Chichén Itzá is one of the “7 wonders of the world” and represents the lost Mayan civilization and culture. Located in south-central Yucatán state, Mexico, the ancient site was one of the largest Mayan cities or Tollans in the Yucatán peninsula.
A variety of cultures left their mark on the city during its nearly 1,000-year history. The site exhibits a range of architectural styles similar to styles seen in central Mexico, the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands. As a result of the fusion of Mayan construction methods with elements from central Mexico, Chichén Itzá is one of the most important sites related to the Mayan-Toltec civilization in Yucatán. In 1988, UNESCO listed the area as a “World Heritage Site”.
According to some historians, the city originated in the early 4th century A.D. However, construction started later in the middle of 5th century A.D., presumably by Mayan people who had occupied the region since the Pre-Classic, or Formative Period. The ruined ancient Mayan city occupies an area of 4 square miles (10 square km) in south-central Yucatán state, Mexico.
The site first saw settlers in the middle of 5th century A.D. who were probably drawn there because of the easy access to water in the region via caves and sinkholes in limestone formations, known as cenotes. The city was believed to be a religious, military, political, and commercial center that housed 35,000 people at its peak.
The city represents densely clustered architecture covering an area of 1.9 square miles (5 square km). The complex was designed with purpose and function in mind. The importance of navigability was paramount along with form and artistry in the cityscape. Two primary philosophies are apparent in Chichén Itzá’s urban design: astronomical and practical.
The Mayan culture showed early signs of understanding the heavens and the tracks of stars, constellations, planets, and major events like solstices and equinoxes. Hence, the Mayan city was designed to reflect and track major astronomical events. Buildings are aligned in particular directions to cast certain shadows or catch specific sunsets and sunrises. The significance of these designs is tied closely with Mayan worship and religion.
Buildings were constructed in fine stone and connected by a dense network of paved causeways called sacbeob. The buildings were painted in numerous colors, including red, green, blue, and purple. The pigments were chosen according to availability in the area. The colors added a sense of completeness and greatly enhanced the buildings’ symbolic significance.
Chichén Itzá’s buildings are grouped into several architectural sets, which at one time, were separated by low walls. Among these complexes, the three most famous are –
- A) The Great North Platform –
The monuments of the Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo), Temple of Warriors, and the Great Ball Court
- B) The Osario Group –
El Castillo (The pyramid with the same name) and Temple of Xtoloc
- C) The Central Group –
El Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.
South of Las Monjas, known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén), which is only open to archeologists includes-
The Temple of Initial, Series, Initial Series Group Arch, Casa del Yugo, Case del Tambor, Platform of the Turtle, Casa Chac Mool, Temple of Owls, Temple of Columns, Casa de las Cabacitas, Casa Caracol, and House of Phallus.
The monuments, especially the northern group, which includes the Temple of Kukulkán, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Great Ball Court, are considered the classic masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture because of their impressive proportions, refined construction, and exquisite sculpted decoration.
A) El Castillo (The Temple of Kukulkan)
Also known as La Pirámide, is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the center of Chichén Itzá’s archaeological site in Mexico. Built by the Maya civilization between the 8th-12th century A.D., the pyramid served as a temple to the deity Kukulcán, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity.
The limestone structure is 24 m (79 ft) high, plus an additional 6 m (20 ft) for the temple at the top. The square base spans 55.3 meters (181 ft) across. There are terraces on both sides of the pyramid and stairways leading to the temple at the top. The northern balustrade is embellished with sculptures of plumed serpents.
A series of triangular shadows can be seen across the balustrade of the pyramid during the spring equinox and autumn equinox. So, it appears as though a feathered serpent is descending the pyramid. This event is popular among tourists and is witnessed by thousands at the spring equinox.
The temple on the top has vertical shafts similar to those found in Hindu Architecture and is surrounded by bas-relief carvings of animals and fruits.
B) The Temple of the Warriors
Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors is one of the most impressive and significant structures. The temple has a broad stairway with a plain, stepped ramp on both sides. Figures of standard-bearers stand on each side of the ramp to hold flags. The building spans 40 meters (131 feet) high and 40.5 meters (133 feet) wide.
The temple consists of four platforms, with 200 round and square columns on the south and west side of the structure. The series of 200 columns on the south wall of the Temple of the Warriors prompted the name “The Temple of Thousand Columns.” The square columns are carved in low relief with Toltec warriors, plastered, and painted with beautiful colors.
C) The Great Ball Court
The Great Ball Court was a site of sociopolitical power that served multiple purposes. This ancient site is home to Mesoamerica’s largest ball court which represents the underworld in Maya cosmology.
The city of Chichén Itzá had a total of 17 ball courts that served the purpose of receiving visitors from around the world to this capital for trials, matches, inaugurations, and large celebrations.
The courts were planned in I-shape with the benches for spectators on the longest side of the court. To the north of the court was a tower reserved for the rulers and political elites. It represented “heaven”, the area with the spectators represented “earth”, and the court as “underworld”.
The Classic Maya Collapse
The Mesoamerican Terminal Classic period (c. 800-925) witnessed the most dramatic collapse of civilization in recorded history. Classic Maya civilization soon fell into a permanent decline when the once-great city was abandoned. The historian M.E. Coe explains, ‘This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history.’
Several interrelated factors may explain the collapse of the Classic Maya Culture. Warfare, social dis-order, over-population, and unfavorable climatic conditions, combined, perhaps not all together, in varying degrees and with different timing and sequence, depending on location might be responsible for bringing down the established order of the southern Maya lowlands.
Protection and Management
The ruins of Chichén Itzá are federally owned and the site is maintained by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History). It is protected by the Federal Law on Monuments and Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Zones of 1972.
The site remains open to the public 365 days of the year and receives a minimum of 3,500 tourists per day, which can reach up to 8,000 in the high season.Therefore, making it the most popular archaeological site in Mexico. As a result, the site needs constant maintenance to keep its pre-Hispanic fabric intact.
Due to a lack of personnel, there is no long-term monitoring of the state of conservation. The site is therefore vulnerable to natural disasters and anthropogenic degradation. Threats like fire and limestone erosion have been highlighted.
According to the World Heritage Convention, “To ensure the property’s Outstanding Universal Value, requires the implementation of sustainable planning tools and adequate resources for management and conservation.”
1) UNESCO. Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza. [online]. Available At: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/483/
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3) Britannica. Chichén Itzá
(Ancient city, Mexico). [online]. Available At: https://www.britannica.com/place/Chichen-Itza
4) Rathee, D. (2022). Dhruv Rathee visits Chichen Itza in Mexico. [Youtube]. Available From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GlasUZBYs4
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