At the Mouth of the Well
After warfare and environmental crisis led to the abandonment of the lowland Maya city-states around 800 CE, the focus of Maya civilization shifted north to the Yucatan Peninsula. One of the principal cities of this period was Chichén Itzá, which means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” and may refer to the deep cenote (sinkhole) at the site that was sacred to the Maya. Flourishing from the ninth to the thirteenth century CE, Chichén Itzá was an incredibly important religious and ceremonial site, as well as a sophisticated urban center and hub of regional trade. Today, Chichén Itzá is a major national park in Mexico spanning over 25 kilometers of ruins from the monumental core and surroundings. Recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, this UNESCO World Heritage Site hosts over 100,000 visitors each year, making it one of the most visited sites in Mesoamerica.
Serpents and Pyraminds: El Castillo
One of Chichén Itzá’s most conspicuous structures is a massive nine-level pyramid (ninety-eight feet high and one-hundred-eighty-two feet wide) in the center of a large plaza, nicknamed El Castillo (“the castle” in Spanish). A stairway on each side of the radial pyramid leads to a square temple on the summit. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun casts undulating shadows on the stairway, forming bodies for the serpent heads carved at the base of the north balustrades, pointing towards the sacred cenote. Brilliantly colored relief sculpture and painting covered the buildings of Chichén Itzá. Many of the surviving works show narrative scenes that emphasize military conquests.
Twice a year on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase up the pyramid’s side.
The Cosmic Ballgame
The ritual ballgame was one of the defining characteristics of Mesoamerican society and was a common subject in Mesoamerican art. Chichén Itzá's ball court is the largest in all of Mesoamerica at 154.8 meters in length and bounded by walls reaching over 9 meters in height. It was generally played on a long, rectangular court with a large, solid, heavy rubber ball. Using their elbows, knees, or hips—but not their hands—heavily padded players directed the ball toward a goal or marker. Large stone rings set in the walls of the court about 25 feet above the field served as goals. The surviving ball court at Chichén Itzá was about the size of a modern football field. The game may have had religious and political significance: it is featured in creation stories, and was sometimes associated with warfare.
Astrology at the Caracol
Along with El Castillo, one of Chichén Itzá’s most well-known structures is the Caracol. Originally a cylindrical shape with a domed roof, the Caracol is a stone structure now partially ruined. Narrow windows cut into the outer walls seem to have been designed in order to observe the irregular movements of Venus, which was considered to be the sun's twin and held great significance for the Maya, particularly in decisions pertaining to war. The staircase at the front of the Caracol faces 27.5 degrees north of west, perfectly in line with the northern positional extreme of Venus and producing alignments at the building's northeast and southeast corners that track both the summer and winter solstices. The Caracol is one of the oldest standing observatories in the Americas, and highlights the great importance that astrological phenomena held for the people of Chichén Itzá.