Chichen Itza’s Most Breathtaking Sights

June 17, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Mayan cities, and for good reason. For many hundreds of years after its founding around 600 AD, it was an epicenter of Mayan culture, religion, and power. During its peak period, the city supported an unusually diverse population, which in part accounts for the myriad architectural styles drawn upon to construct the large number of ancient structures still visible within its boundaries. Building this city was truly an enormous undertaking, especially for a pre-modern culture; today, just the task of viewing their creation is so overwhelming that a map and compass are essential tools. This guide will help you get a bead on some of the most visually and historically magnificent buildings at Chichen Itza, so that you can more effectively plan an excursion that will leave you awe-struck and breathless at the skill and creativity of the city’s inhabitants ” and not just because you’ve been walking in circles all day!

Though there are seven ball courts at Chichen Itza, where the ancient Maya held their tlatchtli matches, one court in particular dwarfs them all. At the northwest corner of the city, the Great Ball Court measures over 150 meters in length, with huge audience stands and ornately carved goal hoops set high above the playing field. Though the exact rules of the games hosted here have been lost to history, the size and scale of the Great Court leads archaeologists to believe that only the most famed and skilled athletes were able to compete there ” and records show that human sacrifice was a penalty suffered by at least some of the losers.

The Warrior Temple

Built in the form of an enormous stepped pyramid, the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) takes its name from the rows of statues depicting fierce combatants that flank and front the structure. The Temple was actually constructed around another, earlier temple called the Temple of Chac Mool; a Chac Mool statue, featuring a reclining human with a sideways-looking head, rests atop the pyramid, and is thought to have been used as a platform for ritual sacrifices. The Temple is currently undergoing restoration, which prevents visitors from climbing its stairs, but not from appreciating its grandeur.

El Caracol

Meaning “The Snail” in Spanish, El Caracol is a circular building set upon a large square platform, and is named for the spiral staircase contained within its dome. Building such structures out of stone takes a significant mastery of architecture and materials, and displays the Mayans genius and proficiency for building. More than that, it puts the Mayan predilection for science front and center; the shape and the placement of its doors and windows leads archaeologists to speculate that this was used as an astronomical observatory, specifically designed to align with the movements of the heavens (such as the pat of Venus across the night sky), and as such is one of the first known in the western hemisphere and one the earliest that still exists today.

The Balanckanche Caverns

Close by to the city proper is the entryway to a particularly ancient network of caves, known as the Caves of Balanckanche. They are one of Chichn Itz’s most incredible features, in part because of their size and shape, but mostly due to the wealth of artifacts contained within. Hundreds of statues, idols, carvings, pottery, and other items litter the cave floors, spanning nearly the entire history of Mayan civilization from the Pre-Classic times until well after the Spanish invasion of the Yucatn. Most of the artifacts have not been removed, but rather studied while in the same position as when first discovered, in order to afford visitors to the caverns a unique glimpse of a one-of-a-kind archaeological find unspoiled by later human activity. The layout of the caves is also extremely significant. Consisting of a central column made of limestone, which branches out into an unmistakable series of limb-like patterns, the overall structure of the caves looks like nothing so much as an enormous tree ” important because the World-Tree is one of the central concepts of Mayan mythology and religion.

Light Show Extravaganza

You should be aware that if you purchase a daytime ticket to visit Chichen Itza, you’re also allowed to stay or return to the site after sundown, when a spectacular light and sound show takes place near the giant pyramid El Castillo, featuring laser strobe displays and a heart-pounding musical score. With a duration of about an hour, the colorful and entrancing show is narrated in Spanish, but you can obtain headsets which provide the soundtrack in a variety of other languages.

The Descent of Kukulcan

Occurring in late March, the Spring Equinox is a special time for Chichen Itza, and its passing is marked by a three-day festival of singing, dancing, music, and theater. The high point of the Spring festival is the so-called “Descent of Kukulcan” which happens at the El Castillo pyramid. During the late afternoon, you can see a series of triangular shadows appear on the western face of the pyramid (caused by the sun shining over the northwest corner); the shadows then appear to actually crawl down the side of El Castillo in a manner quite reminiscent of a large snake. Though no archaeologists have been able to confirm this was the intention of the builders, given that the pyramid itself was built in tribute of the feathered serpent god Kukulcan, many believe that the ingenious and astronomically-inclined Maya designed the structure to create this phenomenon on an especially significant day of the year.

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Find Out Chichn Itz’s Sacred Cenote Well of Sacrifice

June 6, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

One of the most important Maya cities ever constructed, Chichn Itz was a center of culture, power, diversity, and religious practice for much of their civilization’s reign over the Yucatn peninsula. Established around 600 AD and active through the majority of Mayan history through the early Post-Classic period, its diverse population and fascinating architecture stood as a testament to Mayan ingenuity and capability. Within its area of influence, however, the practice of human sacrifice thrived for at least a part of the city’s lifespan. On the northern edges of Chichn Itz lies a cenote, which is a round depression left by the collapse of an underground cave’s roof that often then fills with water. This cenote, called the Sacred Cenote (or Cenote Sagrando in Spanish) was used exclusively to send untold numbers of sacrificial victims to their deaths.

The Yucatn peninsula consists mainly of limestone rock, which means that above-ground watercourses such as rivers and streams run in short supply. A civilization as expansive as the Mayans needed a prodigious amount of fresh water for irrigation, drinking, bathing, and the like, and so relied on the abundance of these cenotes to support the building of their numerous and enormous cities. The Cenote Sagrando is a prime example of the type found throughout the Yucatn, being unusually large and pure, and perfectly suited to provide the city with fresh water for a multitude of purposes ” except that its use was strictly reserved for ritual sacrifices. Histories culled from Mayan sources, as well as the writings and journals of Spanish clergy like Bishop Landa, have indicated to archaeologists that a hidden chamber was most likely located within the boundaries of Chichn Itz, where the intended victims were kept confined until the appointed time of their demise.

Those who met their end in these bloody rituals were often slaves or captives of war, or young and presumably virgin girls, but records show that the pool of victims could easily have included any common citizen of Chichn Itz. The Cenote Sagrando was connected to the city interior by a raised and paved walkway measuring almost 300 meters. The cenote itself is 60 meters wide and nearly 27 meters deep. Human sacrifices were lead to the edge of the well, then pushed over the sheer walls headfirst, landing in the water below with intense destructive force.

Scientists have been attempting to recover artifacts from the bottom of the well since the early 1900s. In the beginning, methods were generally crude, utilizing steel buckets and claws to dredge the floor, which didn’t contribute positively to the structural integrity of the well. Modern research methods are gentler, and archaeologists take care to repair the damage caused by earlier expeditions while they sift for new objects, including the use of scuba gear to manually examine the contents in situ. The purity of the cenote’s water is one of its most striking features; materials normally apt to decay in a short time, like wood, can last for centuries and are regularly recovered, along with gold, jade, incense, weapons, pottery, tools, statues, and human bones. From this wide collection of recovered objects, we can deduce that the Mayan nobility (and perhaps regular citizens as well) took up the practice of offering valuables to the gods by tossing them into the cenote in addition to sacrificial captives. Many of the items bear the marks of intentional damage, which is thought to have been a method of symbolically ‘killing’ the items so that they could find their way to their intended recipients in Xibalba.

According to Mayan belief, the pathway to Xibalba, the land of the dead, could be reached via the Sacred Cenote, through other entrances to underground cave systems, or by competition in Tlatchtli, the ancient Mesoamerican Ball Game famously played on the Great Court at Chichn Itz. In the Mayan tongue, the Sacred Cenote was known as Chen Kul ” literally, the Well of the Gods. The sacrifices at the Cenote Sagrando were chiefly to Chac, the Mayan god of rain, meant to ask for relief from droughts or for a good year of plentiful rain and rich harvests. A Spanish report written in the late 16th century gives a harrowing (if somewhat dubious) account of the origins and progression of a sacrificial event.

The report claims that the site of Chichn Itz was named for a Mayan named Ah Kin Itz (Ah Kin being a traditional honorific for priests of high rank; the name Chichn Itz actually translates to “At the Mouth of the Well of Itz”). It was the custom, the report says, for the nobility of the region to undergo a 60-day fast, during which they avoided eye contact with all other people, including the wives and servants who brought them what little food intake they were allowed during this period.

When the fast had been completed, these nobles took a personal hand in selecting and administering the sacrifice, by leading a procession to the cenote and then actually throwing the victims (usually young women) into the void themselves. They would direct the women to make, as they fell, all necessary prayers for a fruitful and prosperous year, so that their request might be received in the underworld. If the gods were pleased with the nobles and their offering, the report holds that at least one woman would be spared, alive but dazed floating in the waters of the cenote. Once extracted and revived with incense, she would tell the assembled of her meeting with the lords of Xibalba. If the nobles had done something to anger the gods, however, none of the victims would return from the portal, and the city would be condemned to a difficult year full of trials and misfortune.

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Among The Most Frequently Neglected Wonders of Chichn Itz

March 21, 2012 · Posted in Travel · Comment 

If you’re planning a visit to Chichn Itz, chances are you’ve already got a long list of sights to check out. No doubt, between researching on your own and taking the advice of friends or acquaintances who’ve been themselves, you’ll have found you need a notepad to record all the features, buildings, sculptures, and courtyards with some special historical significance, like the great pyramid El Castillo or the stunning Great Ballcourt. The wonders of Chichn Itz are many and multifaceted, so much so that even travelers who’ve made multiple trips often overlook the diminutive but fascinating features on this list.

One such location is the Casa Colorada, or Red House, named for the flakes of red paint that scientists discovered lying inside the structure. Known as Chichancob in the Nahuatl tongue, it is one of the most well-preserved buildings at Chichn Itz, and filled with magnificent carvings and hieroglyphs that tell of the city’s kings and rulers dating back to to 869 AD.

Consisting of four rooms, including an antechamber and adjacent ball court in the rear, the hieroglyphs that exensively cover the walls seem to be the most important feature of the building, and the most probable purpose for its construction. Chichancob’s most likely translation is small holes, probably a reference to its pitted lime-comb roof.

Temple of the Three Lintels

The Temple of the Three Lintels was, in all likelihood, not a temple at all, but rather a residence for Chichn Itz’s royals or nobility. It takes it name from the elaborate hieroglyphs that rest above the structure’s three entrances. Otherwise, however, the building is quite plain and modest; the outer walls lack ornamentation other than a lattice-like pattern of crosses on the cornice, making it a surprisingly unassuming place for royalty to dwell.

Because archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Mayan Fire Rituals taking place at the temple, we can deduce that the priests or residents of Chichn Itz often made offerings there, probably under the watchful gaze of the Chac mask figures that peer out over the doorways. Their long noses were a common feature of Classic-period Mayan architecture, and are believed to have been a tribute to the Mayan god of rain.

Temple of the Bearded Man

Another site worth investigating, which is often overshadowed by a nearby famous structure, is the North Temple, or Temple of the Bearded Man. Lying as it does at one end of the Great Ballcourt, many visitors pass by this interesting building without taking much notice. However, the intricate carvings and bas relief artwork that cover the interior walls are certainly worth a look. Most notable is the temple’s namesake, a central figure with carvings under his chin that give the impression of facial hair.

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