Temple of Kukulcan, Chichén Itzá
at the bottom of the staircase
Templo de Kukulcan
This immense pyramid is rife with calendrical numerology. There are 91 steps on each of the 4 sides. These 364 steps, plus the final step at the top before the altar corresponds to the solar year. The pyramid is terraced into 9 sections divided by a staircase, commemorating the 18 20-month days of another Mayan calendar. Each of the four facades includes 52 panels, which correspond to the 52 year cycle of the Mayan long-count. On the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, a serpent-shaped shadow appears to descend the steps in the form of Kukulcan, (the Mayan version of Quetzalcoatl)
Chichén Itzá -
One of the world's foremost archeological sites, the enormous Chichén Itzá is mind-boggling in a million ways.
It was a city built to intimidate, influence, inspire, and empower- and as such, is not at all unlike the cities we know and live in today. Who knows who it benefited or how each individual related to it, but there is a great deal of civic pride here. The practices carried out here are so alien to what most of us know today, but we can still understand what it is like to exist in a certain time and place, and to define where we are as home, for all better or worse.
It's thinking about the day-to-day that is most poignant. Countless people walked these streets, entered these buildings, each with their own hopes, dreams, and intrigues. Each trying to make sense of the world around them within the society they were brought up in. Each with pleasures, vices, gripes, and shortcomings. Some with imagination that could vault the stars. Some who devoted themselves wholly to the city and society around them, and others who dissented, perhaps quietly, living entire lives under the radar. But all around, surely there were many mornings in which these people may have just simply walked out of their homes and casually gazed at the huge pyramid and surrounding grandeur and just marvelled that humans could be capable of such things.
And what other people shrank back in horror- disgusted by the brutality of humanity?
and how many countless others were simply mortally terrified at the spiritual bloodshed?
We have no real way of knowing whether or not our most cherished modern monuments will someday be ruins themselves, drawing from strangers a similar sense of wonder and mystery, a thousand or two thousand years hence.
The name Chichén Itzá means "at the the well of the Itzá", a reference to the Cenote Sagrado (a huge sinkhole) which provided the water to make this city flourish in the riverless Yucatán.
The city was regionally significant as far back as AD600, during the Classic Period of Mayan history. At that time, however, this was something of a far-off backwater outpost, while the major Classic Period city-states further south, such as Tikal and Palenque, enjoyed being at the very heart of civilization.
The oldest visible remaining architecture here represents the Puuc ("hill" in Mayan) style and was probably built around 900AD. Sometime soon after that time, Chichén Itzá underwent a huge upheaval. This was the end of the Classic Period, when the great civilization of the south was collapsing (for reasons unknown, but probably tied, at least in some way, to overexploitation of the environment).
Chichén Itzá at this chaotic time came under great Toltec influence- the Toltecs had their capital at Tula, in the west, near Mexico City, and were the precursors to the Aztecs. Whether the Toltec influence was via direct invasion or via the Itzá Mayans is still debated. Either way, the city became deeply connected to the ideology of Central Mexico- an ideology which was strongly convinced that the perpetuation of earthly life was only guaranteed by sacrifice to the gods- a bloody, bellicose tradition that is exemplified throughout the newer portions of the city. The very same spectacular architecture that captivates visitors today seems, in some ways, to be desperate expression of a culture in decline....
In short, the older portions of the city demonstrate a deep connection to its Classic Mayan predecessors, via the Puuc tradition; and the newer portions (ca. AD 1000) demonstrate a fractured, and more desperately extreme time, highly swayed by outside forces. I have read that anywhere from 35,000 to 90,000 people lived here at its peak- no matter the figure, a huge number for ancient times.
Turmoil continued into the 1200's, after which point the city finally declined totally, being absorbed by the Spanish in the second half of the 1500's.
August 4, 2010
If you really want to truly appreciate this astounding place, find a way to come early in the morning- i.e. stay in a local town. We arrived at around 9am and had the place to ourselves- in the midday, just as the sun is becoming unbearable, (which is amazingly taxing on the brain, as we dizzily found out) hoards upon hoards of day-trippers arrive on buses, and what is so tranquil in the morning becomes a cattle run. We thankfully managed to stay a few steps ahead of the crowds. Definitely bring a ton of water, and be prepared to bake like you've never baked before in the extreme sun