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A Journey Into Paradise

The Ancient Mayan City of Chichen Itzá

19 January, 2014

It is easy to imagine an ancient Maya priest standing at the top of the great Pyramid of Kukulkan, preparing to make a sacrifice to the gods as the villagers gather below to offer their prayers in support of his efforts, which were meant to bring protection from enemies, encourage a healthy crop and a good harvest.

Chichen Itzá is the name of the ancient Mayan city and literally translated means “in the mouth at the Itzae's Well.” The city was at its peak between 800 and 1200 AD and reigned as the supreme center of power in the Yucatan Peninsula during that time. A sacred hub of military power, religious might and political maneuverings, Chichen Itzá today lies just over an hour from the Yucatan's capital city of Merida, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. It has been named one of the most important archaeological sites in the region for Maya culture and sprawls across more than six square miles, including hundreds of ancient building sites, 30 of which are available for visitors to tour.

The stunning Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itzá was undoubtedly one of the most important structures for the ancient Maya, who worked hard to build a variety of palaces and temples in the region. The pyramid rises 79 feet to tower above the surrounding structures and boasts 91 steps on each of its four sides. Interestingly, if you add a final step when ascending the top platform, this amounts to a total of 365 total steps – one for each day of the year, indicating that the pyramid was originally built to fulfill both spiritual and astronomical duties.

Also of note, each year during the Vernal Equinox,which occurs on March 20th,and also during the Autumnal Equinox, which occurs on September 21st, at around 3:00 p.m. The sunlight hitting the pyramid's western side causes seven isosceles triangles to join together, representing the body of a serpent that is over 100 feet long. Amazingly, this apparition “crawls” down the side of the pyramid to finally join a carving of a serpent that lies in wait at the bottom of the stairs. Known among researchers today as “the symbolic descent of Kukulkan,” which means “the feathered serpent,” this timeless ritual could have been connected to agricultural needs, but regardless of its purpose it remains a marvelous site to behold and draws thousands of visitors each year to the region to witness its appearance.

Cenotes,which are sinkholes that appear throughout the region when a portion of the limestone bedrock collapses over an underground river,were considered sacred by the Maya, in part because they were one of the only sources of fresh water that could readily be found. They also had a strong religious function and Chichen Itzá was built very close to one of the largest cenotes in the area. Known as the Sacred Cenote, there is evidence that sacrificial victims were thrown into the cenote, as were other treasures and offerings meant to please the Maya rain god.

Located to the northeast of the great Pyramid of Kukulkan is the Great Ball Court,which is the largest of its kind and is one of eight that can be found in the region. It boasts a playing field of 450 feet long and has two 25 foot walls that run along both sides. Also of note, the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itzá stands more than 40 meters wide and 10 meters high and demonstrates the strong Toltec influence on Maya architecture. Named after a sculpture depicting warriors on the front,the temple boasts carvings of jaguars and eagles eating hearts, as well as images of Kukulkan and the Maya rain god.

Adjoining the temple is the The Group of The Thousand Columns,which dates back to between 900 and 1200 AD and was originally covered with plaster and painted. The roof and decorative frieze have long since collapsed, but the columns survive to represent what must have been one of the ancient Maya's grandest meeting halls.

Although the Maya inhabited Chichen Itzá for hundreds of years, using it as a major commercial, religious and cultural center, as alliances within their culture started to break down they moved away. By 1250 Chichen Itzá was deserted and sat quietly awaiting rediscovery in the modern era, when people from around the world would begin to regularly visit in order to behold its impressive beauty once again.

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Topics: Mayan Ruins