10 Things You May Not Know About Chichen Itza

Sunrise at Chichen Itza | Courtesy of Nicholas Souroujon
Sunrise at Chichen Itza | Courtesy of Nicholas Souroujon
Photo of Stephanie Souroujon
9 February 2017

Once the center of economic and religious life for the Maya, Chichen Itza, situated in the Yucatan Peninsula in the South of Mexico, was voted the New Seventh Wonder of the World by the public in 2007. Chichen Itza, which translates as ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itza,’ receives over 1.2 million visitors a year. Ever wondered why?

The serpent effect observed on the Kukulkan pyramid during the 2009 spring equinox | © ATSZ56 / WikiCommons

A serpent shape appears on the steps of the Kukulkan pyramid during the equinoxes

In March and September the sun crosses the celestial equator, resulting in a day and night of equal lengths. Due to the position of the Kukulkan pyramid, a descending serpent made of seven inverted isosceles triangles of light and shadow can be observed on the side of the steps at sunset on equinox day. The snake form is shaped as the day goes by, starting at the top and finishing with the feathered serpent’s head at the base of the monument.

The Kukulkan pyramid is constructed atop an older pyramid

In 1937, Mexican archaeologists exploring the Kukulkan pyramid found within it a complete pyramid temple, also of nine levels. Preserved in the temple chambers they found a chacmool sculpture and a jaguar throne, which both remain in situ today. You can only visit the inside of the temple with a special permit.

Frontal view of the so-called Church at Chichen Itza with the Nunnery on the right | © G Concha C/WikiCommons

Veneration of the Serpent is not technically a Maya tradition

The feathered serpent, so prominently depicted at Chichen Itza, was introduced by the Toltecs, a civilisation from the north of Mexico, in the 10th century. Older buildings still visible today are constructed in the Puuc style: the facades are decorated with geometric patterns, animals and representations of the rain god Chaac.

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza | © Emil Kehnel/WikiCommons

Maya pilgrims made offerings to the Sacred Cenote

The murky green water from the sacred cenote, a natural sinkhole at Chichen Itza, has yielded human bones, jade and gold. In the 19th century feverish imagination focused on the cenote, with dreams of great treasures being found, and a gold repoussé disk was dredged up.

The Kukulkan Pyramid is constructed over a cenote

An electrical resistance survey published in August 2015 shows a newly discovered underground river under the pyramid. Archaeologists are trying to uncover if the Mayans knew about the cenote when they embarked on its construction. Speculation over the pyramid collapsing makes for an fascinating read.

It is thought that the Maya did not use the wheel for the construction of their buildings

Big wheels have not been found near the archaeological site, which has resulted in the supposition that no wheels were used in the construction of the pyramids. However, small wheels were found on Maya toys, as a result we can disregard the idea that Mesoamericans did not know about the wheel. While the use of the wheel remains a mystery, we are sure that no horses were used as these arrived with the Spanish conquest.

The grand ball court Chichen Itza | © Michael McCullough/Flickr

The Great Ballcourt is the size of an American football field

Chichen Itza’s ball court is the largest in Mesoamerica. Its playing field extends over a length of 146 metres and a width of 36 meters. During ritual games, players tried to hit a five kilogram rubber ball with their hips and elbows through high stone scoring hoops. The competition must have been fierce, as losers were put to death.

Ball court reliefs Chichen Itza | © HJPD/WikiCommons

Reliefs from the Great Ballcourt show a human sacrifice

Imagine playing football and being reminded by a billboard that if you lost your head would be cut off? The carved reliefs at Chichen Itza reveal grisly scenes. They show two opposing teams of seven members each facing one another. In the middle of the scene, the first player of the left team has decapitated the first player from the opposing team, who kneels headless in front of a large ball marked by a great laughing skull.

A Maya pyramid being excavated | © Frederick Catherwood/WikiCommons

Only one fifth of Chichen Itza has been excavated

The core monuments at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza cover approximately five square kilometres; however, the estimated extent of dense urban development during the city’s peak is thought to have reached 25 square kilometers. The surrounding ruins are thus not excavated, they are covered by dense forests.

Sunrise at Chichen Itza | Courtesy of Nicholas Souroujon

Chichen Itza was privately owned until 2010

The Barbachano family from Yucatan purchased the land of Chichen Itza in 1944 from the American archaeologist Edward H.Thompson. The Mexican constitution stipulates that all archaeological monuments belong to the nation, but the land belonged to the family – until 2010, when it was sold to the government.

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