Suitcase and World: Las ruinas. Chichén-Itzá.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Las ruinas. Chichén-Itzá.

Today's highlight was our visit to the world famous Chichén-Itzá!  I was here 25 years ago - before the place was designated a World Heritage site and before gained notoriety by being on the new Seven Wonders of the World list.  Back then, it was sleepy place - barely anyone outside of Mexico knew anything about it.  But from what I from friends who have been to visit it in recent years, it's become one of the tourist hotspots for people coming to Cancun which is just a short drive away.

We spent last night in Mérida and Chichén isn't locate far away so we took our time to get up and have breakfast. Unfortunately, that did mean that we arrived into Chichén mid-morning.  The sun was blazing hot and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  Everyone was too excited to be here to let weather get in the way.

Juan Jose pulled the van into the parking lot and we headed towards the entrance.  Back 25 years ago, there was no fancy building to mark the entrance.  

Francisco got us our tickets and we followed him inside the park.  Though Chichén is a large site, all the major ruins are located around its iconic temple - El Castillo.  It would take a day to see it all.  We just had a few hours so we just hit a few of the highlights.

We entered the site at the western end and would be walking in a clockwise direction to end up at the southern end of the park.  Click on the map to see an enlarged view.

Panorama Oia
Awesome panoramic shot by Bro! Use the scroll bars to pan to see the entire photo.

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 cultural group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern Yucatán 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.

One of the things that makes Chichén so unique is that it was a city that reflects both Toltec and Mayan influences.  In some ways, it's fusion of cultural styles.  You won't see this in any other site in Mexico.  Having seen several Mayan ruins on this trip as well Toltec artifacts in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, I was actually able to identify the design elements that each of the cultures brought Chichén!

El Osario.  An ossuary is defined as a "chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains" and it gets its name because it contains an ossuary beneath its foundations.

When the temple was excavated by Edward H. Thompson, in the late 19th century, he discovered a square stone-lined vertical shaft, at the top of the pyramid, which extends downwards to the base of the pyramid, where it opens up on a natural cavern. The cave is 36 feet deep and when it was excavated, bones from several human burials were identified along with grave goods and offerings of jade, shell, rock crystal and copper bells.  Thompson named the structure "The High Priests' Temple" though archaeologists today do not believe that structure was a tomb nor that the people buried in it were priests.

El Osario shows combined Toltec and Puuc characteristics.  The pyramid is about 30 feet high with four stairways on each side.  The balustrades are decorated with interlaced feathered serpents.

El Caracol.  One of the icons of Chichén, this cockeyed, round structure built atop a large square platform is nicknamed El Caracol ("the snail") because of the stone spiral staircase inside.

The structure, with its unusual placement on the platform and its round shape, is thought to have been a observatory with the windows pointing in the cardinal and subcardinal directions.  It's believed that the positioning of the windows enabled the tracking of the movement of Venus, the Pleides, the sun and the moon and other celestial events.  The structure was built and rebuilt several times over its use.  Scholars believe that was done to better calibrate the astronomical observations.  Pretty amazing.

Casa del Venado.  The "House of the Deer" was named for the carving of a deer found on the posterior wall of the western chamber when it was first explored.

The building rises from a rectangular pedestal and is comprised of three aligned chambers with a small altar to the front. Together, platform and building are 16 meters high, with a base that measures 35 meters x 33 meters. The facade is simple, with an undecorated roof comb. The building had probably a religious or civic function.  In comparison to many of the other structures in Chichén,  the House of the Deer is still in a state of ruin.  I hope they leave it this way so you can see what the original structure now looks having survived all these centuries.

Conjunto de las Monjas. When I first laid my eyes on the Las Monjas group ("The Nuns" or "The Nunnery", of buildings, I immediately flashed back to Uxmal.  The same beautiful Puuc architecture.  It's believed that the complex of buildings form a governmental palace.

La Iglesia is one of the more notable structures in the Las Monjas group. This rectangular building is of classic Puuc construction with an overlay of central Yucatan styles.

La Iglesia is rectangular with a single room inside and an entrance on the west side. The outside wall is completely covered with veneer decorations, which extend clear up to the roof comb. The most important motif of the decoration is that of Chaac, the Rain God, with a hooked nose standing out on the corners of the building. This beautiful little building is probably one of the most frequently drawn and photographed buildings at Chichén Itzá including a famous 19th century drawing by Frederick Catherwood.

Templo de los Jaguares. Located stone's throw from the Las Monjas group is the Great Ball Court and the Temple of the Jaguars. Unfortunately, on the day we were there, the Great Ball Court was closed for renovation so we couldn't go see it which is a shame because it's an amazing place, with its stone rings mounted high up on the walls.

Built into the east side of the ball court is the Temple of the Jaguars.  The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two, large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif. Inside there is a large mural, much destroyed, which depicts a battle scene.

In the entrance to the Lower Temple of the Jaguar, which opens behind the ball court, is a Jaguar throne. The outer columns and the walls inside the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief carvings.

El Tzompantli.  Also known as the Temple of the Skulls, the Tzompantli at Chichén is a Toltec structure.

It reminded me of the one I saw at Templo Mayor in Mexico City.  The platform is named for the rows of skulls carved into the stone which represent the heads of sacrificial victims. Also carved into the stone are pictures of eagles tearing hearts from human victims and skeletonized warriors with shields and arrows. 

Plataforma de Venus. This low platform was likely used for public addresses or rituals of some sort, such as dance or sacrifice.

Like several other structures in Chichén, the base panels of the Platform of Venus are inscribed with images of Kukulkan and a feathered serpent with a human head in its mouth which represented Venus.

Cenote Sagrado.  From the Platform of Venus, we walked down a path that wound its way through the woods.  Lining the walkway were souvenir vendors.  They should ban the vendors from inside the park; ruins the experience, in my opinion.

At the end of the walk, we arrived at the cenote which is an impressive 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter has  sheer cliffs that drop to the water table some 27 metres (89 ft) below.

The Cenote Sagrado was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people who would conduct sacrifices during times of drought. Archaeological investigations support this as thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the cenote, including material such as gold, jade, obsidian, shell, wood, cloth, as well as skeletons of children and men.

From the cenote, we backtracked and along the way, we passed a small platform which a statue of Chac Mool standing nearby.

And a tour group all armed with neon pink umbrellas.  They were quite a sight!

Situated just to the east of El Castillo is a series of buildings, the northernmost of which is the Temple of the Tables.  The structure gets its name comes from a series of altars at the top of the structure that are supported by small carved figures of men with upraised arms, called “atlantes".

The temple is known for its frieze which shows a procession of jaguars.

Templo de los Guerreros.  The Temple of the Warriors is a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors.  From where we were standing, we couldn't see it but at the top of the pyramid is another Chac Mool statue.

Grupo de las Mil Columnas y El Mercado. Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns.  Known as the Group of a Thousand columns, these columns would have supported an extensive roof system.

The columns are in tree distinct sections: an east group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents.

At the southernmost end of the Temple of Warriors complex is square that archaeologists believe served as a market.

From El Mercado, we headed back towards El Castillo.  Somewhere along the way, we passed a wall with beautiful carvings and another temple.

El Castillo. The Castle is the iconic symbol of Chichén-Itzá and is probably most photographed structure on the site.  The pyramid was built by the pre-Columbian Maya sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.   El Castillois also known as the Temple of Kukulcán because it served as a temple to the god Kukulcán, the Mayan Feathered Serpent deity closely related to Quetzalcoatl .

Image Source:
The structure is 24 meters in height plus an additional 6 meters for the temple at the very top. The square base measures 55.3 m across.

El Castillo's design is thought to relate to the Mayan calendar. Each of the four faces incorporates a broad, steep staircase consisting of 91 steps that ascends to the top platform. Counting the top platform as an additional step gives a total of 365 steps: 1 step for each day of the year.

The nine main platforms of the pyramid are thought to represent the 18 months of the haab (Mayan calendar year), and the 52 panels represent the number of years it takes for a calendar round date to recur.

It was not uncommon for Mesoamerican pyramids to be successively built over the core and foundations of earlier structures, and this is one example. In the mid 1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation into El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. Inside the temple chamber is a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of jaguar, painted red with spots made of inlaid jade. The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple.

Sculptures of plumed serpents run down the sides of the northern balustrade.

Photo by shawn_christie1970
On the spring and fall equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid at an angle that creates triangles of light.  These triangles of light link up with the massive stone carvings of snake heads at the base of the steps, creating  the illusion of a feathered serpent "crawling" down the pyramid.

On the day of the winter solstice, the sun appears to climb up the edge of the staircase until it rests momentarily directly above the temple before beginning its descent down the other side.

The northern and western faces of El Castillo have been restored.  When I was here in 1986, you could climb to the top.  But since 2006, the Mexican government, public access to any of the pyramids at Chichén has been prohibited. I read that they are slowly applying the same restrictions at the other sites so I'm glad I was able to visit Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, Uxmal, Palenque while I could because I can see them cordoning off access to many of the structures at those sites as well.

Our visit to Chichén-Itzá ended after El Castillo.  I'm so lucky to have been able to come back to this very special place.  Back then, I really had very, very little appreciation of what I was seeing other than that I was seeing some pretty amazing Mayan ruins.  This time around, I came armed with knowledge of the ancient Maya and that really helped me to put everything I was seeing into perspective.  I would love to be able to come back again because there was so much I did not get a chance to see and what I did see, I didn't necessarily have the time to absorb.  Luckily for me, getting to Cancun is very easy and Chichén-Itzá is just a short distance away from there.  Hmmmm.....I have a few days open in November.  :-)