Essential Architecture-  Mexico

Chichén Itzá (candidate for the new seven wonders of the world)




located in the northern center of the Yucatán Peninsula, present-day Mexico


600 AD


Maya Classic period




  El Castillo being climbed by tourists.
  "El Caracol" observatory temple
  Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) at Chichen Itza and Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors.
  Plumed Serpent, bottom of "El Castillo" staircase.
  Sacred Cenote
  El Gran Juego de Pelota (Grand Ballcourt), from El Castillo
  Left- High Priest's Temple Right- Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne, interior temple of "El Castillo".
  Great Ballcourt (interior)
Chichen Itza (from Yucatec Maya chich'en itza', "At the mouth of the well of the Itza") is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site built by the Maya civilization, located in the northern center of the Yucatán Peninsula, present-day Mexico.

From roughly 600 CE in the middle of the Maya Classic period, it was a major city, achieving its greatest growth and power after the Maya sites of the central lowlands to the south had already collapsed. The Postclassic occupation at the site saw extensive additions of structures and motifs in a style more reminiscent of Central Mexican / "Toltec" cultures. This was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these "non-Maya" styles more as the result of cultural diffusion. Revolt and civil war among the Maya in 1221, evidenced by archeological findings of burned buildings, led to Chichen Itza's decline and rulership over Yucatán shifted to Mayapan. It was briefly conquered and occupied by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo in 1531.

According to the American Anthropological Association, the actual ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property; the land under them, however, is co-owned as communal property by the town of Piste and as private property by the Barbachanos, which has been one of the most powerful families in Yucatán since the early 19th century.[1]

Name and orthography
The Maya name "Chich'en Itza" means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza ". Although this was the usual name for the site in pre-Columbian times, it is also referred to in the ancient chronicles as Uucyabnal, meaning "Seven Great Rulers".

The name is often represented as Chichén Itzá in Spanish and other languages to show that both parts of the name are stressed on their final syllables. In the Yucatec Maya language (still in use in the area, and written with the Roman alphabet since the 16th century) this stress follows the normal rules of the language, and so it is written without diacritics. Both forms are attested in literature on the subject, including in scholarly works. Other references prefer to employ a more rigorous orthography, using Chich'en Itza. This form preserves the phonemeic distinction between [ ch' ] and [ ch ], since the base word ch'en meaning "well (of water)" begins with a glottalized affricate ( in IPA notation, [tʃʼ]) and not a voiceless (non-glottalized) one ([tʃ]).

History of Chichen Itza

The Yucatán has no above-ground rivers, so the fact that there were three natural sink holes (cenotes) providing plentiful water year round at Chichen made it a natural spot for a center of population. Two of these cenotes are still in existence, the most famous being the legendary "Cenote of Sacrifice", which was sacred to worshipers of the Maya rain god Chaac. Offerings of jade, pottery, and incense were thrown into the great well as offerings to Chaac, and occasionally during times of desperate drought a human sacrifice (however there is no confirmation in either ancient chronicles nor the archeological dredging of the cenote to confirm the lurid tales of some tour guides claiming that great numbers of beautiful, young, virgin women were regularly cast into the well. Other stories claim young boys, not young women, were sacrficed into the well). The Sacred Cenote was long a place of pilgrimage Yucatán.

Chichen was a major center by about 600 in the middle of the Maya Classic period, but the city saw its greatest growth and power after the Maya sites of the central lowlands to the south had already collapsed.

Some ethnohistoric sources claim that about 987 a Toltec king named Quetzalcoatl arrived here with an army from central Mexico, and (with local Maya allies) made Chichén Itzá his capital, and a second Tula. The art and architecture from this period shows an interesting mix of Maya and Toltec styles. However, the recent re-dating of Chichen Itza's decline (see below) indicates that Chichen Itza is largely a Late/Terminal Classic site, while Tula remains an Early Postclassic site (thus reversing the direction of possible influence).

Decline of Chichen Itza
The Maya chronicles record that in 1221 a revolt and civil war broke out, and archeological evidence seemed to confirm that the wooden roofs of the great market and the Temple of the Warriors were burnt at about this date. Chichen Itza went into decline as rulership over Yucatán shifted to Mayapan.

This long-held chronology, however, has been drastically revised in recent years. As archaeologists improve their knowledge of changes in regional ceramics, and more radiocarbon dates arise out of ongoing work at Chichen Itza, the end of this Maya capital is now being pushed back over 200 years. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza fell by around AD 1000. This leaves an enigmatic gap between the fall of Chichen Itza and its successor, Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.

While the site itself was never completely abandoned, the population declined and no major new constructions were built. The Sacred Cenote, however, remained a place of pilgrimage.

In 1531 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo claimed Chichén Itzá and intended to make it the capital of Spanish Yucatán, but after a few months a native Maya revolt drove Montejo and his forces from the land (see Spanish conquest of Yucatán).

The site

"Chichen" contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation; the buildings were formerly used as temples, palaces, stages, markets, baths, and ballcourts.

El Castillo
Dominating the center of Chichén is the Temple of Kukulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl), often referred to as "El Castillo" (the castle). This step pyramid with a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the 4 sides to the temple on top. On the Spring and Fall equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent - Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl - along the side of the North staircase. On these two days, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun's movement.

It was practice in Mesoamerican cities to periodically build larger and grander temple pyramids atop older ones, and this is one such example. Thanks to archeologists, a doorway at the base of the north stairway leads to a tunnel, from which one can climb the steps of the earlier version of El Castillo inside the current one, up to the room on the top where you can see King Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne, carved of stone and painted red with jade spots. The design of the older pyramid inside is said to be a lunar calender, with the newer pyramid being a solar calendar. Following a fatal fall from the top, tourists are no longer allowed to climb to the top of the pyramid.

Temple of the Warriors

Chichen's "Temple of the Warriors" was clearly built as a copy of Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, although thanks to the Maya architects is grander than the original. This is a stone building (originally with a wood and plaster roof) atop a step-pyramid, with the columns in the interior carved with the likenesses of warriors. At the top of the stairway leading to the entrance of the temple is a type of altar-statue known as a Chac Mool.

Near the Warriors is a large plaza surrounded by pillars called "The Great Market".


Seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame have been found in Chichén, but the one about 150 meters to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest ballcourt in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 166 by 68 meters (545 by 232 feet). The sides of the interior of the ballcourt are lined with sculpted panels depicting teams of ball players, with the captain of the losing team being decapitated.

Built into one of the exterior walls of the ballcourt is the Temple of the Jaguar, which features another jaguar throne -- since this one was not buried for a thousand years, its red paint and jade spots are long since gone.

Behind this platform is a walled inscription which depicts a tzompantli (rack of impaled human skulls) in relief.

High Priest's Tomb

This step-pyramid temple is a smaller version of El Castillo; the name comes from an elite burial discovered by early excavator E. H. Thompson.

Las Monjas
One of the most notable classic era structures at Chichen is a fine complex of buildings in the "Puuc" architectural style. The Spanish nicknamed this complex "Las Monjas" ("The Nuns," or "The Nunnery") but was actually the city's classic era government palace. Just to the east is a small temple (nicknamed "La Iglesia", "The Church") decorated with elaborate masks of the rain god.

A number of other structures are near the "Monjas" complex. These include:

"Akab' Dzib" (Maya for dark or obscure writing), a palace with hieroglyphic inscriptions
"The Red House"
"The House of the Deer"

El Caracol

To the north of "las Monjas" is a round building on a large square platform nicknamed "El Caracol" or "the snail" for the stone spiral staircase inside; this was an observatory (the doors were aligned to view the vernal equinox, the Moon's greatest northern and southern declinations, and other astronomical events) sacred to Kukulcan, the feathered-serpent god of the wind and learning. The Maya used the shadows inside the room cast from the angle of the sun hitting the doorway to tell when the solstices would occur. Placed around the edge of "El Caracol" are large rock cups that they filled with water and would watch the reflection of the stars in the water to help determine their complex, but extremely accurate calendar system.[citation needed]

Old Chichen
"Old Chichen" is the nickname for a group of structures to the south of the central site. It includes the Initial Series Group, the Phallic Temple, the Platform of the Great Turtle, the Temple of the Owls, and the Temple of the Monkeys.

Other structures
Chichen Itza also has a variety of other structures densely packed in the ceremonial center of about 5 km² (2 mile²) and several outlying subsidiary sites.

The Caves of Balankanche are a network of sacred caves a short distance from the center of Chichen. In the caves, a large selection of ancient pottery and idols may be seen still in the positions where they were left in Pre-Columbian times.

Modern investigations at Chichen Itza
In 1839 United States travel writers Benjamin Norman, followed the next year by John Lloyd Stephens, visited and published accounts of the ruins of Chichen Itza. Various other expeditions made further examinations of the ruins in the following decades. In 1895 the United States Vice Consul to Yucatán, Edward H. Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichen, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza, and spent some 30 years doing amateur archeology there, including dredging the first artifacts out of the Sacred Cenote. In 1924 the Carnegie Institution and the government of Mexico began a 20-year excavation and restoration project. The Carnegie's project was directed by Sylvanus G. Morley, which included restoring the Temple of Warriors. In 1961 and 1967 the Sacred Cenote was dredged again, this time supervised by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Since the 1980s, INAH has excavated and restored additional buildings.

Chichen Itza today
Chichen Itza is today a World Heritage Site and is a very popular tourist destination; it is the most visited of the major Maya archaelogical sites. Many visitors to the popular tourist resort of Cancún make a day trip to Chichen Itza, usually with time to view only a portion of the site.

El Castillo has been deemed unsafe for climbing, due to the government and archaeologists finding the site to be unstable. Plans to slow the deterioration, and for possible reconstruction have been proposed.

Chichen Itza in Fiction
Chichen Itza appears in various works of Fiction. Chichen Itza appears in The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time, one of seven levels in which the player adventures. Most of the monuments in the city can, in fact, be seen during gameplay.

The ruins were also a basis for the ruins in the NES video game Tombs & Treasure.

In Shadow Hearts: From the New World, Chichen Itza is shown as a ruin connected with Malice from the first two Shadow Hearts games, and is a playable level.

Chichen Itza was first described by American John Lloyd Stephens in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, (two volumes, 1843)
Holmes, Archæological Studies in Ancient Cities of Mexico, (Chicago, 1895)
Spinden, Maya Art, (Cambridge, 1912)

The Mayan name "Chich'en Itza" means "at the mouth of the well of the Itza (people)." This famous
temple city was the political and economic center of Mayan civilization. The pyramid of Kukulcan itself
was the last, and arguably the greatest, of all Mayan temples.
Since the Yucatán Peninsula has no rivers, the three natural sinkholes (cenotes) at Chichén Itzá made it
a good place for a city, providing plenty of water all year. Two of these cenotes still exist—the most
famous is the "Cenote of Sacrifice," sacred to the Maya rain god Chaac. Offerings of jade, pottery and
incense were thrown into the well, and occasionally, during times of bad drought, a human sacrifice.
However, there is no proof to the legend that many beautiful, young women were sacrificed.
About 987, a Toltec king named Quetzalcóatl (there is a wonderful legend about him, who became the
Maya plumed serpent god Kukulcan) arrived with an army from central Mexico, and, with local Mayan
allies, made Chichén Itzá his capital. The art and architecture from this period are a mix of Maya and
Toltec styles, such as the "Temple of the Warriors," which features an altar statue known as a chac mool.
In the center of Chichén Itzá is the Temple of Kukulcan, often called "El Castillo" (the castle). It is a step
pyramid, with square terraces and staircases up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Great
sculptures of plumed serpents run down the northern staircase and, because of how the shadows fall,
seem to move on the spring and fall equinoxes. Inside, visitors can enter an older pyramid and climb up
to the high room with King Kukulcan's stone Jaguar Throne, painted red with jade-green spots.
There is also a large court at Chichén Itzá for playing a game called “pok ta pok,” which we think involved
throwing a ball through a ring on the wall seven meters (around 23 ft) above the ground. The captain of
the team that first scored was beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods and thought to rise directly to heaven.
In 1221, a revolt and civil war broke out and the wooden roofs of the great market and the Temple of the
Warriors were burnt at that time. Chichén Itzá lost power, as rulership over Yucatán shifted to Mayapan.