Chichen Itza filled with stunning Mayan ruins

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Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal (Tribune News Service)
April 12, 2015

Chichen Itza, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, is dominated by gray limestone that was cut by hand and moved without any wheels.

Once home to 30,000 people, Chichen Itza was the last major city developed by the Mayans and was certainly one of Mexico's grandest cities for nine centuries. It was a political, economic and religious center.

It covered six square miles with 30 major buildings, including several temples that have been uncovered and restored. Others still lie buried in the jungle.

Chichen Itza features columns, bas-reliefs, sculptures, stone murals, pictographs, monuments, statues and warrior images. It is a visually stunning, must-see ancient city, one of the world's greatest archaeological mysteries, especially for its end.

Chichen Itza, about 2½ hours from Cancun, has been named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The property is owned by the Mexican federal government and managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. There is a first-rate visitor center and museum at the entrance.

The sprawling ruins are very impressive with numerous architectural styles and features. Still-buried ceremonial and residential complexes surround the central core of what was one of the largest pre-Columbian cities.

The older ruins lie to the south. The newer and grander ruins are to the north. The buildings are very sophisticated and artistic.

The most recognizable structure is the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, or the Castle. That name came from the Spanish.

It is a four-sided pyramid that is really a calendar made of stone honoring the feathered serpent deity. The seven-story step pyramid demonstrates the accuracy and importance of Mayan astronomy.

It dominates the main open-air esplanade at Chichen Itza, encircled by other important buildings. The plaza is generally filled with groups of tourists and guides.

The temple is only 79 feet high, but it appears much taller because the side panels get smaller as they slope up the platform atop the pyramid.

It is 190 feet on each side and there are steps on all four sides.

The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year. Each of the temple's four sides has 91 steps and the top platform makes the 365th step.

It also features 52 carved panels and 18 terraces, the number of weeks and months in a Mayan calendar year.

In the past, visitors could ascend the steps of the temple, but it is off-limits today.

Twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually align with a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase.

Clappers are everywhere at the base of the pyramid. People stand in front of the pyramid and repeatedly clap their hands to produce slight pinging echoes from the stone walls.

Not far from the temple is another of Chichen Itza's other great buildings: the I-shaped Great Ball Court, the largest blood-sport stadium built in the Americas. It also features some of the most ornate carvings, structures and inscriptions.

Ball courts to play soccer-like pok-ta-pok were common in Mayan culture, and about a dozen small ones have been found in Chichen Itza. This one is the largest. It is bigger than a football field, 554 feet long and 231 feet wide. The walls are 27 feet high on the two sides.

By its size, some believe that the Great Ball Court was more about pageant than sport. The game was a sacred event, a religious ritual and was used to settle wars and disputes. It reveals a much deeper significance in Mayan tradition and mythology. Gambling on the games was widespread.

During games, players tried to hit a hard rubber ball through stone scoring hoops set 22 feet high on the court walls. The stone hoops feature intertwined feathered serpents. Players would use no hands or feet. Hips, heads, shoulders, chests, elbows and legs were used.

Games would last two to three days. There are no written records of matches, but pictographs show participants being decapitated at the conclusion of the games. Some say the winners lost their heads and became gods. Others say it was the losers.

Nearby is the grim Tzompantli, or the Wall of Skulls, with images of armed warriors and eagles devouring human hearts. Some believe captives were sacrificed on the stone platform with their heads left on display. It is, some say, a votive building to exalt death.

The east side of the Great Plaza is dominated by the Temple of the Warriors and the Thousand Columns.

The main building, constructed atop earlier buildings, has four stepped sections and its friezes are decorated with carved reliefs. The temple is famous for its hundreds of elaborate columns and is still covered in carvings of dramatic feather-bedecked warriors, 2,211 men marching in a procession toward the temple. They are bearing weapons and some have suffered wounds. All are different. Some are prisoners; some are wizards.

The Mayans' astronomical skills were so advanced that they could predict solar eclipses, and they built the impressive and sophisticated Observatory or El Caracol (the Snail) with its circular stairway.

The Caracol featured small loopholes that faced key astronomical events in the night sky. Venus was known as Chak Ek or the Great Star. It guided many Mayan activities including war.

The major buildings at Chichen Itza lie off 80 limestone-paved causeways, lined today with merchants selling colorful blankets and clothes, onyx chess sets, wooden carvings and clay Mayan masks. “Just $1” is the message from those peddling items. They number in the hundreds. Man-made jaguar calls also abound as merchants use ceramic kazoos to attract buyers.

Chichen Itza relied on a series of sinkhole wells for drinking water. The Sagrado Cenote with its steep walls is about 195 feet in diameter. It is a 72-foot drop to the greenish sacred water, which is about 40 feet deep.

This is where the Mayans performed human sacrifices to please Chaac, the rain deity. Archaeologists have found the bones and artifacts of victims who died in the cenotes.

The Sagrado Cenote is one of two major cenotes to serve Chichen Itza, whose name means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.”

Chichen Itza has a complex history. The Mayan Itza people from the island of Cozumel began work on the massive settlement between 435 and 455 AD.

They occupied the original Chichen Itza for about 200 years. It controlled the local trade in salt and was tied to trading routes. In 692, they abandoned the site and moved south into the rain forest.

About 998, their descendants returned to Chichen Itza to restore its glory. It became part of the powerful League of Mayapan. The city also shows Toltec influences from central Mexico. It was destroyed by a civil war in 1204. Two hundred years later, Chichen Itza was abandoned to the jungle. The Mayans-Toltecs left behind no record as to why they abandoned their city.

Scientists have speculated that deforestation was involved as forests were cleared to burn the limestone to create stucco. Droughts, exhausted soils, and royal quests might have contributed to Chichen Itza's downfall.

It was run by a confederacy of powerful families, not the kings that ruled other Mayan cities.

The first excavation at Chichen Itza took place in 1841.

Most visitors spend two to four hours at Chichen Itza. It can be very hot, over 90 degrees. That makes morning visits cooler and less crowded. Bring drinking water, hats and sunscreen.

The ruins draw hundreds of buses with 3,500 to 8,000 visitors per day. That adds up to 1.2 million visitors a year.

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