The Changing Face of Mexico

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Temple of the Soldiers

The Temple of the Soldiers at Chichén Itzá. (Image source. More about the photograph)


View a slideshow of photographs of the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá.

The ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá must be among the most photographed ruins in the Americas, if not the world. The reasons for this are self-evident: it is a truly impressive city, and its dominating feature, the pyramid of Kukulcán, is to many the very symbol of Mexico’s roots in antiquity. Once baffling and mysterious to scholars, today the ancient Maya are being better understood by archaeologists, linguists, and astronomers. The achievments of the Maya in astronomy, their seeming obsession with time and the cycles of the heavens, are widely known. Increasingly, many people are interested in the Maya calendar, and visitors to Mexico are timing their travels to coincide with astronomical phenomena.

At Chichén Itzá, during the spring and fall equinoxes — that is when the day and night are of equal length — the great pyramid serves as a visual symbol of the day and night. On every equinox, the sun of the late afternoon creates the illusion of a snake creeping slowly down the northern staircase. Ever-growing numbers of tourists visit the site at precisely this time as information about the Maya diffuses through popular media and growing public interest.

History of Chichén Itzá

Maya civilization developed in an area of Mesoamerica that includes the present Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as the Central American countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Certainly the most famous Maya site in the Yucatán peninsula is Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá, located about 120 kilometers from the capital city of the state of Yucatán, Mérida, was the most important city in the Yucatán from the 10th to the 12th centuries. Archeologists believe that the site was first inhabited in 432AD, then abandoned for unknown reasons, and resettled in 964 AD by the Itzas, a Maya speaking group who came from the southern region of Guatelmala. We know this from the Chilam Balam de Chumayel, one of the few surviving codices, an ancient Maya book. It seems the the Itzas also left the locale around 1214 when the city apparently was abandoned for all time. The buildings and many of the finds at the city are in a disitinctive style called Mexican or Maya-Toltec, reflecting influence from the Toltecs of central Mexico, although whether this arose through conquest or trade is still debated. The leading scholars of the ancient Maya world assert Chichén Itzá’s fundamental Mayan-ness despite the unique qualities that set it apart stylistically from other Maya centers.

During the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán, the Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo, established a stronghold at Chichén Itzá but did not settle it. The site lay in ruins, from its abandonment until 1842 when it was visited and partially cleared by the US explorer John Lloyd Stephens who provided a description in the account of his travels in the Yucatán and Central America. Around 1900, the US Consul General Edward Thompson was able to purchase Chichén, and was granted permission to excavate the site in its entirety. He took most of the treasures away to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. When the Mexican government realized some years later what had happened, Thompson had to return the artwork and the land.

The site

The Temple of a Thousand Columns

The Thousand Columns. Image source. About the photograph

Chichén Itzá is thought by many to mean “the mouth of the well of the Itzas” but is also interpreted as “mouth of the well of the dew” because it is covered with dew 365 days of the year. The “well” refers to the limestone sinkholes called cenotes that are the only means of obtaining water since there are no rivers or lakes in this part to the Yucatán peninsula. Although it covers roughly fifteen square kilometers, only about thirty structures of the several hundred at the site have been excavated at this time. The site of Chichén Itzá is divided into two parts, called the Old and the New. However, there are remnants from the Classic and Postclassic periods (750–1200) in both areas. Among the various edifices and plazas are thirteen ball courts, including the largest in Mesoamerica.

The ballcourt is 150 meters long, and has a large stone hoop mounted high up on a wall that served as a viewing platform. Two temples stand at either end of the court. The sacred ball game, called pok-a-tok, used a solid rubber ball and was played until one side scored. On important ceremonial occasions, the losing team was sometimes sacrificed. The Tzompantli, a stone platform carved with rows of skulls nearby the ballcourt, is thought to be where these sacrifices took place.

Within the site are five different plazas, and several remarkable edifices. All of the plazas are connected by a sacbe or elevated “white road” which the Maya built for ceremonial use and for travel. The site includes the Sacred Well, a cenote, or sinkhole, 65 yards in diamater which was used for sacrifices to the rain god, Chac, including at times of serious drought, human sacrifices. There was another cenote from which drinking water was taken. Among the complexes are the Group of the Thousand Columns, associated with the Temple of the Warriors, and the Temple of the Jaguar. There is also a round structure, the only round Maya building ever encountered, called the Caracol, or snail, which was an astronomical observatory that Maya priests/astronomers used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and the cycles of the planet Venus with astonishing accuracy.

The pyramid of Kukulcán

All are impressive structures and the majesty and importance of the site is obvious to anyone viewing it. However, it is the dominating pyramid of Kukulcán, called El Castillo, which we are most interested in. Inappropriately named by the Spanish, since it does not look at all like a castle, this structure is 32 meters tall and has 55.5 meters to a side. The body of the monumental structure is formed from nine steps or levels, each succeeding platform smaller than the one underneath, creating a stepped pyramid with a staircase on each of the four sides. The inner chambers are really those of another older and smaller pyramid inside the larger one. The inner pyramid is dedicated to the moon, while the outer relates to the sun. There is one internal staircase giving access to the inner pyramid. Within the vestibule is a jaguar throne and a chacmool, a type of altar for offerings. The jaguar is studded with jade, fitted with fangs of stone and painted red. When it was discovered, a shell and turquoise-encrusted disk rested on the seat, the shells laid out in the form of four snakes.

The rattlesnake is very important to the site, for the Maya held it as a sacred animal. Like the Maya themselves, who kept meticulous record of time through both a solar and lunar calendar of great complexity, the rattlesnake keeps time by adding a rattle every year when it molts, or sheds its skin. This snake motif served as the symbol of Kukulcán, the Maya equivalent of the god Quetzalcoatl of central Mexico and, ultimately, the Aztecs. Plumed serpents appear carved into the northern staircase, which does not face true north. The reason for this, it was discovered, is that the Maya situated the pyramid very carefully so that on the equinox on March 20 and March 21, the north side appears wholly in shadow, while the west side is bathed completely in light. Incredibly, the nine steps of the pyramid cause seven isoceles triangles to reflect on the carved staircase. As the sun begins to fall, the triangles move down the side of the staircase creating a very slow impression of movement from the sky to the ground. This solar equinox spectacle will be detailed below, but first some further descriptions of the pyramid are in order, for it represents the Maya calendar and cosmos executed in stone.

To start with, there are the nine levels of the pyramid which represent the nine different levels of the underworld. Each side is bisected by the staircase, which leaves us with eighteen on each side. The Maya divided the year into eighteen months of twenty days each, with a short five day period at the end for special ceremonies. There is a 91 step stairway on each of the four faces which represent the four cardinal directions. If you count 91 four times you get 364, adding the top platform which has the temple at its summit, you have a final step shared by all four staircases for a total of 365. There are 365 days in the year of course, so this represents the solar calendar. There are also 52 panels on each side, which are hard to spot because the paint and plaster coating that originally covered the structure has long since weathered away. In the Maya calendar round, the solar and lunar calendar cycles complete and return once every 52 years. Thus, 52 years was for the Maya the equivalent of our century based on a 100-year period.

The equinox

Every March 21, when the equinox occurs, the light falls in such a way on the northwest corner of El Castillo as to present a graphic depiction of darkness and light, symbolizing day and night. The triangles on the side of the staircase resemble those of a rattlesnake when viewed from the side. Symbolically, the feathered serpent joins the heavens, earth and the underworld, day and night. This engineering feat was accomplished with stone tools, and without the wheel, by orienting the corners with solstitial points. The pyramid sits figuratively and metaphorically at the center of space and time: a temple, the cosmos, a calendar, and a giant sun dial.

These symbolic uses of the Temple of Kukulcán bear comparison with other solar phenomena both in the Americas, and around the world. The megaliths of ancient Europe, Stonehenge in Britain for example, were frequently situated to mark the passage of the seasons. The observance of the solstices and equinoxes is practiced in numerous cultures, and many scholars of religion demonstrate that Christian holidays were often timed to coincide with these events in antiquity.

Increasingly large crowds of visitors come to the site to view the spectacle. Numbers of Maya themselves show up, proud of their heritage and the ancient monuments their ancestors built. There are throngs of tourists, 40,000 last year, both Mexican and foreign, who come to participate in the event. The whole day has a carnival type atmosphere with vendors, and rock bands competing with traditional music and folk dance troupes, and groups of New Agers in robes come to see the equinox. Some people complain about the lack of parking, others reject the commercialization of the event, but seeing so many people at this ancient city contribute a feel of what it must have been like on an important market or religious holiday centuries ago. The crowds are big, so police are on hand to keep people at a distance so everyone can enjoy the view. Unfortunately, the masses that come to celebrate the equinox have caused the pyramid steps to be closed off so that it can no longer be climbed.