Mayan Jungle History: Chichen Itza
It is believed that Chichén Itzá was founded by the Putún Maya from the coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico in around 850 AD. Upon Toltec took over, they modeled many of the buildings on those of their former capital at Tula. Different styles of architecture are found in different Mayan regions, all based on the differences of culture and resources available for the establishment of the settlements. What you will find in Palenque will very different from what you will find in Copan; just as the structure of architecture, design and layout will be different in Chichen Itza from that in Tikal. Toltec rule ended when the city fell to Hunac Ceel, ruler of the neighbouring city-state of Mayapán, in 1221. Upon the arrival of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the site had long been abandoned fallen into ruin, the Maya never saw Spanish ships coming to the new land as Mel Gibson would like to think. One theory suggests that many of the Maya from the larger settlements, namely Chichen Itza Palenque, Tikal and Copan, all left and migrated deeper into the jungle. The reason for this is still unknown, but it is suggested that lack agricultural resources was one of the causes.
It is most interesting to not that the Mexican government established a highway that went right through the site in 1983, but for ecological, and not so much archaeological reasons, this part of the highway was closed, and a bypass was built north of the site. The hotels on the east side can be reached by taking the bypass and then heading back toward the site (west) on the old section of Highway 180 that is still open for local traffic.
Chichén Itzá has three main components that create the layout of the site:
- The North End structures, divided by the highway
- The South End structures divided by the highway
- And "Old Chichén.", groups of structures even further south.
A Day of Architecture and Knowledge: A literary Tour of Chichen Itza
There are two principal styles of public architecture at Chichén Itzá. The first is a local variant of the Puuc style found at sites in west-central Yucatán and northeastern Campeche. The other style, according to Peter J. Schmidt, "is partly derived from the same roots but is vastly enriched by elements and concepts from other parts of Mesoamerica, notably the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, and central México. Early investigators of Chichén Itzá proposed that Puuc-style traits were "Maya" and the features of the "Toltec" style include serpent columns, Chac Mools, Atlantean figures, serpent heads at the top of alfardas, tzompontlis, and carvings of processions of warriors, among others, much like those found in Copan and Tikal.
Architecturally, this style embodies stepped pyramids dance platforms with stairs on all four sides, large columned porticoes, gallery-patio compounds, as well as other features.
While Mexican influence is clearly present at Chichén Itzá, Schmidt believes that "continuity of construction techniques, residential systems, and other features of daily life, such as ceramic vessel types, argue for the continued Maya character of Chichén Itzá, Tikal and Palenque.
Chichén Itzá, El Castillo
Approaching from the west end of Chichén Itzá, El Castillo -also called the Temple of Kukulcán- towers over the region and is visible from afar. The pyramid was said to have been built in honor of Kukulcan, the serpent of agriculture. The Mayans of the region built it such that on the second equinox of the year a serpent would form created by the sun’s angle and perfect isosceles triangles casting its shadow…expressing the movement of a giant serpent of sun and shadow coming down the temple to fertilize the soils of Chichen Itza.
Nearby, El Castillo, a square-based stepped pyramid about 75 feet tall, stands crowned by a temple. It originally had stairways on all four sides; two of these have been restored. The visible structure covers a smaller, earlier one (of similar plan), and some interesting sculpture is found on the inside of the latter. The inner structure was discovered during excavation. A tunnel was cut into the outer structure, and a stairway was located, which is the entrance to the inner structure. The entrance is at the base of the north side of El Castillo, but the inner temple can be visited only during certain hours. Check as you enter the site, as the schedule is subject to change. Also, check on the open hours for the interior structure of the Temple of the Warriors and the painted chamber of the Temple of the Jaguars. The open hours of the three do not overlap; you can probably work all three into your schedule if you plan ahead.
Climbing the exterior of El Castillo is much more pleasant and affords delightful views of the north section of the site. This latter temple is composed of a pyramidal base rising in three tiers, with a temple on top, approached by a stairway on the west side. There is a large colonnade of stone pillars carved with figures of warriors at the base of the structure on the west side.
Upon getting to the entrance of the temple a Chac Mool and two beautifully carved serpent columns' at the rear are small Atlantean figures rest supporting an altar. The facade of the temple has sculptures depicting Chac, the Maya rain god. The Temple of the Warriors also had at least two construction phases. There is an earlier inner temple, with pillars sculptured in bas-relief, which retain much of their original color, and murals once adorned the walls of the inner structure. There are also a Chac Mool and the heads of serpent columns inside.
The other structure of interest in this area is the Mercado, or Market, on the south side of the courtyard, built on a slightly elevated platform, much like you would find in Palenque or Tikal, where the center of the urban developments always created a special place for commerce.
The Sacred Cenote is not a structure created by the Mayan of Chichen Itza, but a natural formation created by an underground river system that continues to foster tropical growth on the Yucatan peninsula. Although natural, it may have been altered to achieve its nearly circular shape. It is worth noting the coincidence in relationship between the location of establishments- Palenque and Copan, to name a couple-and the existence of cenotes. There are several theories that explain the function and reverence paid to the mysterious “dznot” or hole (Mayan) in the ground. About 180 feet in diameter, and sides r 80 feet in depth above the water level, the Sacred Cenote was apparently not used as a water supply but was reserved for rituals and human sacrifice involving the rain god. The notion that the sacrificed victims were all beautiful young virgins was disproved when human remains of young children and older adults, both male and female, were discovered. The Sacred Cenote is in a depression, and the surrounding dense vegetation cuts off most of the air. On a still day, the heavy atmosphere and buzzing insects can create a hypnotic effect, and one con easily imagine this as a place of human sacrifice. There are remains of a small temple on the edge of the cenote are very similar to those found in Topoxte, Guatemala, somewhat near the area of Tikal.
Due north of the cenote is the Skull Rack, or Tzompantli. The sides are covered with bas-reliefs; some depict skulls in profile, except for the corners, where they are shown full face. Oddly enough, each is different from the other and has its own personality. Other bas-reliefs show warriors in full regalia. Two Chac Mools were excavated from the platform.
To the west to the Great Ball Court, or Poctapoc, the largest in Mesoamerica' its walls measure 272 feet long, but the playing area extends some distance beyond. There are interesting bas-relief carvings on the lower walls of the ball court depicting ball game activities and ritual sacrifice. A small temple lies at each end of the ball court, and from in front of the north temple (the Temple of the Bearded Man) a person speaking in a natural voice reportedly can be heard at the other end of the court, about 150 yards away. What’s most interesting about this game is that the captain of the two opposing teams (shadow and light) was sacrificed. It is believed that they had a place within the neighboring structure of the Temple of Warriors.
There are two columns at the entrance to the one-room temple, and these, the interior walls, to the Temple of the Bearded Man are some remains of red paint, and this emphasizes the carvings. The larger temple at the south end of the ball court also has remains of columns with carvings, but the walls and vault surfaces are plain.
When you return to the plaza level, you can enter a chamber below the Temple of the Jaguars that faces east. It has polychrome bas-reliefs on pillars, walls, and vault in a good state of preservation and a simple three dimensional sculpture of a jaguar, possibly a throne.
After a visit to this northern section of Chichén Itzá, it is time for a lunch break before you continue to the South Group.
When you reach the South Group, you first come to the Ossuary, or Grave of the High Priest, to the right of the trail. Although mostly ruined, it is similar in design to el Castillo, though built on a smaller scale. There are remains of serpent columns on top, pillars carved with human figures, and the temple walls. Near the base of the Ossuary are several carved-stone panels.
Simple medial and cornice moldings, a perforated central roof comb, and a flying facade with Chac masks form the exterior decorations. The walls are plain between the upper moldings and below the medial molding, giving a feeling of sober restraint. The Red House (so called because of a red strip painted on a wall) is Puuc style. Its other name, Chichán-Chob, is Maya and probably means something like "small holes," referring to the latticework in the roof comb. A band of glyphs is found on the vault of the interior of the structure, and it has been dated to A.D. 869.
Following the main trail south to leads to El Caracol,. This is one of the most imposing structures in the South Group. Caracol means "snail", in Spanish and, by extension, "spiral," referring to the Caracol in supposed to have served as an observatory, and it is the only round structure found at Chichén Itzá. The upper terrace of El Caracol has some three-dimensional sculpture of human heads. This is a good place for photographs of some of the other buildings.
Due south of El Caracol is the Temple of the Sculptured Panels. The panels are on the north and south exterior walls of the lower portion of the building, and a rocky path leads to the temple on top from the south side. This is a good vantage point for photographs of El Caracol and other structures.
A short distance southwest of the Temple of the Sculptured Panels exist two of the most interesting buildings in the area. The largest is Las Monjas, or the Nunnery, with its annex' it is 210 feet long, 105 feet wide, and more than 50 feet high. This building saw several building stages, leading to its present impressive size. There is much interesting detail here, especially in the form of Chac masks. A doorway in the east face of the annex forms the open mouth of a monster, a feature associated with the Chenes style, although the rest of the structure is Puuc style. The upper level of Las Monjas has some carved lintels still in place.
About 100 yards east by foot trail is the Akab-Dzib ("Obscure Writing"), named for some hieroglyphs appearing on a lintel (including a date equivalent to A.D. 870). This structure was built in at least two stages. The central portion was constructed first, and the flanking north and south wings is undecorated except for simple medial and cornice moldings.
The third section of Chichén Itzá, is "Old Chichén," which has both Puuc and "Toltec"- style remains, as does the rest of the site. The structures are scattered in the bush, but are connected by trails, which begin south of Hacienda Chichén (now a hotel). Visiting "Old Chichén entails a hot steamy hike into the bush, but some of the structures are worth the effort.
To see the structures you must have a guide, such protocol is similar in Tikal, Palenque, and Copan. While some of the trails are easy to follow, not all of the branches are marked, and sometimes parts of the trail are overgrown. You can ask for a guide at the ticket office en the service building when you enter the side of the site.
When you visit "Old Chichén," you come first to the Date Group, the most interesting in the area. The name comes from a lintel with an Initial Series date of A.D. 879.
It is the only Initial Series date known from Chichén Itzá, and the lintel is found spanning the top of two Atlantean figures, which form the doorway of a small temple, only the lower walls of which remain.
It has been said that the lintel was previously used in an earlier building. A small Chac Mool is found at the base of the mound that supports the temple.
Just south is the Puuc-style Temple of the Phalli, and behind this are remains of several structures, Atlantean figures, and carved columns. A short distance northwest is an enclosure with more Atlantean figures and, a bit farther on, a crude sculpture of a serpent. Just west of the Temple of the Phalli is a structure called the Tecolotes ("owls"), with remains of carved columns depicting owls and other motifs. The trail to the next area of interest leaves from the Telecotes and heads southwest.
Just a short distance southwest is the Temple of the Three Lintels, the only restored structure in "Old Chichén ", and a gem. It is a Puuc-style structure, faced with thin veneer masonry associated with the style. Although other structures at Chichén Itzá are also in Puuc style, they generally lack this particular feature. Chac masks decorate the upper facade and are interspersed with engaged columns and a lattice pattern; the lower walls are plain. Two of the lintels, dated A.D. 879, are carved on their front edges.
From the Temple of the Three Lintels, you retrace your steps part of the way before taking a side trail to the left. This brings you to two structures that are kept reasonably well cleared. The one you reach first is mostly a rubble mound but is worth climbing to see the remains of carved rectangular columns on top. A bit southwest is the Castillo of "Old Chichén." It is also mostly rubble, but there are remains of carved facing stones on the west side, a stairway on the north side, and carved columns and jambs on top. There is also a carved serpent head near the base of the Castillo that was probably a part of the original construction. From the top of this structure Las Monjas and El Castillo of the North Group are visible to the northeast, in the distance.
Ceramic evidence indicates that Chichén Itzá was occupied from the Middle Pre-classic period onward. It grew steadily to a position of regional importance, and during the ninth to twelfth centuries. It was the political and cultural center of northern Yucatán.
Exactly when Mexican influence first appeared at Chichén Itzá, and how it reached the site, is still being debated and studied, and continuing epigraphic research will doubtless add to our knowledge about the history of the site. At present, some authorities believe that two groups arrived at Chichén Itzá:the Itzás are said to have been Putun or Chontal Maya, whose home was along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between Tabasco and Champotón. They were known as sea traders and have been called the "Phoenicians of the New World" by Sir J. Wric S. Thompson. Thompson believed that they had trade connections with the people of central Mexico (through their merchants) and a sea route from Tabasco, around the Yucatán Peninsula, to Copan, Honduras.
The Toltecs were the dominant group in central Mexico during the late Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic times. Legend has it that some of this group, led by the famous Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, left their capital at Tula and proceeded to Yucatán. It is possible, however, that the "Toltecs who arrived in Yucatán were a highly Mexicanized group of Chontal Maya who were associated with the Toltecs. Some authorities believe that the Itzás arrived in Yucatán around AD 866, led by Kakupacal, and that the "Toltecs" followed around 987. Other scholars believe that the Itzás arrived after the "Toltecs." Still others believe that there was no "Toltec invasion" and that exotic ideas arrived at Chichén Itzá along with trade goods. Edward Kurjack says, "These new concepts were fused with indigenous art forms to crate the mixture observed at Chichén Itzá." He further states that this apparent foreign influence "seems to have been a by-product of native commerce."
According to E. Wyllys Andrews V, "An increasingly accepted argument is that Mexican influence was present in Yucatán considerably before the collpse of the Puuc cities, quite possibly before A.D. 900, and that Puuc and "Toltec" Chichén Itzá coexisted in northern Yucatán for a century or more. "Other authorities also suggest that the two different architectural styles may have been contemporaneous, at least in part. After Chichén Itzá went into decline sometime before A.D. 1200, Mayapán became the dominant center in northern Yucatán. Nevertheless, pilgrims still visited Chichén Itzá, as they had for many centuries, and this continued until the Spanish conquest.