What makes this site special? It was built to awe.
They describe it as majestic, mythical, iconic, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. For me Chichén Itzá holds the key to interpreting everything that the Maya did and believed in.
But it is the most complex site and after three years of reading and many visits, I am not sure I have yet fully grasped the essence of this city because the options vary and develop as we go. Prepare yourself for a very long day, as the site is truly large (and has many vendors inside to distract you). I do recommend either reading about the site before your visit or taking a guide.
Please don't get discouraged by the complexity or the size. People visiting Yucatán often ask if they should go to Chichén Itzá or Tulum, because they want to visit only one ruin and spend the rest of their holiday on the Caribbean beach. While I love both sites, I would say go to Chichén Itzá, to try and understand the Mayan beliefs and rituals. But if you are here with small children, definitely go to Tulum, where you can just have a short and pleasant walk and don't need to think too much, just enjoy the clifftop scenery. Those are very different experiences.
In the Itzá-Mayan dialect 'chi' means mouth, 'chen' is well and Itzá is the name of the tribe. Together we get 'The mouth of the Well of the Itzá People'. The well reference is to the Sacred Cenote.
Román Piña Chan splits the word Itzá into 'itz' (sorcerer) and ha (water); this gives us 'The Mouth of the Water Sorcerer'. I like this one. Well, the Itzá were considered a race of mystic initiates, according to Antonio Mendiz Bolio. Their name can mean 'wise man' but also 'dew', so another alternative would give us 'The Mouth of the Well of Dew'. The word itzá could also mean 'enchanted waters' and may have been adopted from the name of the lake where these people originated: Lake Petén Itzá.
The Maya always built their cities on or around a source of water. In Chichén there were a few cenotes. The most famous one is Cenote Sagrado (the Sacred Cenote) but even the Kukulkán pyramid was built over a cenote (a sinkhole), as was recently discovered by Mexico’s National Autonomous University.
The first settlers of the land were the Itzá people around 400 AD. In 325 AD they started immigrating to Bacalar from Petén (around the city of Flores on Lake Peten Itzá) in Guatemala. They were migrating to Yucatán possibly due to drought. They conquered the classical Maya city of Uuc Yabnal (Seven Bushes) and renamed it Chichén Itzá, where they developed as an agricultural society. They lived there until the 7th century. After that, for economic and political reasons, the Itzá moved to Chakán Putum, where they lived until 928 AD, when they returned to Chichén.
The first settlers would have lived in the oldest part of the city, called simply the Old Chichén, with the Temple of the Date and the Temple of the Phallus (behind the Monastery). An Itzá Yucatecan Maya lineage dominated the Yucatán peninsula from then onwards. Roberto Giagnoli claims that it is this part of the old Chichén where the Solar, Phallic and Serpent Worship started. There are still remains of the enormous phalluses around (in heaps). He goes as far as claiming that the Itzá Maya were inhabitants of Atlantis. They survived when Atlantis sank and took with them this ancient worship, which was shared by other civilisations as well, such as the Egyptians and Greeks. I take this theory with a pinch of salt.
During the Central Phase of the Classic Period, 625-800 AD, Chichén Itzá shifted from farming to arts, sciences and religious practices. This is the South city today, where we can see buildings such as the Observatory, the Monastery, the Church and the Akab-Dzib. The architecture in this part of the city is in Puuc style.
From 800 to 925 AD, the foundations of this magnificent civilisation weakened. Around 1000 AD the Itzá allied themselves with two powerful Toltec tribes, Xiu and Cocom. With the Toltec period (925-1200 AD) the architecture and religious practices changed. The Sacred Cenote, once a source of water for agriculture, became a space for large-scale human sacrifices honouring the God of Rain. The Toltec architecture can be seen in the North city with the Kukulkán pyramid, the Ball Court, the Temple of the Jaguars, the Temple of the Warriors, the Tzompantli Temple, the Temple of the Eagles and the Temple of Venus.
There are a number of Mayalogists who debate whether a Toltec period existed as there is a certain reluctance to admit that any 'Mexicans' could have invaded and subdued their beloved Mayan city. In any case, the Pyramid of Kukulkán reflects the cultural diffusion in the architectural and cultural stages of building this city (and in none of the stages were metal tools used!).
While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapán, as Chichén had declined as a regional centre by 1250, before the rise of Mayapán.
In 1526 Spanish conqueror Francisco de Montejo arrived in Yucatán. He found a community living here but without their king so he encountered no resistance. He divided the land between his soldiers and named the city Ciudad Real (the Royal City). The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish. Montejo the Younger attempted an all-out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. Montejo eventually returned. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant and by 1588 the site was a working cattle ranch.
Despite its fame, little is know about this site as less archaeological research has been done here than in other places. I will concentrate on a few historic people that we have some information about.
We don't have any dynastic sequence of the city rulers. The inscriptions suggest that the city may not have been governed by an individual ruler or a single dynastic lineage. Instead, it was ruled through a council composed of members of elite ruling lineages. K'ak'upakal is the most widely mentioned individual in the surviving inscriptions at Chichén Itzá, in the South City (the old Maya part of the city). He is described as 'Captain Sun Disk', a military captain in the 9th century who took part in the conquest of Motul, Izamal and Chakán Putum (or Chakanputún) and in the establishment of the state of Mayapán. It seems that the Captain Solar Disc is associated with K'ak'upakal, the main ruler of the south of the city, and that Captain Serpent is an allusion to Kukulkán, the prominent ruler of the north sector of Chichén Itzá. Although in the mural in the Upper temple of Jaguars they both seem to have weapons in their hands, more than confronting one another, A.G. Navarro suggests that the two Captains use their weapons as a metaphor of salutation and a gesture of respect. This suggests dual government in this large city.
In the North City (the Toltec City), the most important personage was the mystical Quetzalcóatl (Captain Snake). You may object that he was a god (and an Aztec god, for that matter). Was he real? I think of him as King Arthur. He first appeared to the people near modern-day Mexico City, and taught the Toltecs all of their arts and science. He eventually fell in disgrace for violating his own laws and fled; his boat caught fire and he rose in flames to become the planet Venus and vowed to return one day.
After this event, all priests in the Toltec cult were given the title of Quetzalcóatl. One such priest by the name of Ce Acatl Topiltzin rose to power and in 968 AD became king of the Toltec people. He reigned for decades and built the Toltec capital of Tula. But he also had enemies and fled the city vowing to return one day to rule his people. On his journey he came to Chichén Itzá and they welcomed him as a returning Kukulkán (they were waiting for his return as by then they also had a legend of the mysterious 'white skinned bearded man' coming back one day).
Well, nobody is sure about the 'welcoming' part; it is likely that he conquered the city. In the Temple of the Warriors and the Upper Temple of the Jaguars there are many reliefs and murals of Toltec (Mexican) warriors in military costumes, recognisable by their darts and spear-throwers, in active combat with the local Maya (who used spears for thrusting, not throwing). One way or another, Kukulkán became the king of the Itzá Maya and rebuilt the ancient capital. The North city is said to have been built by him, including the pyramid of Kukulkán. Some scientists believe that the myth of the white returning lord originated during the Spanish conquest. But the Temple of the Warriors in Chichén suggests that Europeans had visited Mexico between 600-900 AD. Murals in the temple depict black, white, and brown people.
Hunac Ceel, a Mayan general from Telchaquillo, fought Chichén Itzá in the early 13th century. According to one Mayan codex (the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), he was taken captive in the war and the ruler Ah Mex K'uuk threw him into the Sacred Cenote as a sacrifice to the gods. However, he survived the night in the water and as survivors then did, he went on to become a lord. He chose Mayapán, under the sponsorship of Ah Mex K'uuk, and founded the Cocom dynasty. He attacked Chichen Itzá one more time, overthrowing the ruling elite. A legend says that this war was started by revenge, in protection of the honour of Izamal's prince. The legend goes like this:
Canek (Black Snake) and Sac-Nicté (White Flower) fell in love at first sight, the night he became one of the ruling council members of Chichén Itzá. However, Princess Sac-Nicté from Mayapán was already intended for Ulil, the prince of Izamal. Canek stole the bride on the wedding night and, to avoid persecution, they fled to what is now Guatemala, where they founded the city of Tayasal (modern Flores).
The Focus: The Kukulkán Pyramid
First of all, it is an elegant structure. But it is also the visualisation of the equinoxes, the Mayan knowledge of astronomy and their time measure. So here are some 'boring numbers'.
It is 26m high and consists of 9 platforms getting smaller as they go up, making a pyramidal shape. The four sides represent the four cardinal points. The outer pyramid is dedicated to the sun, while there is a hidden inner pyramid dedicated to the moon. And then there is a small 'doll pyramid' under the inner one. The whole structure sits over a cenote.
The inner lunar pyramid has 61 steps, in two segments, the first with 9 and the second with 52 steps.
There are some very imaginative interpretations of these numbers, but I'll add a word of warning here. I don't have the maths or the knowledge of astronomy to evaluate the more abstruse arguments, but I can count. Some authors clearly can't count, so if I spot mistakes in the basics, I have to dismiss the theory that the author has built on them. For example, take the mysterious author Roberto Giagnoli, who I've already mentioned. He's mysterious because his book 'Chichén Itzá: The Mysteries of the Plumed Serpent' (which you can buy at the ruins store), does not even give his name. I only found it through google. And Roberto Giagnoli can't count. He claims that the 12 caryatids at the Astronomical Observatory represent 'the 12 planets of the solar system.' Well, there were nine last time I counted, and that includes Pluto, which the West did not have the equipment to see until 1930.
Giagnoli also claims that the 91 steps of the outer solar pyramid 'stand for the number of days between one solstice and another, thus indicating the exact middle of the year'. There are 182 days between solstices. He builds an elaborate relationship between the pattern of 16 dots found at the Ball Court and the seven deadly sins, saying that 'the number 16 is formed by the numbers 1 and 6, which added together give 7.' Two problems there: firstly, 16 only 'adds up' to 7 in a decimal system. There is no logical or visual relationship between the Mayan numbers 16 and 7, because their counting was based on multiples of 20, not 10. Secondly, why do esoteric authors so often think that one number conceals another? Seven sins; seven dots, right?
So I warn you against books that make fantastic claims (however intriguing on the basis of faulty maths).
Another common fault is to discover magical numerical relationships that only make sense in metres. The Maya didn't use metres (a unit that was not invented until 1791). The pre-Columbian unit was 36mm (Nelson and Prado 2011).
What is pretty clear is that the solar pyramid represents the 365 days of the year. The 5 days of the week multiplied by the 4 sides of the Pyramid give the days of the Mayan month (5x4=20). The 9 platforms, divided into two by the staircase, then give the number of months in the Mayan year: 18. The Maya added 5 missing (and considered unfortunate) days to the 360 days of the year. So if we calculate all given numbers so far, (20x18) +5, we get 365 days in the solar year.
The 91 steps also stand for the number of days between one solstice and the next. At the winter solstice, the sun lights up the south and west sides of the Pyramid. There are 182 days between the summer and winter solstices, which is the number of the illuminated steps. When the spring and autumn equinoxes arrive, people gather in their thousands to watch the sunlight hitting the pyramid steps in turn and then joining the head of the serpent at the foot, giving the impression that the whole serpent is sliding down the steps, while its shadow crosses the square (this can only be seen from the top of the temple, which we can't access now). The serpent of light represents the day and the serpent of shadow the night.
This diamond-backed snake is composed of triangular shadows, cast by the stepped terraces of the pyramid. The sinking sun seems to give life to the sinuous shadows, which make a snaky pattern on their way down the stairs. Karl Taube suggests that the Kukulkán temple is a Flower Mountain and its plumed serpents are in fact depictions of the aroma of the flower blossoms adorning the structure. This means that the snake was a stylised representation of the aroma of the flower. If you visit Chichén Itzá, keep that poetic image in mind. Taube's theory is very interesting. The initial journey into Xibalbá underworld was followed by rebirth into a paradise populated with trees, flowers and wild animals, the access to which was provided by the Flower Mountain. If the king dies, he 'enters the water' (of the cenote), then he travels via the Tree of Life up to the sky. The Flower Mountain is a place where the ancestors dwell, a place of transition and emergence. It is where one is reborn. In essence, it is a story of immortality, the Maya kings were immortal.
A fitting story of new life, a new day, of rebirth can be also interpreted as follows: Kukulkán slides down the pyramid, goes to the underworld beneath and changes into a dark jaguar (the night) and in the morning he changes into a bird and flies back to the sky (like the sun which makes the morning).
Phew! But that is not all. Imagine a Mayan ruler and a priest talking to his people from the temple on top of the pyramid. The ruler might be wearing the mask of the Kukulkán God, and a sacred quetzal bird on his back (or at least quetzal feathers in his headdress). The echo would give more importance to the speech. The pyramid was built to act as a giant resonator to produce strange and evocative echoes. In this case, it is the bird-call effect, which resembles the sound of the Mexican quetzal bird, a sacred creature in Mayan culture. It was first recognised by California-based acoustic engineer David Lubman in 1998. The 'chirp' can be triggered by a handclap made at the base of the staircase. Try it out on the restored side of the pyramid because the height of the step (very tall) and the depth of the step (very small) is what makes this echo sound like a bird.
The Mystery: The Worship
The main question is if the Itzá people had the same form of worship as in other Mayan cities or if these sorcerers were different. If they were not different, then they worshipped many gods, such as Chac (the God of Rain), Itamná (the God of the Sky) and Kukulkán (the Feathered Serpent). They were a warring nation who fought wars for territory and resources first, then for the captives. They made them play the ball game and killed them afterwards, as they needed the blood to be given back to the Maize God who gave his blood to mankind when he created people. Or they threw them into the Sacred Cenote at times of drought, for the Chac (an offering to secure rain and fertility).
But others say it was all centred around the worship of the Sun, Phallus and Serpent. An interesting explanation in that respect is by Roberto Giagnoli (if we can accept his arguments). In his view, Chichén Itzá was the place of initiation. The symbols characterising this worship are as follow:
· The Sun (symbol of life) worship is represented by the Chac Mool with a disk resting on the solar plexus, indicating the physical and mental control of divine energy.
· The Phallus is the symbol of the reproductive process of man, whose sexual energy has to be properly controlled and transformed into the point of awareness of being. Stephen Salisbury believes that this worship was brought to Yucatán by the Nahua people. Stone phalluses have been found for example at the site of Uxmal and a stela of the god of fertility with an enormous phallus is at Sayil site.
· The Serpent is a symbol of sexual energy and fertility. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent a dual expression of good and evil. The worship of a feathered serpent is first documented in Teotihuacán in the first century BC.
Young men would come here to be initiated would come here to be initiated into the philosophy of Solar, Phallic and Serpent Worship. So the city was one big school. The aim was to produce better human beings, men capable of becoming Halach-Huinic' (True man) or Quetzalcóatl. These are noble titles and the teaching basically prepared them to rule, to be capable of staying alert and 'keeping their eyes open' to the complexities of life.
According to this theory, the initiatory process started in the Ball Game, continued in the Tzompantli Temple, then went on to the Platform of the Eagles and came to completion at the Platform of Venus.
My first guide at Chichén Itzá gave me the most common story: the captives played the Ball Game, the Tzompantli Temple was where the Maya beheaded their captives and where they displayed their skulls. The Temple of the Eagles has portraits of eagles and jaguars and they are possibly the elite ranks of the military, Eagle Knights and Jaguar Knights. After having done 20 or more great deeds (capturing foes to be used as sacrifices), the trainee soldiers were eligible to become either a jaguar or eagle warrior. These warriors would be leaders and commanders on and off the battlefield. On this platform they carry long smoking staffs with a mirror. See my post Warriors for more details. On these temple walls we see them devouring human hearts because their main job was bringing captives (see my post Captives) to have their hearts taken out alive. And as for the Temple of Venus, that's a platform where the celebrations take place after the human sacrifice, with dance and rituals. A lot of online sources confirm similar use of the platforms (or temples).
Well, the explanation by Roberto Giagnoli has a different take on it. It goes like this:
The Great Ball Court was where the adepts underwent both physical and mental initiation through a very arduous trial. After all, the winner was the player who got the heavy rubber ball through one of the rings, which are on each side of the wall at a height of 8m. The Temple of the Jaguars on the east platform of the court was used as a grandstand and the sculptures here depict the trial. All around the temple the serpent motifs accompany a wide band of jaguars alternating with a circle with 16 dots. As we have seen, we have to ignore Giagnoli's assertion that these dots are in any way connected with either the seven deadly sins or the seven orifices of the skull (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth).
The winner of the game was possibly decapitated (not all researchers agree with this). There is a relief on the side panel of the Ball Court, which shows seven serpents of wisdom emerging from the neck of the decapitated player. One of the seven serpents turns into the Tree of Life, and another goes straight into the sky. It means this is not a physical death; it announces a rebirth, the birth of True Man, a Halac Huinic, a man who will be capable of governing his people wisely. The decapitated player does not look defeated. Well, according to the Mayan beliefs, the sacrificed people did not have to go through the underworld and fight their monstrous lords; they went straight to 'heaven' to be reborn, which the adept would have known (a very convenient tale that the Maya created to justify the sacrifice, by the way, don't you think?). He is on his bended knee, certainly showing some stance of strength. The relief on the left side of the wall shows a player with the decapitated head in his hands. The head symbolises the lower ego, which he did not manage to defeat, unlike his winning opponent. This adept (the captain) and his seven players behind him, still wear feathered headdresses with the mysterious 16 dots.
Well, I have seen the house of Halac Huinic (the Governor) at other sites, for example in Tulum. What is not clear to me is how they could become the rulers after their death. The adepts showed through this trial that they were willing to learn, to get rid of egoism etc, but in reality they could not rule as they were dead. So how did the real Halac Huinic get to his position? Where did he learn his wisdom without dying? I heard from our guide in Bonampak that while the rulers (the adepts) played the game and went through the 'trial of learning', they actually had a slave decapitated instead. Could this be true? It does sound a logical answer. Unless, of course, they simply nominated the captain from amongst the captives and slaves. In that case, they would all go through the 'trial' but only the captive was decapitated.
Another question that this theory poses is how would the adepts from many other cities get here for their 'course' in the Solar, Phallic and Serpent worship? Contrary to popular belief, the Maya were not an empire but a collection of autonomous city-states. War between individual cities, and between regional alliances, was ongoing. Chichén Itzá fought Cobá and Yaxuná and caused their downfall. Around 1000 AD the Itzá allied themselves with the Toltecs. Between 987–1461 they were in the Mayapán League with Uxmal. The fighting was necessary to enhance and consolidate power, to maintain control of territory and resources, especially water, and to acquire captives (for labour but also sacrifice). But how did the adepts get to Chichén Itzá through all these troubled territories of the warring cities in the jungle? Were they not captured? Or were they always just from the allied cities? According to Giagnoli, the 1,000 columns in the Temple of the 'Warriors' are actually adepts who reached the highest level of knowledge (not warriors). That is a lot of initiates! We can't see their features today as they have been eroded with time (because the flat rooftop collapsed); they are just columns. And they were all portrayed very individually, with different features. But if there were 1,000 of them, they could not have all come from the allied cities; they must have come from afar. Giagnoli also claims that in the sanctuary of this temple the altar is supported by different telamones (male figures used as pillars) showing the different cultures from which the adepts came. But where from?
The whole process of the initiation was mapped by stone reliefs in the North Temple of the Ball Court. Here there is a succession of reliefs showing the priests taking the initiate through the process of learning. In one scene, the adept is squeezing his penis with his right hand, while the left hand is on his solar plexus (the adept is portrayed like that also in the sculpture called Chac Mool). In front of him is a large stylised penis and further ahead, the Tree of Life. This scene is of the transformation process.
To finish the transformation process, after the game the adepts were taken to the Tzompantli Temple. All the buildings designed by the Maya for funerary purposes had an entrance on the east (sunrise) and an exit on the west (sunset). But this temple only has one entrance-exit on the east. Here the adept prepared for 'death' and for giving his heart to the spirit, represented by the eagle. The experience was not physical. It was the death of their (negative) personality. Here he became a superior being (to all the non-initiates). Note the big eyes on the skulls around the wall. The circles represent the 'superior sight' of the owl, capable of seeing through darkness. The whole sequence of the journey of the decapitated head is sculpted on the wall; the head is moving from the west to the north and gradually disappears. So this frieze of skulls did not represent a display of decapitated heads but the philosophy of worship.
We then meet the Eagle at the Temple of the Eagles at the central band. The jaguar (now defeated) offers the human heart to the eagle, who is devouring it. The eagle takes the heart up to the highest levels of the spirit. On the upper band there are figures of men often described as warriors (Eagle and Jaguar elite knights) with goggles over their eyes. Well, Giagnoli says these are adepts in the tantric position of Chac Mool (who was named so wrongly; it is not the messenger of the rain god Chac, but the adept of the Solar, Phallic and Serpent worship). His eyes are big, because now he can see it all.
Last but not least the Temple of Venus has sunken panels, which show the adept emerging from the jaws of a serpent with a forked tongue (and having the claws of a jaguar). This is a symbol of rebirth, as depicted at many sites (gods and rulers always came to life through a serpent head). So the cycle is completed. The temple gets the name from the symbol of the planet Venus on the level panel appearing like sheaves of corn tied together, representing the number of days and nights during which the planet can be seen from the earth. How much more complex can this philosophy get? Well, it can. Here they found a collection of giant phalluses (now heaped up at the site). Here the initiate completed his journey to become a True Man.) A big phallus was created for each adept, (apparently tuned to his 'body vibration frequency', but that's Giagnoli again, so who knows?)
Don't Miss: THE SOUTH CITY
There are a few building in the South city but the most significant are the Observatory and the Church building. The Observatory was named El Caracol by the Spanish, because the building has a spiral staircase inside leading to the top of the observatory, resembling a snail. It had no connection with the city's religious ceremonies per se; it was built for astronomical studies (although those dictated the times of religious ceremonies). The terrace has two wide ditches filled with water. The Maya used them for observing the sky in reflection.
If you still have the strength at this point to continue the walk, go to the Monastery and the adjacent Church (La Iglesia), the most photographed building at the site (see the photos below). I believe the whole Church building is the Witz (Mountain) monster. The door is facing west (where the sun or life dies), indicating physical death. This would fit with the theory that the building was possibly a burial place as the Witz monster presided over the Flower Mountain where life was reborn after death. As for the corner masks, they have flower headbands (Chac had a knotted headband and his nose was curved downwards). They represent the Itsam Kah celestial bird, which sits on top of the World Tree as a symbol of rebirth (Grube and Martin). That would fit the view that the Church indeed represented the paradise called the Flower Mountain.
The site map
- Open daily 8:00 am – 5:00 pm.
- The entrance fee (2017) is $242 MXN (this includes the tax, no need to pay two separate fees anymore).
- Children under 13 are admitted free.
- Pay in cash to avoid credit card charges (10%).
- Extra charge for a video camera ($45 MXN).
- Locals pay $162 MXN and go free on Sundays. Discounts for local students and pensioners.
- Night light show (19.00-21.00 in winter, 20.00-22.00 in summer): $453 MXN including the tax
How to get there:
There is a bus service from Mérida, Cancún and Playa del Carmen. By car, you will reach it from highway 180D. A toll applies to parts of the highway and differs depending where you are arriving from. The best time to visit is early morning (they open at 8am), to avoid the heat.
And when is the best time to go? On Sundays the locals go free to the pyramids. But it does not mean this is the busiest day. On the same day a lot of tour companies send the tourists back home and the new ones are just settling in. So overall, Sunday is the best day if you have a choice. Be there at 8am when they open. You will have the Kukulkán pyramid to yourself!
Mix & Match
You can combine the visit to the ruins with a cenote, to refresh after a hot day. there are a few to choose from. The nearest one is Ik Kil, just 3 km from the ruin site. Count with large crowds if you decided to take this option. Or try X-Cajum, 25-minute drive north, just off the road to Dzitás village. If you are going back towards Valladolid, your options are Samulá and X'Kekén, both in Dzitnup village on the outskirts of Valladolid. My preferred option of them all is cenote Hubiku, near the village of Temozón.