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Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza. Dating back to around 500 CE, the stone structures of Chichen Itza exemplify the building genius of Mexico’s ancient Maya civilization.

Dating back to around 500 CE, the striking stone structures of Yucatán’s Chichen Itza exemplify the building genius of Mexico’s ancient Maya civilization. A vast pre-Colombian city which once stood at the heart of a mighty empire, Chichen Itza is incredibly still home to an abundance of extensively-restored monuments which completely captivate the estimated 1.2 million tourists who visit the site in modern times. Considerably varying in style and purpose from sacred temples to a giant ball court to a cleansing steam bath, it is the sheer diversity of constructions found in Chichen Itza which make this archeological paradise such a center of intrigue as visitors strive to understand more about Mexico’s architecturally-skilled, ancient ancestors.

Officially declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 and towering 25 meters high, the square-based El Castillo step pyramid (also known as the Temple of Kukulkan) is undoubtedly Chichen Itza’s most renowned monument. Built as a temple in honor of the feathered serpent god Kukulkan, one of the Maya’s numerous deities. The immense construction was much more than just a tangible, religious offering, however. Consisting of four staircases on the pyramid’s four facades with each one consisting of 91 steps each and when the top platform is counted the total number of steps totals 365, which corresponds to the Mayan solar year or Haab'. Continuing with the theme of time, 91 is equally the number of days which separate the four phases of the annual solar cycle and it is therefore thought that the seemingly, mathematically-gifted Maya used the imposing pyramid to decide the most suitable seasons in which they should plant, harvest or perform ceremonies.

The Mayan played a sport that shares some similarities to modern day Basketball, Ōllamaliztli as the Mayan's called it was played throughout the Mayan world and Chichen Itza’s Great Ball Court certainly would have generated an impressive atmosphere when this ceremonial ballgame was played. Largely intact today it is 175 meters long, 70 meters wide and lined by 7-meter-high walls,  the immense, rectangular-shaped court was once the location of this highly energetic, ritual game in which Maya participants endeavored to beat the opposing side by hitting a rubber ball through scoring hoops as many times as possible. What is known today is that participants were sacrificed at the end of the ballgame. Sometimes those sacrificed were the losing teams consisting of rival prisoners and there is some debate that winning teams may have been sacrificed as an honor for their winning. Now open to the public, visitors are free to wander across the age-old court and imagine the utter determination of Maya players as they desperately tried to put the rubber ball through the ring hanging over therm.

Another landmark in Chichen Itza is the Cenote Sagrado. This cenote or natural pool is one of the largest in the Yucatan and is the result of the erosion of the fragile limestone bedrock and the very shallow water table. The cenote has a diameter of 65-meter was a place of worship and sacrifice in which the Maya would throw precious items such as gold, jade and incense as well as human sacrifices into its waters. This cenote was a used as a place to tribute the god Chaac, the god of rain and lightning. Moreover, the discovery of various non-native objects confirms that the sacred well equally became the final destination of a highly-revered pilgrimage.

In addition to these landmarks, Chichen offers visitors the opportunity to see other important Mayan structures like El Caracol, an astronomical observatory, and the remains of the longest building in Chichen Itza—the Columnata Oeste. What remains of his building is its base and the 228 columns that supported what was once a roof. It is not known what the purpose of this building was but what remains is a reminder of the grandeur that this city possessed for visitors and inhabitants alike. Another interesting building is the Casa de las Monjas or the Nunnery. This building received its name from the Spanish due to its resemblance to a Spanish convent, but this was really either a palace for the ruling family or that of a high priest. What we do know is that this is the best preserved residence within Chichen Itza.

Prior to the Spanish invasion and for unknown reasons, Chichen Itza was abandoned as a Mayan capital although people remained living there and in the surrounding area. Mostly deserted, the Yucatan jungle reclaimed much of the complex until it was "rediscovered" in the 19th century by American and European adventurers. Since then, this city has raised the consciousness of both Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike of the complex culture that permeated these incredibly large and elaborate cities while during the same time, Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages. Not just impressive in appearance, the Chichen Itza Maya ruins will equally leave visitors in awe of the undeniable intelligence of a mathematically and astronomically-advanced society.