Chichen Itza in Mexico, the ancient Mayan city

Chichen Itza

Hidden in the darkness of time, the history of the mysterious Mayan tribe and its powerful civilization still raises a lot of questions that scientists have no answers. We still cannot say what caused the fall of this formidable colossus.

Chichen Itza is one of the largest, most majestic and best restored monuments of the Maya era. The famous pyramids and temples of Chichen Itza are the most famous of the ancient monuments of the Yucatan Peninsula. Walking among the stone platforms, pyramids and ceremonial halls, you begin to better understand and appreciate the high civilization of distant antiquity.

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General Information

The city of Chichen Itza was once an important trading and ceremonial center. It is believed to have been built between 600 and the end of the first millennium AD. The Maya were good mathematicians, engineers, and astronomers, as the buildings preserved here prove. If you want to see as much as possible, you’ll want to get there early-at 11:00 the place is already packed. Keep in mind that by noon it will be unbearably hot and there will be practically no shade.

You can visit the pyramid-shaped temple of El Castillo dedicated to the god Kukulcan (Quetzalcoatl), depicted as a feathered serpent with a human head. It is said that the snake, which slides down the pyramid, can be seen twice a year – at the vernal and autumnal equinox (September 21 and March 21). At three o’clock in the afternoon, the sun’s rays illuminate the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main staircase in such a way that light and shadow form an image of seven isosceles triangles, which in turn form the body of the thirty-seven-meter snake, “crawling” as the sun moves to its own head carved in the base of the stairs. The phenomenal performance lasts about 3.5 hours and gathers a mass of people. In ancient times, the appearances of the kite served as signals to start sowing crops or harvesting crops.

Do not miss to see the remains of the big ball field Juego de Pelota; it was bigger than a modern soccer field and the balls flew 6 meters in the air! Here prisoners captured in wars were forced to play; whether they were sacrificed as victors or losers is unknown, but it is known that their heads were exhibited, along with many others, on spikes on the Wall of Skulls, Tzompantli.

However, not all the remains of the sacred victims ended up here. The sacred cenote, Cenote Sogrado, is an impressive natural well 90 meters in diameter in which explorers found not only gold ingots and jadeite jewelry, but also children’s skeletons. Looking into the abyss, 20 meters deep, you can imagine the horror felt by the condemned before they were sacrificed to the rain gods, and 170 km (about 3 hours) from Cancun on the road to Merida . 8.00-17.00 daily. Buses often run from Cancun and other Riviera Maya resorts. They usually take organized tours. From Cosumel and Isla Mujeres, many tourists arrive directly with their luggage to go home the same day – it’s cheaper and less tiring.

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What to see

  • “The Temple of Kukulkan is a 9-story pyramid (24 meters high) with wide stairs on each side. (On the days of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (March 20 and September 22) at about three o’clock in the afternoon the sun’s rays illuminate the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main staircase so that light and shadow form the seven isosceles triangles, which in turn form the body of a thirty seven meter snake “crawling” as the sun moves to its own head, carved into the base of the stairs). ;
  • “Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza” on a low 4-step pyramid and “Temple of the Jaguars” (both with wall paintings) ;
  • Caracol Observatory;
  • 7 “stadiums” for playing ball (“Big ball field” (Huego de Pelota) – the largest playing field of all created by the Maya. The length of the playing field reaches 135 m. There is some evidence that a certain ferocity accompanied the ball game). ;
  • Ruins of 4 colonnades forming a giant rectangle (“Group of a Thousand Columns”) ;
  • Sacred cenote – a natural well of about 50 m deep, which served as a sacrificial well.
  • Also survived are statues of deities with a characteristic stylization of plastic forms, reliefs, rich in floral and geometrical ornaments, works of small plastics and artistic crafts, etc.


During their heyday the Maya managed to erect many architectural monuments that amaze us with their size and beauty. The jewel in the crown of this treasury is the temple of Chichen Itza, located on the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico. It is thought that Chichen Itza was erected in the second half of the first millennium, when the Mayan rulers ordered the construction of a large city around three natural reservoirs. Thanks to the underground springs that fed the lakes, the city’s population had plenty of water year-round.

Tens of thousands of Maya took part in building the city for the rulers and priests with their families. Ordinary tribesmen lived in mud huts and worked tirelessly in the fields, providing grain and meat for the city and serving the ruling elite.

The Maya rulers were gaining strength every year, so the sudden collapse of their empire at the end of the ninth century seems all the more strange and surprising. Apparently, at this time Chichen Itza was simply abandoned by its inhabitants. Scholars have found such traces of disaster as drought, crop failure and famine, or a combination of all three, but even this does not explain such a rapid decline of a powerful civilization. Only a small fraction of the Maya survived, only to find themselves under the heel of Spain in the sixteenth century. Spanish chronicles refer to the Maya as a primitive tribe, living off the fruits of the surrounding jungle. Not surprisingly, the European conquerors very quickly became masters of the situation.

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The power of the ruler of Chichen Itza was symbolized by his throne, perched atop the pyramid of Kukulkan. Standing 30 meters high, it dominates all the surrounding buildings. The intricate iconography, as well as the numerical proportions inherent in the structure, indicate that the Maya possessed extensive technical knowledge. The pyramid itself can be considered an example of the “magic of numbers” used by the Maya. On its basement there are four flights of stairs, each with 91 steps. 4 X 91 + 1 (the basement itself) = 365, the number of days in the year. Opposite the pyramid of Kukulkan is the Temple of Warriors (Templos de los Guerreros). Its attraction is the Hall of 1,000 Columns, which supposedly served as a barracks. Its rear doors open onto a ball court measuring 91 X 36 m.

The images of snakes are ubiquitous in all the constructions of Chichen Itza. The Kukulkan, “the serpent crawling out of the tower,” and Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered serpent,” were considered the main deities of the Maya. And faith in them could not destroy even the collapse of the state itself. When the Spaniards landed on the Yucatan in the 16th century, the feathered serpent was still considered the main deity by the descendants of the Maya and Aztecs of Mexico.

Scientists have solved one of the mysteries of the ancient Mayan civilization: The mysterious city of Chichen Itza

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Far from always what we see is what we expect to see, whether it is a natural phenomenon or the work of man. This statement is very often true of existing archaeological discoveries, when new facts make old findings appear in a completely unexpected light. For example, the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is a site that has been thoroughly studied by scientists up and down the line. Nevertheless, Chichen Itza still holds many secrets. One of them is the mysterious shadows cast by the ancient citadel.

During the spring and autumn equinox, when the sun moves from east to west, the light plays in the corners of the north-east staircase of the Kukulkan pyramid in such a way that a unique phenomenon is created. The sun’s rays project shadows from the corners of the pyramid onto the vertical northeast boundary of the staircase balustrade. Visually creating the effect of a giant snake’s undulating shadow slowly creeping down the stairs. This phenomenon of light and shadow lasts for exactly three hours and twenty-two minutes. This phenomenon symbolizes the change of the seasons.

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The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

Thousands of tourists gather there every year to witness the event. This extraordinary phenomenon brings people into a state of community, where they are united by something that transcends time and culture. In this day and age, when science and technology are so advanced and everything is changing so rapidly, people are fascinated by such things. How could ancient people create something so beautiful and majestic without modern technical means. If the builders had been mistaken just a fraction of a degree – they would not have achieved such an effect!

The city is stunning in its architectural splendor.

And this is only one of the shadows of Chichen Itza. There are many others related to major and minor structures. The ancient city was planned as the center of the world, where Kukulkan was located at the intersection of the four lines – the sides of the world. The temple pyramid is mythologically at the center of time and space. The corners of this structure are lined up in a way that makes Kukulkan a monumental sun dial.

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The name of the deity is Quetzalcoatl, which translates as “the feathered serpent Quetzal”. Archaeological evidence shows that the ideology of the feathered serpent spread throughout Mesoamerica during the Late Maya period, until the 10th century. Kukulkan is believed to represent the Mountain of Creation, with the head and mouth of feathered serpents. In general, the symbol of the serpent is widespread in the iconography and wall paintings of Mayan temples. The serpent, shedding its skin, was a symbol of renewal and life.

Pyramid of Kukulcana.

Kukulkan’s pyramid played a role of a peculiar calendar or at least the principle of calendar system was laid in the basis of the pyramid. Each of the 52 panels of the pyramid temple contained in the nine steps of the terrace is equal to the number of years in the Mayan and Toltec agrarian calendars. The nine levels of the pyramid are a reminder of the nine steps to Shibalba, the underworld. Above all, the pyramid of Kukulkan is an instrument dedicated to the deities of nature and their role in the alternation of day and night as well as life and death.

The city may be older than is commonly thought.

The main doorway at the top of the pyramid opens to the north. The four staircases ascending the structure, one on each side, have 91 steps each, which equals 364 steps, which from the top, equals 365 days of the solar year, haaba, in Maya. The north staircase is the main sacred path, and it is on its northeast balustrade that the sun casts triangular shadows.

Everything is built with such precision that a deviation of only a fraction of a degree, would not give such a unique effect.

Everything is built with such precision that a deviation of only a fraction of a degree, would not give such a unique effect.

The huge square that surrounds El Castillo on four sides is part of the image of the Primordial Sea of Creation, from which, according to Mayan tradition, all life arose in the beginning of time. The northern part of the plaza, where Kukulkan stands, was also the site of the main ceremonies.

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The Great Square.

Behind it is a huge wall of skulls – tsompantli. A structure of wooden posts over a stone structure, similar to a scaffold, was built on a stand for skulls, on which hundreds of skulls, sacrificed to the bloodthirsty Mayan gods, of human beings were displayed.

Inside, a cave was found where pottery from the period before the arrival of the Toltecs was found.

On the east side of the square is the massive Temple of the Warriors and the ball court to the west. This area was extremely important to the Maya for ritual games. According to their beliefs, humans and the deities of the underworld fought for supremacy in the real world. This reflected the struggle between life and death. The Maya also believed that the sun did not set, but continued on its way as the “black sun” at night in the underworld, to be glorified again the next morning.

The throne of the high priest in the form of a jaguar.

To the north of Kukulkan is another interesting structure, the cenote. It is a sacred well, oval in shape and quite impressive in size. The well is accessed by a wide road. The Maya used the cenote for sacrifice ceremonies. The sacrifices were cleansed there, and they had to be the best of the tribe. They were people in the prime of their lives, young, not sick or crippled. For Chaak, god of rain and thunder, the best, for he would accept nothing less.

Sacred cenote.

The entire socio-economic organization of ancient Mayan communities revolved around agriculture. In these latitudes it was the two harvest seasons. Hence the Mayan belief structure and religious organization that adhered to their seasonal and daily partnership with nature. The gods and deities in their pantheon were those who governed the forces of nature: the sun, the rain, and the plant world.

Here those who were to be sacrificed were washed.

Their religion describes the creation of the universe by gods who, after three failed attempts, succeeded in creating man out of corn dough. Above all, it was believed that at the same time as the deities, the ancestors were involved in every stage of individual and family daily life.

Temple of the Warriors.

The serpent, whose images and statues fill Chichen Itza, is not simply a representation of an animal. For the Maya it is a kind of metaphor. For the body of the serpent, when it moves, is compared to the clouds of smoke after the self-sacrifice of members of the nobility or priesthood. After bloodletting, a person’s blood fell on the bark, which was then burned. The swirling smoke was believed to carry the aspirant’s prayers to the ancestors and deities, seeking their guidance to live another day in this dangerous world. The swirling smoke, resembling a serpent, was a reminder of the mutability and unpredictability of life.

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Favorable weather conditions were very important - it meant a good harvest.

Planting and harvesting were the chief daily concerns of the communities. Therefore, favorable weather conditions, the rains, were very important. After all, the consequences of a poor harvest: famine, death, and the return of suffering and fear. The deep mystical connection of the milpero (farmer) with corn, not only with its use as the actual means for subsistence and existence, was still a way of life completely alien to non-traditional communities.

The best members of society were sacrificed voluntarily.

In the vestibule of the inner temple a red jaguar-shaped seat was found, which may have served as a throne for the high priest. On the seat was a turquoise mosaic disc. The jaguar was painted red, its teeth were made of flint, its eyes and the spots on its body were made of small jade discs.

Sacred Lake of Chichen Itza.

The cave, which is called the Maya Balamku or “Jaguar God,” is another of the shadows of Chichen Itza, its ancient name unknown. The jaguar is a central mythological figure in Mesoamerican and other American myths, because of the belief in the animal’s ability to enter and leave the underworld at will. Mayan pottery has been discovered in the deeper parts of Balamcu that preceded the first arrival of the Toltecs-the city may be much older than previously thought. This important discovery will undoubtedly help to rewrite the history of Chichen Itza.

Wall of skulls in Chichen Itza.

All the traditions of the ancient Maya were quite comparable to those of today. They symbolically demonstrate the same preoccupation with the daily hardships of life and society’s dependence on agriculture. The pyramid found inside Kukulkan, the so-called “inner” pyramid, did not cast shadows such as those we see now. It may have served the simple function of demonstrating the calendar change of the seasons.

Women's Convent of Chichen Itza.

Much more can be said about the shadows of Chichen Itza and the ancient city itself. Even more remains to be discovered, above and below ground, as the work at Balamku Cave shows us. In addition, excavation programs in the Great Plaza, begun in 2009, revealed buried structures that were built before the appearance of the Kukulkan pyramid. By then, the pyramid inside was already known. The incredible discoveries of the mysteries of the ancient city and its wonders are sure to continue. Chichen Itza is impressive in its scope and architecture. Everything in the city is thought out in the smallest detail. This makes it even more interesting why this magnificent city was abandoned. We hope that this mystery of history will eventually be solved.

If you are interested in the history of the mysterious Mayan civilization, read more about it in our article Archaeologists discovered the ancient Mayan city: the discovery may shed light on the decline of the ancient mysterious civilization.

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