At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza

We approached the ancient city, with colorful dresses, hammocks and masks being sold all around us. The heat of the morning was beginning to gain power, but the approach felt easy and short compared to the 3.5 hr bus-ride from Cancun. My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I instantly regretted not taking a water with me. Nevertheless, we knew that just beyond the trees, pyramids from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza waited patiently, as they had been doing for over a thousand years.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

It felt particularly relevant to visit Chichen Itza now, so soon after the world was predicted to end. The world, like the structures within this city, still stands strong — although perhaps both are less strong than when they were originally “created,” many footprints ago.

Chichen Itza (its name meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza [people]”) was a major religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 600-900 AD. It is now considered one of the 7 Wonders of the World, along with Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India, to name a few. The city itself covers about 2 square miles, and is comprised of several large structures, the most famous of which being El Castillo (the Temple of Kukulkan), and also: the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Court of a Thousand Columns.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

We emerged from a long dirt pathway shaded by large leafy trees to find ourselves in a giant clearing, with the largest and most impressive structures of the city glaring straight ahead of us. When you first see the giant pyramid, it doesn’t feel totally real. Initially, it just looks impressive and grand, like you’re on the set of an Indiana Jones movie (I hate myself a little for degrading an ancient ruin with an American movie reference — gah, so typical). And then it sinks in: this impressive structure was built hundreds of years ago, by the small hands of an ancient culture that was eventually conquered in the 1530s by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo. Many people lived and died on this turf. And along with them, many traditions.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, is named after the feathered serpent deity of the Mayan people. At 24 meters high, with 9 square terraces and 18 platforms, marking the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. There are a total of 365 steps, marking the 365 days of the year, and 52 panels, corresponding to the 52 years in the Mayan calendar cycle. (Unfortunately, access to the top of the pyramid was closed after a tourist fell to his death.) Chichen Itza is known for its many structural mysteries, some stemming from astrology and numbers. Among them is one that still draws thousands of people every year, when during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow of a serpent slithering down the structure is formed to perfection. With the snake, Kukulkan, being a symbol of fertility pointed down at the earth, this effect is believed to suggest the fertilization and thus fruitfulness of the city. Like in Roman culture, the rulers of a city liked to boast. This was ancient advertising.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

While the Temple of Kukulkan may be the first structure to draw one’s attention, it is the Great Ball Court that becomes the most relatable structure for tourists. Spanning 150 meters and flanked by the slanted relief sculptures of ball teams playing is a giant court where a ritual Mesoamerican game was played. Although the rules of the game are still not known for certain, it seems that players — wearing pads of some sort on their thighs and arms and possibly holding large sticks — fought to keep a 7 lb ball in play, hitting it around like racquetball or field hockey while trying to get the heavy ball through a relatively small hoop 8 meters above the ground. According to my tour guide, the game could last anywhere from hours to days, and ended with sacrificing the captain of the winning team (not very good incentive, if you ask me). There were two teams of 2 to 4 players. Headdresses, gloves, and even capes may have been worn during the games, which often ended in brutal injuries, both inflicted upon by the opposite team and by the solid, heavy ball itself.

King's throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

King’s throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

The king, sitting at a throne perched over one end of the ball court, would watch the honored players who had trained their whole lives to participate in this ceremonial sport. According to the Popol Vuh and sculptures lining the sides of the ball court, it is believed that the captain of the winning team would receive the honor of being decapitated by the king, thus allowing him a direct passage to heaven. There was even speculation that these heads would end up being used as the ball for future games. (Gotta love ancient cultures — so resourceful!)

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Despite the excitement about all the gore, one of the most interesting things about this ball court (and the rest of the Mayan city) is the acoustics. Someone whispering at one end of the ball court can be heard loud and clear by a person at the other end of the ball court, more than a football field apart. These acoustics were studied and later used in theater construction by Europeans. In addition, the mysterious “chirping” echo created by clapping at the base of El Castillo was believed to mimic the call of the Quetzal bird… But it is hard to know whether or not these things are just archaeological coincidences designed to get tourists really excited.

Ball court "hoop." Chichen Itza.

Ball court “hoop.” Chichen Itza.

When standing anywhere near the Temple of Kukulkan, the Temple of the Warriors cannot be ignored. The structure, surrounded by the Court of a Thousand Columns, houses Chac Mool (“Red Tiger”), who lies in an uncomfortable position at the top of the steps looking out over the rest of the city. His position allowed for offerings (this wouldn’t be a post about the Mayans if I didn’t acknowledge that many of these sacrifices were indeed human, echem), which were made in the flat section across his midsection. Relief sculptures of Toltec warriors surround the perpetually reclined Chac Mool. Feathered serpent heads with open jaws, and even elephant tusks emerge from the walls of the temple, which housed tombs in addition to being used for religious ceremonies. The many columns spanning out from beneath this structure were extremely simple in their structure, but allowed for a tented area that was used as a giant marketplace in the city. Yes, folks: Chichen Itza was quite the happening place to be at the time. It still is.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

There is plenty more to say about the details in the architecture of this city, and about the history of the Mayan people, but that is for the historians and the archaeologists to tell you (I shall refrain from pretending I know more than I do). What I can say is that visiting Chichen Itza as an ex-Spanish and archaeology major just taking the opportunity to make a quick trip to Mexico before returning to pre0med class was — unlike being the winning captain of the ball team — well, super worth it.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

In college, I was a humanities girl. I spent years looking at art and architecture from the stance of someone trying to interpret and understand another culture through symbolism and relics. Now, I am a science student, looking at an ancient culture and trying to understand what they knew about the world long before we ever thought we could. Chichen Itza is one of those places where art, architecture, history, science (in particular, biology and physics) converge. It is a beautiful, fascinating thing when — despite our thorough understanding of the world at many different levels — so much is still unknown.

I’m glad the world didn’t end — there is still too much left to learn.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

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Filed under Archaeology, Mexico, Ruins, Travel, Uncategorized

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