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Mayan City of Chichen Itza: History and Other Interesting Facts

We all know how the 2012 end-of-the-world hysteria ended up being a damp squib. Well, if only we had taken the time to actually understand the Maya civilization a little better. It's clearly not too late, and this Buzzle article has some interesting information on the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
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Fact about El Castillo
How did the Maya civilization collapse?

The sudden collapse of the Maya civilization sometime during the 8th or 9th centuries still intrigues historians. While several plausible theories, including overhunting, foreign invasion, peasant revolt have been put forth, it is generally agreed that a prolonged drought is what caused irreparable damage to their chances of survival.
This sacred site of Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan centers located in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. The construction here is a fusion of Mayan techniques coupled with elements from central Mexico.

Several buildings have survived to see the day, including the Warriors' Temple, El Castillo and the circular observatory known as El Caracol.

Interesting Facts about Chichen Itza

The Maya civilization originated around 3,000 years ago in what we recognize today as Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico. The empire flourished in the region from around 250 CE to 900 CE, followed by a sudden collapse.

Along with being skilled farmers, the Maya were credited with creating a very sophisticated written language; some believe it to be the first written language native to the Americas.

The Maya used their exemplary knowledge of mathematics along with celestial observations to construct monuments to observe and commemorate movements of the Moon, the Sun, and Venus. These great architectural wonders can be found in the ruins of Chichen Itza.

Keeping consistent with the Maya culture at large, written information about the site is rather scarce―which is why the knowledge possessed by historians of today is patchy and obscure.

Chichen Itza is a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people located in the Yucatan province, Mexico. The town is estimated to have been established during the Classic period (200 -1000 CE).

Chichen Itza location
Location of Chichen Itza in Mexico

Located midway between Merida and Cancun, Chichen Itza is the northernmost of the major archaeological sites in Yucatan.

It was built close to two natural cavities, which gave the town its name 'Chichen Itza', which translates to 'at the edge of the well of the Itzaes'. The location seems to have proven useful for tapping the underground waters of the area.

Chichen Itza is the most important archaeological find of the Maya-Toltec civilization. Its monuments, which include the Great Ball Court, Temple of Kukulkan, and Temple of the Warriors, are among the most admired masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture, owing to the symmetrical proportions, the refined methods of construction, and the grandeur of their sculpted decorations.

El Castillo at Chichen Itza
El Castillo pyramid

The instantly recognizable structure to be found here is the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. This imposing step pyramid stands testimony to the accuracy and finesse of Maya astronomy, along with the heavy influence of the Toltecs.

The El Castillo has 365 steps―one representing each day of the year. Each of the temple's four sides has 91 steps, with the top platform being the 365th. Devising a 365-day calendar was merely one of the many feats accomplished during the era.

El Castillo at dusk
Steps at El Castillo

Thousands of tourists flock to the site twice each year to witness an amazing natural phenomenon that takes place on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The sun's rays falling on the pyramid create a shadow in the shape of a serpent. As the sun begins to set, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase up the pyramid's side.

Serpent sculpture at El Castillo
Serpent sculpture at the pyramid

The Maya's astronomical skills didn't end here. In fact, they were known to be advanced enough to predict solar eclipses. An impressive and sophisticated observatory structure remains on the site today. This structure indicates key positions of the planet Venus, particularly its southern and northern horizon extremes.

This Observatory at Chichén Itzá is called El Caracol (or snail in Spanish) because it has an interior staircase that spirals upward like a snail's shell.

El Caracol observatory
El Caracol observatory

The windows in the huge dome of the Caracol point in the cardinal and subcardinal directions and are believed to enable the tracking of the movement of Venus, along with the Sun, the Moon, and other celestial objects.

Chichén Itza's massive ball court is the largest known in the Americas, measuring 168 meters long and 70 meters wide. During games played here, players tried to hit a rather heavy rubber ball through stone scoring hoops set high on the court walls.

There were sloping benches on the sides of the court which are understood to have been used to help keep the ball in play. These slopes are carved with reliefs of the victory celebrations. One of the scenes that depicts the beheading of a player in the center of the field witnessed by the players of both teams, is considered to be a significant example of Maya art.

Temple of Warriors
Pillar carvings at the site

While the Maya civilization slowly descended into decline, Chichen Itza itself was never completely abandoned. The population shifted base and no major new constructions were built following its political collapse. The Sacred Cenote (well), however, remained a place of pilgrimage.

According to post-Conquest records, the Maya threw sacrificial objects and human beings into the Sacred Cenote as a form of worship to Chaac, the Maya rain god. When archaeologists dredged the well, they came across various types of offerings, including jade carvings, pottery, gold and silver artifacts, and even human skeletons. The cenote was considered by the Maya to be an entrance to the underworld.
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Published: July 15, 2014
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