The Location of Chichen Itza
- Approximately 25 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of the city of Merida stand the ruins of Chichen Itza, the most famous of the Maya archaeological sites in the state of Yucatan.
- Contrary to popular belief, the Maya were not an empire but a collection of autonomous city-states in frequent communication with other city-states in their region.
- Chichen Itza and numerous other important Maya temple-cities were positioned according to a regional sacred geography.
- The Maya practiced sacred geography on a large regional scale by the placement of their temple-cities at specific sites that mirrored the positions of various celestial objects observed in the night sky.
Who built Chichen Itza?
- The Maya were an ancient civilization of southern Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras Belize and El Salvador. Today there are an estimated 6 million Maya living in these regions and speaking a variety of Maya languages.
- During the first millennium AD the Maya keenly observed and mapped the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. These celestial objects were incorporated into a complex cosmology and mythology that explained the past and predicted the future.
- The Maya developed a brilliant mathematical system, the only true writing system known in the Americas, and a series of three precise and interrelating calendars.
- The Maya are famous for their grand temple-cities of Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Tikal and Copan, as well as many others. Some of these temple-cities have been excavated and reconstructed by archaeologists while many others are still in their unexcavated state.
- The Maya built their sophisticated and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories apparently without the use the wheel. While no physical evidence has yet been found of the Mayan use of large wheels for transportation purposes numerous toys have been discovered that do have wheels, therefore it cannot be categorically stated that the Maya did not use larger wheels.
- The Maya were highly skilled potters, weavers, sculptors and jewelers. They developed an extensive trade network through the jungles and along the eastern and western coasts of Yucatan and Central America. Through these trade networks they were able to obtain resources from distant areas such as obsidian from central Mexico and gold from Central America.
- Because no metal cutting tools have thus far been found at any of the Maya ruins it has been generally assumed that the Maya did not use such tools. However, archaeological opinion has shifted during the past few decades regarding this matter. There are several reasons why. One is the intricacy of Maya jewelry, which would have required the smelting and mixing of different metals as well as the use of metal tools, probably bronze, for fashioning the jewelry.
- Even though no archaeological finds have confirmed that the Maya had bronze tools, it is highly unlikely that during the many centuries the Maya smelted copper in crucibles, they would not have discovered that adding a small amount of tin would produce hard bronze for their tools.
- Use of metal is also indicated by the boat-making technology of the seafaring Chontal Maya. These people, who lived in the coastal regions of northern, western and eastern Yucatan, are known to have built large canoes with which they sailed throughout the Caribbean Islands, along the Mexican coasts and to southern Florida. The precision craftsmanship evident in these canoes - known from eyewitness accounts by early Spanish explorers - could only have been done with metal cutting tools.
- Besides their ability to construct boats the Mayan accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy enabled them to develop a sophisticated method of celestial navigation for their overseas voyages.
When was Chichen Itza built?
- Proto-Mayan tribes had inhabited the flat limestone plateau that makes up much of the Yucatan peninsula for at least 8000 years.
- Archaeologists believe that the site where the temple-city of Chichen Itza would later be built was already an important pilgrimage place in the first millennium B.C.
- As a Maya social center, Chichen Itza began its rise to prominence with the arrival of a seafaring people in the eighth century. Called the Itza by archaeologists, these merchant warriors had first colonized the northern coastal areas of the Yucatan peninsula and then ventured inland. One of their first major settlement sites was in the vicinity of two large, natural sinkholes, called cenotes that provided plentiful and pure water throughout the year. Their city became known as Chichen Itza, which means "Mouth of the Well of the Itza". From this site, the Itza Maya rapidly became the rulers of much of the Yucatan peninsula.
- Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of what is called the Early Classic period, or approximately 600 AD. 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.
- During the Central Phase of the Classic Period (625 - 800 A.D.) the arts and sciences flourished. It was at this time that Chichen-Itza became a religious center of increasing importance and many of its greatest buildings were constructed.
- Toward the end of the Classic Period, from 800 to 925 A.D., the foundations of this magnificent civilization weakened, and the Maya left many of their major religious centers and the rural land around them. New, smaller centers were built and the great cities like Chichen-Itza were mostly visited only to perform religious rites or bury the dead. The Itza people abandoned their city by the end of the 8th century A.D. and lived on the west coast of the peninsula for about 250 years. However, by the 10th century A.D. they returned to Chichen-Itza.
- Some ethnohistoric sources claim that in about 987 a Toltec king named Quetzalcoatl left the city of Tula in central Mexico and came to Chichen Itza with a large army. With the help of local Maya allies he captured the city and made it his new capital. While some archaeology and history books still ascribe to this claim, it is now known that the Maya occupied Chichen Itza continuously. The Toltec influences found in the art and architecture of certain areas of the great city were the result of the patronage of a cosmopolitan nobility involved in trade with the Toltecs and other Mesoamerican peoples.
- Around 1000 A.D. the Itza allied themselves with other powerful regional tribes and this alliance was favorable to the Itza for about two centuries. During this time, the people of Chichen-Itza added to the site by constructing magnificent buildings bearing the touch of Toltec art: porches, galleries, colonnades and carvings depicting serpents, birds and Mexican gods.
- In 1194, the city of Mayapan broke the alliance and subdued Chichen Itza. The city was gradually abandoned. The Maya chronicles record that in 1221 a revolt and civil war broke out, and archaeological 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 Yucatan shifted to Mayapan.
- This long-held chronology, however, has been revised in recent years. As 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 AD 1000.
While Chichen Itza 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 Yucatan, but after a few months a native Maya revolt drove Montejo and his forces from the land.