Yucatan Treasures, Mexico

Chichen Itza

A survey undertaken recently came up with a list of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

First on the list was Chichen Itza, Yucatan state, Mexico. The others were: Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Colosseum in Rome, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India.

Deep in the jungles of Guatemala and Mexico, the Mayan people were already master mathematicians and had mapped the heavens while the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages. Our modern calendar is due to the Maya who also developed the only true writing system of the Americas.

The focal point of the northern Maya lowlands from the Late Classic period was Chichen Itza. Towards the end of the Terminal Classic period, the site became a major regional centre and it remained so into the Early Post-classic era.

Once a Mayan civilisation, Yucatan was eventually conquered by the Spanish and by 1588, the area around Chichen Itza was a working cattle station.

In 1894, the United States Consul to Yucatan, Edward Herbert Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichen. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city, excavating some of the sites and collecting artefacts. In 1926 Thompson was charged with theft and the government seized the hacienda. In 1944, the Mexican Supreme Court absolved Thompson of the crimes and Chichen Itza was returned to his heirs (Thompson had died in 1935). The hacienda was then sold to Fernanco Barbachano Peon, the tourism pioneer.

Chichen Itza(73090)Credit: Wikimedia

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza
means 'at the mouth of the well of the Itza' in Yucatec Maya. It is a large, pre-Columbian site built by the Maya civilisation and is situated in the northern centre of the Yucatan Peninsula, Yucatan state, Mexico.

There are a number of fine stone buildings on the site, with a great range of architectural styles.

The buildings are grouped with each group once separated by low walls. The best known of the complexes are the Great North Platform, the Ossario Group and the Central Group.

Northern Yucatan is an arid limestone plain with its rivers running underground. Two large, natural sinkholes would have provided year-round water in good quantities to the Maya. These 'cenotes' are believed to have been the site of sacrifices to the Maya rain god Chaac.

The most famous of the sinkholes is the Cenote Sagrado or Sacred Cenote (also known as Sacred Well and Well of Sacrifice). This sinkhole is 60 metres in diameter with sheer cliffs which drop some 27 metres to the water table below. The second largest cenote is Xtoloc.

From 1904 to 1910, Edward H Thompson had the Cenote Sagrado dredged. Thousands of gold, jade, pottery and incense artefacts were recovered together with human remains which bore wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

Chac MoolCredit: Wikimedia

A feature of Chichen Itza is the number of Chac-Mool statues found in the area. The Chac-Mool features a human figure reclining on its back with the head up and turned to one side. A tray is held over the stomach. The meaning of the figure is not known. These figures are found throughout Central Mexico and Yucatan. Other sites with chac-mool statues are Tula, Cempoala, Mexico City, Tlaxcala and Quirigua in Guatemala.

Great North Platform
Dominating the buildings of the Great North Platform is the Temple of Kukulkan or 'El Castillo' (the castle). This is a step pyramid over 29 metres high. A series of square terraces, each over 2.5 metres high, rise at an angle of around 53 degrees, finishing with a 6 metre high temple at the top.

Protruding stairways rise at a 45 degree angle on each of the four faces of the pyramid. A government sponsored excavation of El Castillo in the mid 1930s discovered another temple buried below the present one. A tunnel was put in from the base of the north stairway up an earlier stairway to the hidden temple and into a hidden chamber. A Chac-Mool statue and a throne were found in the chamber. The throne is the shape of a jaguar, painted red and inlaid with small pieces of jade. Although the throne room was originally opened to tourists it was closed to the public in 2006.

Serpent EffectCredit: By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

In late afternoon of the spring and autumn equinox, the north-west corner of the pyramid throws a series of shadows against the western balustrade. These triangular shapes give the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase.

In the same architectonic group is the Great Ball Court. This is located about 150 metres to the north-west of the Castillo. Measuring 166 x 68 metres, it is the largest ball court in Meso-America. The walls are 12 metres high and, in the centre of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents.

At the base of the interior walls sculpted teams of players sit on slanted benches. In one player, seven bloody streams ooze from the neck of a decapitated player. Six of these streams become serpents and the remaining, a winding plant.

At either end (north and south) of the Great Ball Court are temples; one in ruins but one having a detailed bas relief carving, the central figure appearing to have a beard and moustache.

Built into the east wall are the Upper and Lower Temples of the Jaguar. Elaborate carvings, murals and columns once decorated these edifices but much has been destroyed.

Platform of Venus
Between El Castillo and the Cenote Sagrado is the Platform of Venus. A number of large stone cones were found inside the platform but their purpose is not known. A vast network of sacbeob or paved roads once connected the various buildings. Sacbe Number One is a 'white road', the largest and most elaborate at the site. It is 270 metres long, averages 9 metes wide and connects the Platform of Venus with the Cenote Sagrado.

In 1843, John Lloyd Stephens published 'Incidents of Travel in Yucatan'. The story of Stephens' visit to Yucatan and Maya cities prompted further explorations of the city. Today many of the sites can only be viewed by walking around them.

The ruins now belong to the state and stewardship is maintained by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of Mexico. Until 29 March 2010, the land under the monuments had been in the hands of private individuals. At that time, the site was purchased by the state of Yucatan.