Chichen Itza Facts
When people hear about the Mayans, it’s likely that the ruins come to mind that belongs to the ancient city of Chichen Itza. At its height, the city served as a home to its people, a massive marketplace, and a center of religion. Even today, with the city lying in ruins, it still stands as a testament to the glory of the ancient Mayan civilization. Learn more with these 40 Chichen Itza facts.
- The city center of Chichen Itza covers an area of at least 5 km².
- Archaeologists believed that up to 50,000 people once lived in the city.
- Archaeologists have also discovered over 20 building complexes in the city
- 75 different roadways connect the building complexes to each other.
- Over 2 million tourists visit Chichen Itza’s ruins today.
- The Mayans first settled Chichen Itza’s site between 750 AD and 900 AD.
- Chichen Itza became a regional capital in its area in the 10th century.
- The city began to decline during the 12th century.
- The Mayan kingdom of Mayapan conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century.
- Montejo the Younger led Spanish conquistadores to Chichen Itza in 1543.
- In 1544, the Mayans managed to force a Spanish retreat from the city.
- The Spaniards later retook the city and turned it into a cattle ranch by 1588.
- Proper archaeological work in the city began in the late 19th century.
- Tourists also began visiting the city during that time.
- UNESCO later declared Chichen Itza as a World Heritage Site in 1988.
- Chichen Itza has the reputation as the second-most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
- The Temple of Kukulkan, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, stands in Chichen Itza.
- The state government of Yucatan owns the site where Chichen Itza stands.
- The ruins themselves, however, count as property of the Mexican federal government.
- An asteroid shares its name with the city, 100456 Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza’s name has a story of its own.
Chichen comes from two Mayan words, chi’, meaning mouth or edge, and either ch’en or ch’e’en, both of which mean a well. Itza itself may refer to the Mayan culture which lived in the region and which built the city. Alternatively, however, Itza could also have come from two Mayan words, its or itz, meaning sorcerer, and ha, meaning water. Put together, Itza would thus mean enchanter or enchantment of the water. And together, the name Chichen Itza would mean at the mouth of the Itza’s well.
Several sinkholes lie around Chichen Itza.
This resulted from the fact that limestone makes up most of the region the city stands on, the Yucatan Peninsula. Limestone easily absorbs and lets water pass through, meaning all of the region’s rivers and streams flow underground. As water passes through the limestone, it dissolves part of the rock and carries it away. Over time, this causes cavities to open up inside the limestone until the ceiling gets too weak to hold up its own weight. It then collapses, forming a sinkhole.
While this makes building infrastructure in the region somewhat risky, sinkholes also gave the Mayans an advantage. Specifically, it allowed them easy access to underground water supplies, making life much easier for them. In fact, archaeologists think the presence of at least four sinkholes in the area convinced the Mayans to build Chichen Itza there in the first place.
The Sacred Cenote makes up one of those sinkholes.
Cenote literally means sinkhole in Mayan languages, though, usually only used to refer to sinkholes in their ancestral lands. The Sacred Cenote refers to the biggest and deepest sinkhole in Chichen Itza, measuring 60 meters across and 27 meters deep. The Mayans liked to build near cenotes for easy access to water. Otherwise, they would have had to build massive dams and reservoirs to collect rainwater, as they had no way to tell where to drill wells to reach the underground rivers. The importance of cenotes to their people, as well as the scale of the Sacred Cenote, led them to dedicate it to the rain god Chaac. This, in turn, led to its alternative names in English, that of Sacred Well, and the Well of Sacrifice.
Like other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans performed human sacrifice. In Chichen Itza and the Sacred Cenote, archaeologists have discovered plenty of human remains. Together with offerings of gold, jade, obsidian, shells, wood, and cloth, it all points to offerings getting directly thrown into the cenote in Chaac’s honor. The study of the human remains points to the victims coming from both genders, with ages that ranged from 6 to 12.
People have actually dived into the Sacred Cenote.
Archaeologist Edward Thompson made the first dive in 1909. This took place five years after he began his first studies into the Sacred Cenote. He had previously discovered human remains and other offerings, giving evidence to the site’s religious importance. Now, he wanted to see for himself what lay in the cenote. He did so with the help of two experienced divers from the Bahamas. According to Thompson, the dives proved difficult because of the murky water, while the rocky walls of the cenote made it dangerous. Eventually, however, he reached the bottom, which he found coated with a blue pigment.
Scientists have since wondered if the Mayans had deliberately poured the pigment into the water, and let it settle. This comes from the fact that the Mayans associated the color blue with divinity, as the colors of both the sky and water. In addition to the blue-colored bottom, Thompson also noted even more unrecovered artifacts during his dives. He later described the experience proudly, as having personally walked the bottom of the cenote.
The city’s politics remain controversial among scientists to this day.
Up until the 1980s, scientists believed that Chichen Itza had a unique status among Mayan cities. Specifically, it didn’t have a single king born into a dynasty ruling the city, with the city instead ruled by a council of aristocratic elites from several different families. In the decades since, however, scientists have begun questioning if not outright rejecting this hypothesis. They argue that it comes from mere conjecture, on the apparent multicultural background of the city, but lacks actual evidence. Instead, most scientists now think that Chichen Itza wasn’t especially different politically from other Mayan cities at the time.
The city enjoyed a booming economy at its height.
Chichen Itza had an excellent port to its north, Isla Cerritos, which gave the city easy access to the seaborne trade around the Yucatan Peninsula. Goods from the sea would pass through the city before heading further inland. Similarly, goods from the peninsula’s interior would pass through the city before heading to Isla Cerritos, and then to other ports. This made the city a major trading hub during the height of its power, with access to goods like gold from Southern Central America, and obsidian from Central Mexico.
Ownership of the city’s ruins became an issue over the past century.
Under the Spaniards, Chichen Itza changed from a city into a cattle ranch, called Hacienda Chichen. It helped that by the time they took the city, it had fallen from its glory days, with only the most important sites still maintained. Most of the city had become ruins, and with the Spaniards ending the native religion, the rest of the city also fell into ruins. In the 1890s, archaeologist Edward Thompson bought the Hacienda Chichen, which allowed him to make extensive studies of the Mayan ruins there.
The controversy began in 1926, during the chaotic years of the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican government charged Thompson with illegally excavating the ruins and stealing the artifacts he found. They then seized the property, only to return it in 1944 after the revolution, with the Mexican judiciary founding Thompson in the right. Unfortunately, Thompson had died in 1935, and so his family sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Peon. Peon’s family would own the land until 2010 when the Yucatan state government bought it from them.
The city features many different architectural styles.
Scientists think this resulted from the city’s importance as a trading hub in its early days. This meant more than just Mayans visited or even stayed in the city, and influenced its tastes and styles for art and architecture. Later on, even as the city’s economic importance failed, its religious sites remained important. This, in turn, continued to draw pilgrims from various cultures to the city.
El Castillo makes up the most important building in Chichen Itza.
Located on the city’s northern platform, El Castillo also goes by the name of the Temple of Kukulkan. Kukulcan referred to the feathered serpent god common to Mesoamerican cultures, most famously known by his Aztec name, Quetzalcoatl. Like his Aztec counterpart, Kukulcan taught humans how to farm, and ruled over the sky and the wind. A pyramid standing 60 meters high forms the temple, while its base measures 55 meters on each side, for a total area of 3,025 square meters.
Stairways run up each of the pyramid’s four sides, each with 91 steps, for a total of 394 steps. The temple proper on top of the pyramid actually counts as the final step to reach the god’s sanctuary. This gives a final total of 365 steps, equal to the days in a solar year, deliberately built into the temple by the Mayans. In addition to the numerological importance of the steps, the Mayans also built the temple to fit into the spring and autumn equinoxes. Specifically, on those days, light and shadows gave the impression of a snake crawling down the temple’s sides.
Scientists have since explored El Castillo’s interior.
They first entered the pyramid in 1924 and discovered it built on top of a smaller and older pyramid. They also discovered a fifth sinkhole under the pyramids, and that the Mayans built them on top of the sinkhole for religious reasons. Then in 1935, they found a chac mool statue, which symbolized a human sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, they soon found what scientists called the Chamber of Sacrifices, filled with human remains. Nearby, they also found the Hall of Offerings, which included obsidian and turquoise, among others.
Later, the scientists also found a throne room, with a jaguar-shaped throne painted in red. The Mayans associated the color with life and death, which led scientists to think the jaguar throne had religious, rather than political, symbolism. In particular, they think it may have involved ceremonies closing the older pyramid before they built the newer 1 on top.
The Mayans aligned El Castillo to the Sun.
The western side of the temple aligns to the zenith sunset, and the easter side to the nadir sunrise. This led scientists to think the Mayans built the temple to coincide with traditional planting and harvesting seasons. The north face of the temple also has a deliberate position so the sunsets on May 20 and July 24 fall on it. Scientists think this, too, may have practical or religious purposes.
Chichen Itza also has many ball courts.
Like other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans practiced the Mesoamerican ball sport. Players would toss rubber balls to each other using only their hips and arms, and then try to get it through a vertically inclined hoop on a wall. Ball games took place on religious feast days and other important events, with the victors receiving the honor of becoming sacrifices to the gods. Chichen Itza has 13 ball courts thus far discovered, with the Great Ball Court having the distinction of the biggest thus far discovered. Located 150 meters northwest of the Temple of Kukulcan, it covers an area of 11,760 m².
The Mayans may also have dedicated the Great Ball Court to Kukulcan. This comes from the serpent motifs of the hoops, as well as how the bloodstreams shown on sacrificial murals on the walls transform into snakes. The Great Ball Court also includes the Temples of the Jaguar, one overlooking, and another behind the court. The Temple of the Bearded Man, named after a carving of a bearded man inside, also stands on the northern side of the court. Another temple may have stood on the court’s southern side, but now lies in ruins.
The Tzompantli also makes up one of Chichen Itza’s important sites.
Tzompantli literally means skull platform, and most visibly shows Toltec or even Aztec influence on Chichen Itza’s culture. Functionally, they served as skull racks, storing the skulls of humans sacrificed to the gods. Chichen Itza’s Tzompantli doesn’t actually have skulls, with archaeologists thinking that unlike the Aztecs, the Mayans didn’t keep skulls in the Tzompantli indefinitely. Instead, they only arranged them, impaled vertically on top of each other, during the religious or other sacrificial occasions, and removed the skulls afterward.
The same goes for the Temple of the Warriors.
The temple’s style matches that used in the Toltec capital city of Tula, specifically rows of free-standing columns carved to look like warriors. They stand in front of and to the sides of the temple, which itself takes the form of a stepped pyramid. The temple’s insides have murals depicting battle scenes, and in a few cases, may even point to possible contacts with Viking sailors.
The Temple of the Warriors also includes the Group of a Thousand Columns, again, made up of columns carved to look like warriors. These columns, though, didn’t originally stand in the open but held up the roof of a structure to the south of the temple. A chac mool sits among the columns, to the south of which stands the Temple of the Carved Columns. There, more carved columns stand inside, along with an altar and another chac mool.
The Mayans studied the sky from El Caracol.
El Caracol literally means “the snail” in Spanish, which refers to the spiraling staircase inside the building. Archaeologists think the building served as an observatory for the Mayans, based on how the building seemed to match astronomic cycles. For instance, sightlines on El Caracol seemed oriented to where Venus would rise and set at various times in a year. Other sightlines have similar orientations, such as for eclipses, the equinoxes, the solstices, etc.
Akab Dzib also lies in Chichen Itza.
Standing to the east of El Caracol, the name comes from the Mayan language, and literally means Dark or Mysterious Writing. This refers to a room on the southern side of the building, the walls of which feature non-Mayan glyphs and which remain a mystery to scientists today. Akab Dzib also overlooks a dry cenote to the east, and apparently served as the residence for one of Chichen Itza’s administrators, Yahawal Cho’ K’ak’.
The Osario group makes up another important complex of buildings in Chichen Itza.
There’s the Osario, also called the High Priests’ Temple, based on how archaeologists found several bodies inside in the 19th century. At the time, this led them to think that the temple served as a tomb, but modern-day scientists believed that the temple served another purpose. Then there’s the Temple of the Iguana, which is located just outside the Osario, as well as the Platform of the Tombs. The Houses of the Metates and the Mestizas also stand here, and which scientists believe served as guest houses for VIPs.
The city also has many other important buildings.
These include the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars after the animals carved eating human hearts on its sides. There’s also the Platform of Venus, dedicated to the planet of the same name. Then there’s the Temple of Tables, located to the east of the Temple of Kukulcan, named after the many altars on its peak, each held up by statues of men. There’s also the Steam Bath, which actually includes a waiting gallery, water bath, and steam chamber, which scientists also think has used hot stones to operate properly. Chichen Itza also has an elaborate roadway leading to the Sacred Cenote, running for 270 meters across the city.
The Balankanche also lies not far from Chichen Itza.
The Balankanche makes up a series of caves around 4 km southeast of Chichen Itza. Idols dedicated to Chaac rest inside the caves, along with his Toltec and Aztec counterpart, Tlaloc. In addition to the idols, altars and ritual implements also rest inside the caves. The Mayans also built walls and stairways for safer and easier access by pilgrims to the cave interiors. Shrines and small temples also stand around the outside of the caves, in particular, around its entrance.
Tourists have recently faced restrictions at Chichen Itza.
Tourists could once climb up the pyramids at Chichen Itza and even go inside the ones opened up by archaeologists. That changed in 2006, however, when a woman climbing El Castillo slipped and fell to her death. Ever since then, tourists can only walk around the ground level of the city’s ruins, with the insides and upper levels off-limits.