Chichen Itza: the Meaning of Its Monuments and Its History

Chichen Itza was an ancient city in Mesoamerica, inhabited by peoples belonging to the Mayan culture.

Charged with sacred connotations, Chichen Itza functioned as a place of worship and pilgrimage. The layout, use and decorative elements of the monuments reflect the social and political structure of the Maya people, the gods they worshiped and their understanding of the cosmos.

The Kukulkan pyramid was designed as a beautiful giant stone calendar, built in honor of the god of water and wind. Representations of the god of rain, Chaac, are used as a decorative element in places as emblematic as the Temple of Warriors.

For its part, the Observatory is clearly oriented towards the contemplation of celestial phenomena, which attests to the vast knowledge in astronomy, mathematics and geometry that the Mayas developed.

The city’s name, Chichén Itzá, means “at the edge of the Itza’s well” and refers to one of the many existing wells in the region, known as the Sacred Cenote.

The Itzáes, whose name means “water diviners”, are the Mayan people who inhabited the city from the 8th century. It was at the end of this century that the warrior tribe of the Toltecs arrived in this territory and introduced their culture, iconography and devotion to Kukulkan.

During the post-classic period, Chichen Itza became the main political and religious center of the Mayab, a name that the Maya gave to the Yucatan peninsula and which means “place of little”.

Map of Yucatan

The 9 main monuments and their meaning

The archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá is an area where classic Mayan architecture converges with the warrior and religious art of the Toltecs. Among its many constructions we can highlight the following:

1. The Pyramid of Kukulkan: representation of the cosmos

Pyramid of Kukulkan

Image of the Kukulkan pyramid.

Also known as El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulkan, it is a comprehensive representation of the cosmos as the Maya understood it and a sample of their geometric, astronomical and mathematical skills.

Each of the sides of the pyramid corresponds to one of the 4 cardinal points, towards which descend four monumental staircases. The most important, the northern staircase, bears witness to Kukulkan’s descent to earth during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

A total of 365 steps lead to the summit, one step for each day of the Mayan calendar year. haab. The shrine, which was located in the highest area, had 20 battlements, one for each day of the month.

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The Pyramid of Kukulkan represents the importance of the calendar, the division of time and the solar cycle for Mayan culture.

A construction where the adoration of Kukulkan is present in its columns and balustrades: the image of a feathered serpent that represents the Mayan god of the elements and wisdom.

Detail of the north staircase

Detail of the snake-shaped balustrade of the north staircase.

The Temple of Kukulkan was built on top of a second, older and smaller pyramid, in which the throne of the Jaguar and a figure known as Cha mool.

2. Chac Mool: sacrifices and offerings

Chac Mool

figure of a Chac Mool, man holding the tray where the sacrificial offerings were placed.

It is a characteristic sculpture of the end of the Mesoamerican period, present in different constructions of Chichen Itza such as the Temple of the Warriors or the pyramid that underlies El Castillo.

It represents the effigy of a reclining man holding on his stomach a tray in which were deposited the offerings intended for the deities during the sacrifices.

There are several hypotheses concerning the identity of this character, since he could be the victim of a sacrifice, a warrior, and even a minor deity.

What is clear is that their purpose is ceremonial, since these sculptures have been found in religious spaces.

sacred cenote

Image of the sacred cenote of Chichen Itza.

A cenote is a natural subsidence of land that serves as a reservoir of water for drinking and irrigation.

The ancient Mayans considered the cenote sacred as a link to the underworld. Rituals and sacrifices were performed on its shore, into which precious metal objects and precious stones were thrown. The goal was to offer the deities, like the god Chaakto get the protection and rain necessary for a good harvest.

The Sacred Cenote was first dredged by Edward H. Thompson to recover valuables that lay on the bottom. In the process, animal and human remains, sacrificial victims, were discovered and sold to the Peabody Archaeological Museum at Harvard University.

4. Temple of Warriors: War Conflict

temple of warriors

Image of the Temple of Warriors and the Group of Thousand Columns.

The Temple of the Warriors is a revelation of the internal conflicts between the Mayans and the Toltecs that took place at Chichen Itza. In addition to images of eagles, jaguars and masks of the god Chaac, numerous figures of warriors, weapons and prisoners appear on its columns and pillars.

Images of feathered serpents are present on the stairs and columns guarding the access to the temple, and processions of this idol have decorated its cornices and murals.

On the entrance platform we find a sculpture of Chac Mool, ready for offerings.

5. Great Ballgame: War on the Field

the big ball game

Image of the Chichen Itza ball court.

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In the city of Chichén Itzá, the largest ball court in Mesoamerica is preserved. The ball game was a sport linked to religious festivals, which is why the courts were built in sacred spaces.

Sometimes teams competed to resolve conflicts without having to fight a war, leaving the losers at the mercy of the winning team.

Two walls, decorated with figures of warriors, delimited the playing field and held the hoops, or beacons, through which the ball had to pass, at a height of 7 meters.

ball game hoop

Detail of a ball game ring or marker.

At each end of the field was a room, some citizens could watch the competition there, but it was mainly used for the practice of rituals related to the game.

6. Platform of Skulls or Tzompantli: enemies defeated

skulls rig

Relief detail of the Platform of the Skulls.

It is an altar consisting of a T-shaped platform which was dedicated to death. There is a popular belief that it was used to display the mortal remains of enemies as trophies. On its walls you can see images of warriors wearing skulls.

7. Temple of Venus: the guiding star

Venus platform

Representations of the planet Venus are the origin of its name and show the importance that this star had for the Maya. Its base is square, with stairs on each of its sides, ending in snake heads that ascend the balustrades.

By observing the cycle of Venus, the Maya came to predict the arrival of the rains and the time of greatest fertility in agricultural land.

The inhabitants of Chichén Itzá linked the planet Venus with the deity Kukulkan, because according to their interpretation, Venus moved in a serpentine fashion through the firmament.

They also interpreted seeing the star at sunset as a bad omen, while seeing it in the morning was a sign of prosperity.

8. Ossuary: recording of solar movement

The Ossuary

Also known as the Tomb of the High Priest, it is a stepped pyramid that bears similarities to El Castillo and was built for ceremonial and astronomical purposes.

Beneath the ground is a cave, which was considered a sacred site as they believed the beginning and end of life took place there. A vertical plane, typical of solar observatories of the time, opens from this cave to the sanctuary which crowned the summit of the pyramid.

Through this opening, the basement and the firmament were connected and recordings of time and solar movements were made.

The Ossuary has four staircases which, through seven levels, lead to the top. In the decoration we find snakes carved on the stairs, reliefs of eagles and tigers, figures of first-class citizens and masks with the face of the god Chaak.

9. The Observatory or El Caracol: stars and predictions

the snail

It is a building that was probably used for astronomical observation. The Maya were great stargazers, as they helped them predict harvests, deaths, and optimal times for battle.

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It is known as El Caracol because of the spiral staircase that led to the highest part of the vault. From the upper windows you could see different positions of the planet Venus, sunrise and sunset.

This construction is made up of two superimposed rectangular platforms, which served as the residence of the priests, and on which rises its characteristic circular tower.

History of Chichen Itza

Founding period

The founding of Chichén Itzá occurred around the 8th century AD, when the Itzá people, from Petén (Guatemala), established their colony here to take advantage of its water sources and fertile soils.

Around this period there was an increase in population due to migrations from different regions, among which the arrival of the Toltec people stands out.

The Toltecs were warriors from central Mexico whose military skills and religious customs greatly influenced the development of Chichen Itza.

A political transformation unified different ethnic groups under the protection of Kukulkan, who would have been, in addition to being a god, a warrior whose figure ended up being deified.

Period of splendor

By the middle of the 9th century, as the Mayan cities of the Classic period were in decline, Chichen Itza became the political and ceremonial center of Yucatan.

The nerve center is moved from the area called Old Chichen, clearly dominated by the traditional Puuc style, to the Great Leveling, where the main buildings of this period were located.

The city reached its fullness, not only with the construction of authentic architectural treasures, but also with the development of a great military capacity that allowed it to control tax collection and trade routes. Cocoa, jade and obsidian were the most valuable commodities traded.

Period of decline

There are different versions about the abandonment of Chichen Itza. One of the most accepted hypotheses is that a long period of drought forced the inhabitants to leave the city due to the difficulty in obtaining food.

On the other hand, there are those who claim that their decline came when they ran out of peoples to conquer and impose tribute.

Chichen Itza was inhabited until its decline and subsequent abandonment in the 13th century. Later it continued to function as a sacred site to which the Maya went on pilgrimage to make their offerings to the gods.

References:

  • Jones, C. (1999). Trade and trade routes of the Maya. Pre-Columbian Period, Foundation for Culture and Development of Guatemala, Guatemala City, 479-486.
  • OnlineCobos, R. (2001). The center of Yucatán: from a peripheral zone to the integration of the urban community of Chichén Itzá. In Reconstructing the Maya City: Town Planning in Ancient Societies (pp. 253-276). Spanish Society for Mayan Studies.
  • Pallan, C. (2011). Brief history of the Maya. Editorial Nowtilus.