Chichen Itza: the meaning of its monuments and history

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

Loaded 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 conceived 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 the Warriors.

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

The name of the city, Chichen Itza, means ‘at the edge of the well of the Itzaes’ and refers to one of the many existing wells in the area, known as the Sacred Cenote.

The Itzaes, whose name means ‘water diviners’, are the Mayan people who inhabited the city starting in the 8th century. It was at the end of this century when the warrior tribe of the Toltecs came to 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, the name that the Mayans gave to the Yucatan peninsula and means ‘place of not many’.

The 9 main monuments and their meaning

The archaeological zone of Chichen Itza is an area where classical Mayan architecture meets the warrior and religious art of the Toltecs. Among its numerous constructions we can highlight the following:

1. The Kukulkan Pyramid: 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 complete 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 four monumental steps descend. The most important, the northern staircase, witnesses the descent of Kukulkan to earth during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

A total of 365 steps lead to the top, one step for each day of the Maya year according to the Haab calendar. The sanctuary, which was located in the highest area, had 20 battlements, one for each day of the month.

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

A construction where the worship 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.

The Kukulkan temple was built on top of a second, older and smaller pyramid, which houses the Jaguar Throne and a figure known as Chac mool.

2. Chac Mool: sacrifices and offerings

Chac Mol

Figure of a Chac Mool, a man holding the plate where the sacrificial offerings were deposited.

It is a characteristic sculpture of the late 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 who holds a plate on his belly in which the offerings destined for the deities were deposited during the sacrifices.

There are several hypotheses regarding the identity of this character, as it could be the victim of a sacrifice, a warrior, and even a minor deity.

What is clear is that its purpose is ceremonial, since these sculptures were found in religious spaces.

3. Sacred Cenote: link to the underworld

Sacred Cenote

Image of the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza.

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

The ancient Mayans considered the Sacred Cenote to be a link to the underworld. Rituals and sacrifices were performed on its shore, in which valuable metal objects and precious stones were thrown. The purpose was to offer to the deities, such as the god Chaac , to obtain protection and the necessary rain for a good harvest.

The Sacred Cenote was first dredged by Edward H. Thompson to recover valuables that rested on the bottom. During the process, the remains of animals and human beings, victims of sacrifices, were discovered, which were sold to the Peabody Archaeological Museum, at Harvard University.

4. Temple of the Warriors: warlike conflict

temple of warriors

Image of the Temple of the Warriors and the Group of the 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, there are numerous figures of warriors, weapons and prisoners that appear on its columns and pillars.

The images of feathered serpents are present on the stairs and columns that guard the access to the temple, and processions of this idol decorated its cornices and murals.

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

5. Great Ball Game: the war on the court

In the city of Chichen Itza, the largest ball game field in Mesoamerica is preserved. The ball game was a sport linked to religious celebrations, which is why the courts were built within sacred spaces.

Sometimes the teams faced each other 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 supported the hoops, or markers, through which the ball had to pass, 7 meters high.

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

6. Platform of the Skulls or Tzompantli: enemies defeated

platform of skulls

Detail in relief of the Platform of the Skulls.

It is an altar made up of a T-shaped platform that was consecrated 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 carrying skulls.

7. Temple of Venus: the guiding star

The representations of the planet Venus give rise to its name and show the importance that this star had for the Mayans. 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 Mayans were able to predict the arrival of the rains and the moment of greatest fertility of farmlands.

The inhabitants of Chichen Itza associated the planet Venus with the divinity Kukulkan, because according to their interpretation, Venus moved serpentinely through the firmament.

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

8. Ossuary: record 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.

Under the ground there is a cave, which was considered a sacred site because they believed that the beginning and end of life took place there. A vertical shaft, typical of the solar observatories of the time, opens from this cave to the sanctuary that crowned the top of the pyramid.

Through this opening the subsoil and the firmament were connected and records of time and solar movements were carried out.

The Ossuary has four stairways that, through seven levels, lead to the top. In the decoration we find sculpted snakes on the stairs, reliefs of eagles and tigers, figures of first class citizens and masks with the face of the god Chaac .

9. The Observatory or El Caracol: stars and predictions

The snail

It is a building that was probably used for astronomical observation. The Mayans were great observers of the stars, as they helped them predict harvests, deaths, and the optimal moments for combat.

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 residences for priests, and on which rises its characteristic circular tower.

History of Chichen Itza

Foundation period

The foundation of Chichen Itza happened around the 8th century AD, when the Itza people, from Peten (Guatemala), established their settlement in this place 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, of whom it is said that, in addition to being a god, he could have been a warrior whose figure ended up being deified.

Period of splendor

Around the middle of the 9th century, while the Mayan cities of the classical period were experiencing their decline, Chichen Itza became the political and ceremonial center of Yucatan.

The neuralgic 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 peak, not only with the construction of authentic architectural treasures, but also developed a great military capacity that allowed it to control the collection of taxes and trade routes. Cocoa, jade and obsidian were the most precious materials that were traded.

Decay period

There are various 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 affirm that their decline came when they had no more towns to conquer and impose tributes on.

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 Mayans went on pilgrimage to make their offerings to the gods.

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