Chichen Itza

State Party : Mexico

Type : Cultural
Region : Latin America and the Caribbean

Chichen Itza (pronounced /tʃiːˈtʃɛn iːˈtsɑː/; from Yucatec Maya: Chi'ch'èen Ìitsha', "At the mouth of the well of the Itza") is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site built by the Maya civilization located in the northern center of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the Yucatán state, present-day Mexico.

Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the northern Maya lowlands from the Late Classic through the Terminal Classic and into the early portion of the Early Postclassic period. The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, from what is called “Mexicanized” and reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico to the Puuc style found among the Puuc Maya of the northern lowlands. The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.

The ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property, and the site’s stewardship is maintained by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History, INAH). The land under the monuments, however, is privately-owned by the Barbachano family.

Name and orthography

 

Feathered Serpent, bottom of "El Castillo" staircase

The Maya name "Chich'en Itza" means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza." This derives from chi', meaning "mouth" or "edge", and ch'e'en, meaning "well." Itzá is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern peninsula. The name is believed to derive from the Maya itz, meaning "magic," and (h)á, meaning "water." Itzá in Spanish is often translated as "Brujas del Agua (Witches of Water)" but a more precise translation would be Magicians of Water.

The name is often represented as Chichén Itzá in Spanish and when translated into other languages from Spanish to show that both parts of the name are stressed on their final syllables. Other references prefer to employ a more rigorous orthography in which the word is written according to Maya language, using Chich'en Itzá (pronounced [tʃitʃʼen itsáʔ]. This form preserves the phonemic distinction between ch' and ch, since the base word ch'e'en (which, however, does have a neutral tone vowel "e" in Maya and is not accented or stressed in Maya) begins with a glottalized affricate. The word "Itzá'" has a high rise final "a" that is followed by a glottal stop (indicated by the apostrophe).

There is evidence in the Chilam Balam books that there was another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. This name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal, Uuc Hab Nal, or Uc Abnal. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest. Among the translations suggested are “Seven Bushes,” “Seven Great Houses,” or “Seven Lines of Abnal.”

History

 

Cenote Sagrado

Northern Yucatán is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichen, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two cenotes, the "Cenote Sagrado" or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous. According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains. A recent study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

 

Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne, interior temple of "El Castillo"

Ascendancy

Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands, such as Tikal.

Some ethnohistoric sources claim that in about 987 a Toltec king named Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl arrived here with an army from central Mexico, and (with local Maya allies) made Chichen Itza his capital, and a second Tula. The art and architecture from this period shows an interesting mix of Maya and Toltec styles. However, the recent re-dating of Chichen Itza's decline (see below) indicates that Chichen Itza is largely a Late/Terminal Classic site, while Tula remains an Early Postclassic site (thus reversing the direction of possible influence).

Political organization

 

Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Several archaeologists in late 1980s suggested that unlike previous Maya polities of the Early Classic, Chichen Itza may not have been governed by an individual ruler or a single dynastic lineage. Instead, the city’s political organization could have been structured by a "multepal" system, which is characterized as rulership through council composed of members of elite ruling lineages. This theory was popular in the 1990s, but in recent years, the research that supported the concept of the "multepal" system has been called into question, if not discredited. The current belief trend in Maya scholarship is toward the more traditional model of the Maya kingdoms of the Classic southern lowlands.

Economy

Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands during its apogee. Participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route through its port site of Isla Cerritos, Chichen Itza was able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas such as central Mexico (obsidian) and southern Central America (gold).

Decline

According to Maya chronicles (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophecized his own rise to power. According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophecized his own ascension.

While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza fell by around AD 1000, some two centuries before the rise of Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.

While Chichén Itzá “collapsed” (meaning elite activities ceased and the site rapidly depopulated) it does not appear to have been completely abandoned. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.

Spanish arrival

In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha', south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and took Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.

Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining forces. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.

Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.

Site description

 

High-resolution photo showing the restored sides of El Castillo

 

East side of El Castillo

 

Great Ballcourt (interior)

 

Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors)

 

 

Ossario.

 

"El Caracol" observatory temple.

 

"La Iglesia" in Las Monjas complex of buildings.

The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings are connected by a dense network of formerly paved roads, called sacbeob. Archaeologists have found almost 100 sacbeob criss-crossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city.

The buildings of Chichén Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court; The Ossario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc; and the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.

South of Las Monjas, in an area known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) and only open to archaeologists, are several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.