|Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza*|
|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Criteria||i, ii, iii|
|Region**||Latin America and the Caribbean|
|Inscription||1988 (12th Session)|
|* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Chichen Itza ("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, present-day Mexico.
Chichen Itza was a major regional center 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. Though the Mayan culture suffered from its blood-thirsty reputation which gave the Spanish a sense of moral superiority, Chichen Itza is evidence of the very substantial accomplishments of Mayan Civilization in terms of art, architecture, mathematics, literature, and astronomy. This, too, was a culture that respected the Earth, which was regarded by the Mayans as something to be honored and not exploited.
Unfortunately, unprepared to recognize much of value in what they encountered in the New World, European conquerors did little or nothing to preserve what they found. If it could not be melted for gold, or attract a price as treasure and shipped back to Europe, then it was regarded as useless. The Spanish may not have been responsible for the decline of Chichen Itza but their record generally was one of indifference to Mayan cultural achievements, as it was towards those of the Incas and the Aztecs.
Archaeological data, such as evidence of burning at a number of important structures and architectural complexes, suggest that Chichen Itza's collapse was violent. Following the decline of Chichen Itza's hegemony, regional power in the Yucatán shifted to a new center at Mayapan.
The ruins of Chichen Itza are Mexican federal property, and the site’s stewardship is maintained by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, INAH). The land under the monuments, however, is privately-owned by the Barbachano family.
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'en, meaning "well." Itzá is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern peninsula and is derived from itz, meaning "magic" and (h)á, meaning "water." Itzá in Spanish is often translated as "Brujos (Witches) of Water" but a more adequate rendition 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. This form preserves the phonemeic distinction between [ ch' ] and [ ch ], since the base word ch'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 ( in IPA notation, [tʃʼ]) ([tʃ])and not a voiceless (non-glottalized) one. The word "Itzá'" has a high rise final "a" that is followed by a glottal stop (indicated by the apostrophe). Thus, in English a writer must choose a spelling based on the language norms of: English (Chichen Itza), Spanish (Chichén Itzá), or Maya (Chich'en Itzá').
There is evidence in the Books of the Chilam Balams that there was another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatan. 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 Habnal, Uuc Hab Nal, Uc Abnal. The words uuc (uc or uuk) mean "seven." The second word if yab is "many" or if hab it is "year," with possible reference to a particular kind of stone, and also caves (as once suggested by Lyle Cambell, a specialist in Maya and Mesoamerican linguistics. If ab, then a certain kind of fruit, a "peach." The third word, if nal means "maize." If it is a particle, then it is a type of suffix that indicates possession or attribute to what it is attached. This, therefore, is a notoriously difficult proper name/phrase to interpret—some translators have, in fact, not interpreted it as a place name! The meaning might be "Seven Year Corn," "Seven Stone Corn," "Seven Lots of Corn," but in no case is "Seven Great Rulers" a viable interpretation! But these names do not easily fit into the Maya logic and conventions of naming places. A possibility is that if Uuc Habnal refers to "stone/caves," then this might be an allusion to the Seven Caves held to be an origin-place for some Central Mexicans.
Northern Yucatán is arid and the interior has no above-ground rivers. 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, is the more 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. American Consul Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Sacred Cenote 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. Those who managed to survive being thrown into the cenote were considered seers.
Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (or, roughly 600 C.E.). 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 capitol, 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 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).
Unlike previous Maya polities of the Early Classic, Chichen Itza was not governed by an individual ruler or a single dynastic lineage. Instead, according to Sharer and Traxler , the city’s political organization was structured by a "multepal" system, which is characterized as rulership through council. The council was composed of members of elite ruling lineages.
Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands. 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).
The Maya chronicles record that in 1221 a revolt and civil war broke out and archeological evidence seemed to confirm that the wooden roofs of the great market and the Temple of the Warriors were burned at about this date. Chichen Itza went into decline as rulership over Yucatán shifted to Mayapan.
This long-held chronology, however, has been drastically revised in recent years. As archaeologists improve their knowledge of changes in regional ceramics and more radiocarbon dates arise out of ongoing work at Chichen Itza, the end of this Maya capital is now being pushed back over 200 years. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza fell by around 1000 C.E. This leaves an enigmatic gap between the fall of Chichen Itza and its successor, Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.
While the site itself was never completely abandoned, the population declined and no major new constructions were built following its political collapse. The Sacred Cenote, however, remained a place of pilgrimage.
In 1531 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo claimed Chichén Itzá and intended to make it the capital of Spanish Yucatán, but after a few months a native Maya revolt drove Montejo and his forces from the land.
The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation; the buildings were formerly used as temples, palaces, stages, markets, baths and ballcourts.
Dominating the center of Chichén is the Temple of Kukulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl), often referred to as "El Castillo" (the castle). This step pyramid has a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. On the Spring and Fall equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent - Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl - along the side of the North staircase. On these two days, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun's movement.
Mesoamerican cultures periodically built larger pyramids atop older ones and this is one such 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 was 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 and opened it to tourists. In 2006, INAH closed the throne room to the public.
The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions. The one at Chichen Itza, however, was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) is a Chac Mool.
Near the Warriors is a large plaza surrounded by pillars called "The Great Market."
Archaeologists have identified seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichén, but the Great Ball Court about 150 meters (492 feet) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 166 by 68 meters (545 by 232 feet). The imposing walls are 12 meters high (39 feet) and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents.
At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated and from the wound emits seven streams of blood; six become wriggling serpents and the center becomes a winding vine or plant.
At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, popularly called the Temple of the Bearded Man. This small masonry building has detailed bas relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.
Built into east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. 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 another jaguar throne, similar to the one in the inner temple of El Castillo, except that it is well worn and missing paint or other decoration. The outer columns and the walls inside the temple are covered with elaborate bas-relief carvings.
Behind this platform is a walled inscription which depicts a tzompantli (rack of impaled human skulls) in relief.
This step-pyramid temple is a smaller version of El Castillo; the name comes from an elite burial discovered by early excavator Edward Herbert Thompson.
One of the more notable structures at Chichen Itza is a complex of Terminal Classic buildings constructed in the Puuc architectural style. The Spanish nicknamed this complex Las Monjas ("The Nuns" or "The Nunnery") but was actually a governmental palace. Just to the east is a small temple (nicknamed La Iglesia, "The Church") decorated with elaborate masks of the rain god Chaac.
A number of other structures are near the "Monjas" complex. These include:
To the north of Las Monjas is a round building on a large square platform nicknamed El Caracol or "the snail" for the stone spiral staircase inside. This structure was an observatory with its doors aligned to view the vernal equinox, the Moon's greatest northern and southern declinations, and other astronomical events sacred to Kukulcan, the feathered-serpent god of the wind and learning. The Maya used the shadows inside the room cast from the angle of the sun hitting the doorway to tell when the solstices would occur. Placed around the edge of El Caracol are large rock cups that they filled with water and would watch the reflection of the stars in the water to help determine their complex, but extremely accurate calendar system.
Located to the east of the Caracol, Akab Dzib means, in Maya, "The House of Mysterious Writing." An earlier name of the building, according to a translation of glyphs in the Casa Colorada, is Wa(k)wak Puh Ak Na, "the flat house with the excessive number of chambers” and it was the home of the administrator of Chichén Itzá, kokom Yahawal Cho' K’ak’. . INAH completed a restoration of the building in 2007. It is relatively short, only 6 meters (19 feet) high and is 50 meters (164 feet) in length and 15 meters (49 feet) wide. The long, western-facing facade has seven doorways. The eastern facade has only four doorways, broken by a large staircase that leads to the roof. This apparently was the front of the structure and looks out over what is today a steep, but dry, cenote. The southern end of the building has one entrance. The door opens into a small chamber and on the opposite wall is another doorway, above which on the lintel are intricately carved glyphs—the “mysterious” or “obscure” writing that gives the building its name today. Under the lintel in the door jamb is another carved panel of a seated figure surrounded by more glyphs. Inside one of the chambers, near the ceiling, is a painted hand print.
"Old Chichen" is the nickname for a group of structures to the south of the central site. It includes the Initial Series Group, the Phallic Temple, the Platform of the Great Turtle, the Temple of the Owls, and the Temple of the Monkeys.
Approximately 4 km (2 1/4 miles) west of the Chichen Itza archaeological zone are a network of sacred caves known as Balankanche (Spanish: Gruta de Balankanche). In the caves, a large selection of ancient pottery and idols may be seen still in the positions where they were left in pre-Columbian times.
The location of the cave has been well known in modern times. Edward H. Thompson and Alfred Tozzer visited it in 1905. A.S. Pearse and a team of biologists explored the cave in 1932 and 1936. E. Wyllys Andrews also explored the cave in the 1930s. Edwin Shook and R.E. Smith explored the cave on behalf of the Carnegie Institution in 1954 and dug several trenches to recover potsherds and other artifacts. Shook determined that the cave had been inhabited over a long period, at least from the Preclassic to the post-conquest era.
On September 15, 1959, José Humberto Gómez, a local guide, discovered a false wall in the cave. Behind it he found an extended network of caves with significant quantities of undisturbed archaeological remains, including pottery and stone-carved censers, stone implements and jewelry. INAH converted the cave into an underground museum and the objects after being catalogued were returned to their original place so visitors can see them in situ.
Chichén Itzá entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood). The book recounted Stephens’ visit to Yucatan and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá. The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Desire Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruines américaines (1863).
In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach. Augustus Le Plongeon called it “Chaacmol” (later renamed “Chac Mool,” which has been the term to describe all types of this statuary found in Mesoamerica). Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichén Itzá in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.
In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward H. Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichen, which included the ruins of Chichen Itzá. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Ossario (High Priest’s Temple). Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
In 1913, archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley persuaded the Carnegie Institution to fund an extensive archaeological project at Chichén Itzá, which included mapping the ruins and restoring several of the monuments. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability prevented the Carnegie Institute from beginning work until 1924. Over the course of ten years, the Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo and the Great Ball Court.
In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén. Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatan. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in 1935, before the case was settled. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichén Itzá to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon, and his heirs own the property today.
Tourism has been a factor at Chichen Itza for more than a century. John Lloyd Stephens, who popularized the Maya Yucatan in the public’s imagination with his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, inspired many to make a pilgrimage to Chichén Itzá. Even before the book was published, Benjamin Norman and Baron Emmanuel de Friederichsthal traveled to Chichen after meeting Stephens and both published the results of what they found.
Gomez Rul's son-in-law, Fernando Barbachano Peon (a grandnephew of former Yucatan Governor Miguel Barbachano), started Yucatan’s first official tourism business in the early 1920s. He began by meeting passengers that arrived by steamship to Progreso, the port north of Merida, and persuading them to spend a week in Yucatan, after which they would catch the next steamship to their next destination. In his first year Barbachano Peon reportedly was only able to convince seven passengers to leave the ship and join him on a tour. In the mid-1920s Barbachano Peon persuaded Edward H. Thompson to sell five acres of property next to Chichen for a hotel. In 1927, the Mayaland Hotel opened, just north of the Hacienda Chichén, which had been taken over by the Carnegie Institution.
In 1944, Barbachano Peon purchased all of the Hacienda Chichén, including Chichen Itza, from the heirs of Edward Thompson. Around that same time the Carnegie completed its work at Chichen Itza and abandoned the Hacienda Chichén, which Barbachano turned into another seasonal hotel.
In 1972, Mexico enacted the Ley Federal Sobre Monumentos y Zonas Arqueológicas, Artísticas e Históricas (Federal Law over Monuments and Archeological, Artistic and Historic Sites) that put all the nation's pre-Columbian monuments, including those at Chichen Itza, under federal ownership. There were now hundreds, if not thousands of visitors every year to Chichen Itza and more were expected with the development of Cancún resort area to the east.
In the 1980s, Chichen Itza began to receive an influx of visitors on the day of the spring equinox. Today several thousand show up to see the light-and-shadow effect on the Temple of Kukulcan in which the feathered serpent god supposedly can be seen to crawl down the side of the pyramid.
Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the second most visited of Mexico's archaeological sites. The archaeological site draws many visitors from the popular tourist resort of Cancún, who make a day trip on tourist buses. In 2007, Chichen Itza's El Castillo was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World after a worldwide vote. Despite the fact that the vote was sponsored by a commercial enterprise and that its methodology was criticized, the vote was embraced by government and tourism officials in Mexico who projected that as a result of the publicity the number of tourists expected to visit would double by 2012.
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which manages the site, has been closing monuments to public access. While visitors can walk around them, they can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers. The most recent was El Castillo, which was closed after a woman from San Diego, California, fell to her death in 2006.
All links retrieved February 10, 2017.
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