Chichén Itzá

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January 4th 2015
Published: January 4th 2015
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The Mayans had an advanced civilization, and created scores of cities, settlements and artifacts throughout southern Mexico and Central America before the Spanish conquistadors set out to obliterate their culture. Their society was agricultural, with small but powerful noble and warrior classes and omnipotent priests who ruled everything and practised human sacrifice to appease their gods. They had a written language, an advanced knowledge of astronomy and engineering, an accurate calendar, and architecture which blended their knowledge with their religion. They built structures which are marvels even today, yet for reasons unknown they would often abandon a bustling city and build a new one at a different location. Unfortunately the Spaniards methodically destroyed their libraries, and today there are only bas-reliefs on walls and inscriptions on stone stelaeto give tiny glimpses into their complex civilization.

Chichén Itzá was founded in the 5th century AD, subsequently abandoned, re-occupied in the 10th, ceded to the Toltecs in the 12th, and abandoned for good in the 13th. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries it was probably the most important Mayan city. Covering an area of about 2 square miles (6 square km), it has both “old” and “new” parts, each having somewhat different architectural styles, showing the progression of their building techniques.

The best known building is “El Castillo”, a pyramid-shaped temple dedicated to their snake-god Kukulcán, from whose summit priests used to hurl sacrificial victims. It has an astronomically-correct total of 365 steps and 52 wall panels. So accurate was its placement in relation to the sun that at every Spring and Fall equinox as the sun rises it illuminates a series of steps in sequence, giving the appearance of a snake undulating down the side of the pyramid to enter and fertilize the earth. Needless to say, on those dates the site swarms with tourists. Nearby are the remains of hundreds of stone columns which form a sort of ceremonial route to the Temple of the Warriors. It is surmised that enemy captives were marched to the top of the Temple, then sacrificed on a special altar. No Geneva Convention back then!

There are vestiges of ball courts throughout the area. The “ball game” was a quasi-sacred part of Mayan culture, and children were trained for it through a series of progressively larger fields, culminating in the huge one which is the largest found anywhere. It is 550 feet (168 meters) long, and its length is enclosed by high walls to which vertical stone rings are attached at a point over 12 feet (4 meters) up. The game was apparently something like soccer, but instead of a net the ball had to go through the ring in order to score, and no hands could be used. The games were presided over by priests who watched from a mini-temple at one end. After the game, either the winning or the losing team captain was decapitated by the High Priest as an offering. The carvings on the walls don’t clearly show which one had the “honour”.

A major attraction is the sacred cenote, a deep and murky 65 foot (20+ m) wide sacrificial well. Its water isn’t suitable for drinking, so its function was unknown until an American researcher in 1904 recovered thousands of artifacts, mostly jewelry and skeletons from it. Young virgins were thrown in as sacrifices, but any maiden who could remain afloat throughout the day was fished out in the evening, and rewarded by being made a priestess. Not many qualified. We visited many more structures, the most unusual being their observatory “El Caracol” (the Snail), which is even shaped like a modern observatory.

A Google search will reveal a wealth of information on this outstanding Mayan site. To enlarge any of my photos, simply click on it.

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