Chichen-Itza (chee-chehn eet-sah) in Maya, was a sacred city of the Itza and the name literally means: “Mouth of the well of the Itza”. Located 75 miles east of Merida, the capital of the State of Yucatan, Mexico; this archaeological site is rated among the most important of the Maya culture and covers an area of approximately six square miles where hundreds of buildings once stood. Now most are mounds but more than thirty may still be seen by tourists.
The two groups
The ruins are divided into two groups. One group belongs to the classic Maya Period and was built between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D., at which time the city became a prominent ceremonial center. The other group corresponds to the Maya-Toltec Period, from the later part of the 10th century to the beginning of the 13th century A.D. This area includes the Sacred Well and most of the outstanding ruins.
When Chichen-Itza was first settled it was largely agricultural. Because of the many cenotes in the area, it would have been a good place to settle. During the Central Phase of the Classic Period, referred to as Florescence, (625 -800 A.D.) arts and sciences flourished here. It was at this time that Chichen-Itza became a religious center of increasing importance, evidenced by the buildings erected: the Red House, the House of the Deer, the Nunnery and its Annex, the Church, the Akab Dzib, the Temple of the Three Lintels and the House of Phalli.
Toward the end of the Classic Period, from 800 to 925 A.D., the foundations of this magnificent civilization weakened, and the Maya abandoned their religions centers and the rural land around them. New, smaller centers were built and the great cities like Chichen-Itza were visited only to perform religious rites or bury the dead. The Itza people abandoned their city by the end of the 7th century A.D. and lived on the west coast of the peninsula for about 250 years. However, by the 10th century A.D. they returned to Chichen-Itza.
Around 1000 A.D. the Itza allied themselves with two powerful tribes, Xio and Cocom, both claiming to be descendants of the Mexicans. This alliance was favorable to the Itza for about two centuries. During this time, the people of Chichen-Itza added to the site by constructing magnificent buildings bearing the touch of Toltec art: porches, galleries, colonnades and carvings depicting serpents, birds and Mexican gods.
The Toltec influenced the Itza in more ways than just architecture. They also imposed their religion on the Itza, which meant human sacrifice on a large scale. They expanded their dominions in northern Yucatan with an alliance with Mayapan and Uxmal. As the political base of Chichen-Itza expanded, the city added even more spectacular buildings: the Observatory, Kukulkan’s Pyramid, the Temple of the Warriors, The Ball Court, and The Group of the Thousand Columns. The Temple of the Warriors has pillars sculptured in bas-relief, which have retained much of their original color. Murals once adorned its walls. It is surrounded by numerous ruined buildings known as the Group of a Thousand Columns. The Cenote of Sacrifice was reserved for rituals involving human sacrifice involving the rain God. The victims were not only young women, but also children and elderly men and women.
Possibly the best known construction on the site is Kukulkan’s Pyramid. El Castillo (Kukulkan-Quetzalcoatl), a square-based, stepped pyramid that is approximately 75 feet tall. This pyramid was built for astronomical purposes and during the vernal equinox (March 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 21) at about 3pm the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main stairway. This causes seven isosceles triangles to form imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Mexican researcher Luis El Arochi calls it “the symbolic descent of Kukulkan” (the feathered serpent), and believes it could have been connected with agricultural rituals.