Some of the most incredible pyramids still in existence are not, as many people erroneously think, in Egypt, but are in South America where they continue to fascinate astronomers, archaeologists and tourists alike.
Of these awe-inspiring edifices it is perhaps Chichen Itza, on the Yucatan Peninsula, in what is modern day Mexico and which, to the delight of many, is listed as one of the ‘Wonders of the Modern World’, that is the most famous, although Machu Pitchu in Peru does compete for this honour.
Chichen Itza, located approximately 125 kilometres west of Cancun and Cozumel where visitors to the region base themselves, is a combination of an ancient Mayan city and a later Toltec settlement with what is known as the ‘Castillo Pyramid’ being the prime attraction as, according to numerous scientists and astrologers, this is the ‘home’ of the calendar on which all modern astronomical calculations are based.
This Mayan pyramid — unlike Egyptian pyramids Mayan ones were constructed in a series of steps so are generally called ‘Step Pyramids’ — consists of four sides, each one having 365 steps for the solar year, 52 panels representing each week of the solar year and which also represent the number of years in the ancient Mayan century and 18 terraces for the 18 months of the Mayan religious year.
The site of Chichen Itza was developed by consecutive series of tribes who built the first edifices and dwellings there between 750 and 900AD with later, more intricate buildings, temples, pyramids and houses coming up from 900AD onwards until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in 1527 who, after a struggle, claimed what was left of the city for their own and changed its name to Ciudad Real.
Before explaining more about this wondrous place though, I am going to amaze you by telling you that right here, in ancient Chichen Itza, that the oldest known ‘soccer field’ is to be found and it is far bigger than any such field around today!
This astonishing soccer field or ‘court’ as it is more correctly named, measures 168 by 70 metres (551ft by 230 ft) and has 2, 27 feet high walls running from one end to other, each wall having a small stone ring through the top with the aim of the game, or so it appears, being to score points by throwing a hard rubber ball, the same size as a modern soccer ball, through them. This game, it sounds pretty much like a cross between soccer and baseball, had extremely complex rules to be followed and was very popular with Mayans and they attended regular events there in thousands.
Renovated and ruined buildings at the site, are largely ornamented with very detailed sculptures done in relief. Some of these, especially those located on and inside temples where grisly human sacrifices routinely took place, are of nightmarish substance. But others, such as those of jaguars and other animals, birds and flowers, are both artistically inspiring and grotesquely beautiful in their own individual way.
As previously mentioned, Chichen Itza was a centre of astrology and boasted what must have been one of the very first observatories ever. ‘El Caracol’ — this is the name given by the Spanish and which in their language means ‘the snail’ and which was awarded due the presence of a spiral, stone staircase inside — is a round building raised up on a large platform.
Mayans traditionally constructed rectangular buildings but, for an observatory, a round one was needed, and was complete with doors and windows that aligned with the complicated movements of the stars and more specifically concentrated on the path that Venus travelled through the heavens.
Chichen Itza was the main city of the Northern Maya lowlands throughout most of its existence under Mayan rule, its location having been carefully selected, the surrounding region is arid and dry as all the rivers run underground and not above ground as is more generally the case. The existence of two large ‘sinkholes’ or ‘cenotes’, provided easy access to year round fresh water without which no one could survive, let alone construct and develop a thriving city-cum-cultural, religious and renowned centre for the study of astronomy. That both of these ‘cenotes’ were found, as a result of modern archaeological excavations, to contain, along with objects of gold, jade and pottery, the remains of human sacrificial victims, does not seem to have dissuaded the ancient inhabitants of Chichen Itza from using the water for all the purposes, drinking included!
An interesting story, recorded in the Mayan Chronicles called the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, narrates how Chichen Itza was conquered by someone named Hunac Ceel in the 13th century and of how this warrior prophesied his own rise to power. According to the custom of the time, anyone who managed to survive being thrown into the largest of the sinkholes — this one is named Cenote Sagrado — would then have the power of prophecy. On one such occasion, however, although the number of people thrown into the sinkhole is unknown, there weren’t any survivors so, acting on the spur of the moment, Hunac Ceel himself jumped in, was promptly rescued and even more promptly prophesised his own ascension to the throne and, it goes without saying, no one dared to argue with him so that was that!
With the arrival of Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo and his men in the Yucatan in 1527, the scene was set for drastic change although, it wasn’t he who captured Chichen Itza but his son, known as Montejo the Younger, who accomplished this feat in 1532. The Mayan people initially accepted this occupation but when the Spaniards set about dividing up ancestral Mayan lands amongst themselves, they decided that enough was enough, laid siege to the invaders, cut off their supply lines to the coast and, by 1533, managed to drive them out.
The damage, however, was already done and by 1588, Montejo the Younger was back in full force and turned the once flourishing Mayan city of Chichen Itza into a cattle ranch!
A Unesco World Heritage site of tremendous cultural significance, Chichen Itza, with its array of massive temples, step pyramids and other assorted archaeological remains, is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico and over 1.5 million people from all over the world, travel there each and every year and, hopefully, one day, you will be able to join them and experience all that this extraordinary place has to offer in person!