a unique building with three parts: a waiting gallery, a water bath, and a steam chamber that operated utilizing heated stones.
GROUP OF THOUSAND COLUMNS
- The group of thousand columns is along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and these columns were intended to support an extensive roof system but they are exposed today as series of pillars.
- The columns are in three distinct sections- a west group extends the lines of the Temple of Warriors.
- The North group runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with a carving of soldiers in bas-relief.
- The South group of the columns is a group of three interconnected buildings- The Temple of the Carved Columns, Temple of the Small Tables, and the Thomson’s Temple.
Cenote is a region with natural sinkholes that expose the water table to the surface. Cenote Sagrado is one of the most impressive of these. It was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people. Investigations said that thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the Cenote including gold, carved jade, copal, rubber & many more.
The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted & flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. The archeological restoration of this building was done by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1925 to 1928.