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Stepped pyramid of Kukulkan, El Castillo at Chichen Itza
The stepped pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. Picture by Heather Casey

Chichén Itzá – Pic of the Week

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A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO world heritage site located on the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. Since we’re celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at this pre-colonial city.

The pre-Hispanic city of Chichén Itzá was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1988 because it meets the first three criteria for inclusion, which are (1) that it represents “a masterpiece of human creative genius”; (2) that it exhibits “an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design”; and (3) that it bears “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”

The Maya people built Chichén Itzá over the course of several centuries. Maya society was hierarchical with kings, priests, and, occasionally, women as rulers and strong city-states, of which Chichén Itzá was one of the strongest for a period of time (from 987-1194 A.D.). These city-states were loosely connected to one another and it is theorized that warfare between the city-states was one of the reasons Maya society declined.

The oldest part of the city, known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén), was constructed somewhere between 415-455 A.D. From the fifth century to the 10th, several buildings were added, expanding the settlement beyond the old town. One of the buildings that still stands from this time period is El Caracol, which is believed to be a proto-observatory.

El Caracol, Chichen Itza
El Caracol, Chichen Itza. Photo by Heather Casey

The second major wave of construction at Chichén Itzá occurred during the 10th century, as Toltec warriors migrated south from the plains of Mexico. The King of Tula, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, or, as the Maya translated it, Kukulkan (or Kukulcan), reportedly took the city between 967 A.D. and 987 A.D. Several buildings that still stand were constructed during the Toltec population surge, including the stepped Pyramid of Kukulkan, otherwise known as El Castillo, the Great Ball Court (the largest Mesoamerican court of its kind), the Tzompantli or Skull Wall, and the Temple of the Warriors.

At its height, Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Maya cities and the site exhibits a mélange of architectural styles, which hint at the diversity of its people. The Maya are known for their monumental architecture and sophisticated calendar system. The Pyramid of Kukulkan is an excellent example of both; it has four sides, each with 91 stairs, and each side faces a cardinal direction. During the spring and fall equinoxes, shadows cast by the sun give the appearance of a snake slithering down the pyramid stairs. In addition to illustrating the deep understanding the Maya had for the sky and the passage of time, Chichén Itzá also provides visitors with a glimpse at how intricate Maya art was – the stone carvings found at Chichén Itzá are numerous and incredibly complicated. Some carvings include hieroglyphs, as the Maya had a complex form of writing that mixed pictographs with ideograms.

El Castillo
The stepped Pyramid of Kukulkan. Photo by Heather Casey
Detail of the serpent staircase on El Castillo
Detail of the serpent staircase on the Pyramid of Kukulkan. Photo by Heather Casey
The Great Ball Court, detail of hoop
Detail of one of the ball hoops at the Great Ball Court. Photo by Heather Casey
Tzompantli, Chichen Itza
Detail of Tzompantli, or the Skull Wall. Photo by Heather Casey
Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza
Temple of the Warriors. Photo by Heather Casey

Chichén Itzá was abandoned by 1250 A.D. and the ruins were not excavated until 1841. If you visit Cancún, Chichén Itzá is a day trip from most of the resorts. Given how well it has been preserved, and its unique pre-Columbian history, I found it well worth the visit and one of my more memorable travel experiences. You will likely have the opportunity to visit one of the nearby cenotes as well for a refreshing swim.

If you would like to know more about the Maya civilization, and Chichén Itzá in particular, I recommend the following sources from the Library of Congress collection:

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