Chichen Itza: 3 of the Iconic City’s Greatest Mysteries
Spotlight on the Maya Part 2 of 5
The iconic Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was the last major city developed by the Mayans – and was once home to over 30,000 people.
For nine centuries, Chichen Itza was one of Mexico’s grandest cities. It was a political, economic and religious center that covered six square miles with 30 major buildings, including several temples that have been uncovered and restored. Others still lie buried in the jungle.
This must-see ancient city features an incredible collection of columns, bas-reliefs, sculptures, stone murals, pictographs, monuments, statues and warrior images that have earned it the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
Here are three unsolved mysteries surrounding Chichen Itza:
1. How were they capable of architecture this advanced?
Chichen Itza is dominated by gray limestone that was cut by hand and moved without any wheels. But they are not just any slabs of limestone.
The precision and accuracy as well as the sophistication is what alarms historians.
The most recognizable structure is the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, or the Castle. That name came from the Spanish and it is a four-sided stone pyramid that serves as a calendar honoring the feathered serpent deity.
The seven-story step pyramid demonstrates the accuracy and importance of Mayan astronomy. It dominates the main open-air esplanade at Chichen Itza, encircled by other important buildings.
The temple is only 79 feet high, but it appears much taller because the side panels get smaller as they slope up the platform atop the pyramid. It is 190 feet on each side and there are steps on all four sides.
The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year. Each of the temple’s four sides has 91 steps and the top platform makes the 365th step.
It also features 52 carved panels and 18 terraces, the number of weeks and months in a Mayan calendar year.
Twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually align with a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase.
2. Did they really use ballgames to settle wars?
Not far from the temple is another of Chichen Itza’s other great buildings: the I-shaped Great Ball Court, the largest blood-sport stadium built in the Americas. It also features some of the most ornate carvings, structures and inscriptions.
Ball courts to play the soccer-like game known as pok-ta-pok were common in Mayan culture, and about a dozen small ones have been found in Chichen Itza. This one is the largest. It is bigger than a football field, 554 feet long and 231 feet wide. The walls are 27 feet high on the two sides.
By its size, some believe that the Great Ball Court held games considered to be sacred events. These games were most likely religious rituals used to settle wars and disputes – and some theories even point to human sacrifice as a major part of the tradition, with severed heads being used as balls!
3. How did they learn astronomy this advanced?
The Mayans’ astronomical skills were so advanced that they could predict solar eclipses – a skill demonstrated at the sophisticated Observatory or El Caracol (the Snail) with its circular stairway.
The Caracol featured small loopholes that faced key astronomical events in the night sky. Venus was known as Chak Ek or the Great Star. It guided many Mayan activities including war.
When observed alongside the many carvings and inscriptions depicting spaceships and extraterrestrial visitors, it’s only fair to wonder – did the Mayans gain this skill alone, or did they have help?