Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is one of the most important Maya sites. It is located on the Yucatan peninsula. Chichen Itza translates as “The Mouth of the Well of the Magicians of Water” - chi (“mouth,” “edge”), chen (“well”), itz (“magic,” “witchery”), and ha (“water”).

One of the questions surrounding Chichen Itza is the “ethnic” identity of the people of Chichen Itza as Maya, Toltecs, or “Mexicanized” Gulf Coast peoples. The predominant interpretation is that the Itza were Toltecs who conquered Chichen Itza and thereby brought new gods (Quetzalcoatl), art, and architecture to the Maya who worshipped the rain god Chaac. Contrary arguments observe that the Toltec elements of Chichen are historically earlier at Chichen than at the Toltec capital of Tula. A third theory states that the two cultural “periods” are either totally or partially contemporary cultures /1/.

Chichen Itza

It is generally believed that Chichen Itza was established in the fifth or sixth century A.D. According to the information material handed out to visitors at Chichen Itza, it was founded in the year 514 A.D. by a priest named Lakin Chan who was also called Itzamna. This is supposedly why their people were called since the foundation, chanes or itzaes. Other sources on the internet date the foundation of Chichen Itza to 432, 435, 445, 450, and 495 A.D. /2/.

Roughly all sources agree that from approximately 550 AD to 800 A.D., Chichen Itza existed mainly as a ceremonial center for the Maya civilization. Toward the end of this so called Classic Period, from 800 to 925 A.D., the foundations of the classic Chichen Itza society weakened, and the Itza abandoned it and lived on the west coast of the peninsula for about 250 years. However, by the 10th century A.D. they returned. Around 1000 A.D., Chichen Itza was invaded by Toltecs from the north. Mayan historical sources mention that a man who called himself Kukulkan (“Kukul” means “feathered” and “kan” means “serpent”) arrived in Chichen Itza in the period that ended in 987 A.D. It is noteworthy that Kukulkan  is also a god in the pantheon of Maya mythology closely related to the god Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec mythology. The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first documented in Teotihuacan between 400 B.C. and 600 A.D. The cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend the existing linguistic and ethnic divisions /3/. Frequently, references to the god Kukulkan are confused by references to a named individual who is believed to have conquered Chichen Itza and the distinction between the two has become blurred.

The Maya chronicles record that in 1221 a revolt and civil war broke out, and archeological evidence seemes to confirm that the wooden roofs of the Temple of the Warriors were burnt at about this date. In the Late Post-Classic Period (1200–1540), Chichen appears to have been eclipsed by the rise of the city of Mayapan. For a time Chichen Itza joined Uxmal and Mayapan in a political confederacy known as the League of Mayapan. About 1450 the League and the political supremacy of Mayapan dissolved. When the Spanish entered the country in the 16th century, the Maya were living in many small towns, but the major cities, including Chichen Itza, were largely abandoned

In 1531, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo attempted to make the site the capital of the Yucatan region. A Mayan uprising forced him to change his plans and abandon the area. The site had been lost for many years until it was rediscovered by Paul Lloyd Stephens on one of his trips to the Yucatan in the 1830’s. After finding the site, he recognized its significance and purchased it from the owners. Today, 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.

The archaeological site is divided into 3 areas: the Northern group, the Central group, and the Southern area known as the Old Chichen (located far away from the other buildings and not usually accessible for tourists). The Northern group was built between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D., at which time the city became a prominent ceremonial center. The architecture of this area is characterized by many representations of the god Chaac, the Mayan rain god. The Central group corresponds to the Maya-Toltec Period, from the later part of the 10th century to the beginning of the 13th century A.D. This area includes the Sacred Well and most of the larger structures.

The most prominent structure of the Central group is the Kukulkan Pyramid which is also known as “El Castillo” (the castle). Is one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is exactly 24 m high including the upper platform. This pyramid was built for astronomical purposes and during the vernal equinox (March 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 21) at about 3 p.m., the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid's main stairway. This causes seven isosceles triangles to form the shadow image of a serpent that slides downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway.

Chichen Itza El Castillo

Kukulkan Pyramid. Computer graphic coutesy:

The Temple of the Warriors is on of the most impressive and important structures at Chichen Itza. The temple is apparently dedicated to the god Chac-Mool. Chac-Mool should not be confused with Chaac, one of the leading deities in Maya mythology associated primarily with the phenomena of rain and thunder. 

The temple, dating from the 10th or 11th Century A.D., rests high atop a steeply stepped platform, its base was surrounded on two sides by long halls of which today only the 200 round and square columns remain. This area is known as the Court of the Thousand Columns. All square columns are carved in low relief with Toltec warriors. In some places they are painted in brilliant colors and covered with plaster. The Temple is approached by a broad stairway with a plain, stepped ramp on either side, and each ramp has figures of standard-bearers to hold flags. On the top of the structure, S shaped serpent columns can be found which used to have supported wooden lintels above the doorways. Astronomical signs and decorative features are carved into on the head of each serpent. On the top of each serpent head is a shallow basin that could have been used as an oil lamp. A Chac-Mool statue sits reclined before the main entrance.

worrier temple Temple of the Worriors seen from Kukulkan

The Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. It is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. Still, a whisper from end can be heard clearly at the other end. Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction noted that the sound transmission became stronger and clearer as they proceeded. The structure is formed by long walls with two original rings or hoops carved with scenes of the sacrifice of ball players embedded in each side. At each end of the I-shaped court there are low walls supporting buildings richly decorated with relief and paintings. Towering above one of the long sides, the Temple of Jaguars and Shields presents processions of dignitaries and battle scenes that offer a vivid image of the history of Chichen Itza.

ball court hoops

Great Ballcourt from Kukulkan (left) and stone hoop (right).


Computer image of Great Ballcourt (coutesy:

court2upper temple

Temple of Jaguars and Shields now and then (computer graphic coutesy:

Close to the Great Ballcourt, a plateau with reliefs of skulls on the side can be found. This structure is called the “Wall of Skulls” or Tzompantli. A tzompantli is a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations, which was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims. Apart from their use to display the skulls of war captives, tzompantli often occur in the contexts of Mesoamerican ballcourts. It appears that the tzompantli was used to display the losers' heads of the game. The Tzompantli structure at Chichen Itza is a Toltec structure. The platform walls of the Tzompantli have carved reliefs of four different subjects. The primary subject is the skull rack itself. Others show a scene with a human sacrifice, eagles eating human hearts, and skeletonized warriors with shields and arrows.

wall Tzompantli

Another prominent building in the vicinity is known as Caracol or “Observatory” due to its shape and the arrangement of three windows in the upper section. Caracol seems to be carefully aligned with the motions of Venus. Venus had tremendous significance for the Maya. This bright planet was considered the sun’s twin and a war god. Mayan leaders used the changing position of Venus to plan appropriate times for raids and battles. The name "Caracol" (conch) comes from the spiral stairs that lead to the upper part of the building. It was explored between 1923 and 1931 by the Carnegie Institute, which detected a series of six superimposed constructions. It is believed that its construction dates from an intermediary period between the Terminal Classic and the Early Post Classic periods.


Caracol now and then (computer graphic coutesy:

The building of the Classical Maya Northern group include the Red House, the House of the Deer, the Nunnery and its Annex, the Church, the Akab Dzib, and the Temple of the Three Lintels. The Red House and the Nunnery are of archeological significance for the dispute whether classic Maya and Toltec influences coexisted in Mesoamerica. Diehl, Berlo and Oaks mention that a Toltec ballcourt is located underneath the platforms of these two buildings /4/. The buildings of the Northern group show an architectural style known as Puuc.

Seated on a 5 meter-high stone-faced platform, the Red House (Casa Colorada) has a relatively simple, restrained Puuc facade with three flat Chaac masks on an unique roofcomb. Like the Temple of the Three Lintels in Chichen Viejo, the Red House may have been an elite residence. Three doorways with glyphs on their lintels lead into a corridor whose back wall contains a long glyphic text dated A.D. 869 and 870, describing blood-letting and fire ceremonies. A radiocarbon date of A.D. 780 was also obtained from a wood lintel. In back are three rooms with traces of red paint, giving rise to the name of this structure.

palaceCasa Colorada - Red House


  3. “The ancient Maya”; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler
  4. “Mesoamerica after the decline of Teotihuacan, A.D. 700-900 (Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Conference Proceedings)”; R. Diehl, J.C. Berlo
Chichen Itza Title
nihi kai