Chichen Itsa -- the great Maya civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula

El Castillo, The Castle, the great pyramid at Chichen Itza.
El Castillo, The Castle, the great pyramid at Chichen Itza. | Source
Carving of an ancient Maya mask.
Carving of an ancient Maya mask. | Source
In the upper right hand corner are the hieroglyphics of the ancient Maya writing system.
In the upper right hand corner are the hieroglyphics of the ancient Maya writing system. | Source
Actress Eva Longoria who is of Spanish and Maya descent.
Actress Eva Longoria who is of Spanish and Maya descent. | Source

Maya Civilization

One of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere was the great ancient Maya civilization that was located in southern Mexico and northern Central America. It comprised the areas today known as Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras as well as the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Chiapas. This great civilization ran from 250-1500 AD, and Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic Period (250-900 AD) and continued to flourish in the northern Yucatan Peninsula until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

Here a great native American people flourished in city-states and developed a social class system which was well-ordered and carried on trade throughout a network of cities that went as far south as Panama and as far north as central Mexico. These Maya people were mathematicians and their number system included the concept of zero - an idea unknown to the great Greek civilization.

The Maya used their mathematical knowledge along with celestial observations to refine and improved a calendar originally created by the Olmec. They created monuments to observe and commemorate movements of the moon, sun and Venus. They made paper from tree bark and wrote in books made from this paper, known as codices, four of which are known to have survived to today.

This Maya civilization was so advanced they created their own writing system, epigraphy, and the calendar which did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed it. They are believed to have had the first writing system, hieroglyphics, in the Americas.

The Maya believed in a cyclical nature of time. Their religious rituals and ceremonies are closely associated with celestial and terrestrial cycles which they observed and inscribed as separate calendars. The job of the Maya priest was to interpret these cycles and to predict the future. He also had to determine if the heavens were positioned correctly for performing certain religious ceremonies.

The Maya religious tradition is still not understood completely by scholars. They do know that the Mayas believed the cosmos had three major planes: the Earth; the underworld beneath; and the heavens above.

They practiced human sacrifice to their polytheistic gods and during sacrifice would cut out the heart of a human being to offer to the gods. Historians have found these sacrifices depicted in the Maya codices that have survived. Their central religious god was the maize god and the life cycles of maize was at the heart of the Maya religious belief.

Today, the Maya still thrive and flourish in southern Mexico and northern Central America. They share a cultural and linguistic heritage and have integrated into a majority of mestizo cultures here. Approximately seven million Maya are living in this area today and they speak a native language called Yucatec Maya with Spanish spoken as a second or a first language.

The Feathered Serpent on the side of the pyramid steps of El Castillo.
The Feathered Serpent on the side of the pyramid steps of El Castillo. | Source
Map of the ruins at Chichen  Itza today.
Map of the ruins at Chichen Itza today. | Source
Cenote Sagrada at Chichen Itza.
Cenote Sagrada at Chichen Itza. | Source
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza where the Maya people played their own form of basketball.
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza where the Maya people played their own form of basketball. | Source
The stone ring in the Great Ball Court which the ball was 'thrown' through to make a score.
The stone ring in the Great Ball Court which the ball was 'thrown' through to make a score. | Source

What to see at Chichen Itza

  • El Castillo (The Castle)
  • The Great Ball Court
  • Tzompanti
  • Cenote Sagrado
  • Temple of the Warriors
  • Temple of the Table
  • Thousand Columns
  • El Mercado (The Market)
  • El Carocol (The Observatory)

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was a pre-Columbian city built by the Maya civilization during the Post-Classic Period from the 10th-16th century during the time when the Maya civilization flourished. It was developed and located in the northern Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Today the archaeological site is located in the municipality of Tinum in the Mexican state of Yucatan, between Valladoid and Merida.

The name, Chichen Itza, comes from from the Yucatec Maya language and it means 'at the mouth of the well of the Itza.' This is because the Yucatan Peninsula was an arid climate and the rivers in the interior run underground into two large cenotes - two large natural sink holes that provided water year round for the Maya citizens. The Cenote Sagrado is the most famous of the two wells. The pre-Columbian Maya made human sacrifices to the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god, Chaac. From ancient Maya times to today, this cenote has been a destination of pilgrimage for the Maya people.

The great dominating edifice at Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan, a Maya feathered serpent deity, better known as El Castillo. (The Castle) This is one of their religious buildings and is a step pyramid that stands thirty metres (98 ft.) high and has a series of nine square terraces. Four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of forty-five degrees. At the base of the stairways of the northeastern staircase on each side are carved heads of a serpent.

On the spring and autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the west balustrade on the northern side and gives the appearance of a serpent wiggling down the staircase. The ancient Maya were known for their great celestial knowledge and understood the concept of the cyclical nature and time.

The large platform at the top of the pyramid was used for human sacrifices to the gods the ancient Maya people worshiped, and to be chosen as a human sacrifice was a great honor. Those chosen by the Maya priests for sacrifice were usually young virgin girls of noble birth.

Not all the buildings on the Great North Platform are pyramids and temples. The ancient Maya people also built the Great Ball Court which was their version of a sports stadium built for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, a form of basketball, at Chichen Itza. It is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. The side walls are very high and set up in the center of each of these walls are stone rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents.

The game is played with a hard rubber ball that is painstakingly made from raw rubber from the rubber trees in the rain forests that surrounded Chichen Itza. The players were not permitted to touch the ball with their hands or feet. They moved and bounced the ball off their hips to put it through the stone rings. Each time a team bounced the ball through the stone ring they scored points. Sometimes these games were played just for recreation and fun, but at times, the games were used to determine who would be the human sacrifice at the top of El Castillo. Usually, the player chosen for the sacrifice came from the winning team and again it was considered an honor to be chosen.

Also included at the archaeological site is the Temple of Warriors, a large steeped pyramid with rows of carved columns depicting warriors of the Maya people. Also, included is the Group of a Thousand Columns and an altar with the rain god, Chaac Moal.

El Mercado (The Market) is a large gallery and patio believed to have been more ceremonial than commercial.

Because the Maya people were such knowledgeable astrologists, El Caracol (The Snail), is believed by archaeologists to have been an observatory to view the stars and planets in the heavens. It is a round building on a large square platform. The round observatory is unusual in Maya architecture as they usually built their structures in rectangular and pyramid shapes. The name. El Caracol, comes from the stone spiral staircase inside. It is believed to have been a proto -observatory because the doors and windows are aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus in the sky.

The ancient Maya civilization city of Chichen Itza is a marvel of construction and knowledge and attests to the great intelligence of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rain forest green. There are several theories as to why the great Maya cities disappeared when they did but that is for another article.

Today, the ruins at Chichen Itza are one of the most viewed ot the ancient Maya city sites with well over a million visitors each year. Its proximity to Cancun and Cozumel, two beautiful beach resorts on the Yucatan Peninsula, make a visit to Chichen Itza a great day excursion to see one of the great "wonders of the world."

El Caracol (The Snail) a proto-observatory at Chichen Itza.
El Caracol (The Snail) a proto-observatory at Chichen Itza. | Source
Thousand Columns at The Temple of the Warriors in Chichen Itza.
Thousand Columns at The Temple of the Warriors in Chichen Itza. | Source
Excavations at Chichen Itza are continuing   today and are on going to learn as much as possible about the ancient Maya civilization and this great city.
Excavations at Chichen Itza are continuing today and are on going to learn as much as possible about the ancient Maya civilization and this great city. | Source

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Comments 21 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Very good job on this one Suzette. Thankfully I can say that I knew this stuff; as a history teacher it would be sad if I didn't, right?

Fascinating culture for sure; you covered it well.

Have a great Sunday my friend!

bill


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I always wanted and still dream to visit this place. Thank you for this virtual tour!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Exceptional tour and write as always. Arlene and I had a great all around experience visiting Chichen Itsa.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Thank you, Suzette, for another fascinating look at the Mayan culture. I've always been amazed at their mathematical and engineering abilities that allowed them to create the architectural wonders that still exist today. I wasn't aware of their primitive religious beliefs based predominantly on nature, complete with human sacrifices.

When I first got laid off, I started looking at Belize as a cheaper yet appealing place to live. International Living describes Belize with a slower paced lifestyle, and a diverse landscape with protected rainforests, beautiful beaches, temperate weather on a barrier island that sees few hurricanes, and remnants of a Mayan civilization. Maybe someday...

Once again, my friend, for your teacher stripes are shining in this interesting article than peaks my interest to learn more. I'm sitting in the front row of your classroom with my hand up to ask another question. Oh, that I'd had more teachers like you!


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

A wonderful hub and I vote up plus share.

Eddy.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks Eddy, and thank you for the share. Cheers to you in Wales!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks, Bill. I'm glad you enjoyed this and I hope it brought back fond memories for you. I used to teach about this in my Spanish classes. Thanks again for the visit!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Pavlo: I bet you will get there someday! It is a wonderful place to visit - so full of history and culture. The Maya were a fascinating people and still are today. Thanks so much for the visit and I'm glad you enjoyed my 'tour.'


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

MHatter; So glad you enjoyed reading this and I hope it brought back fond memories for you and Arlene. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this. Take care.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Oh Amy: How I enjoy comments and visits from you! The Maya people are fascinating - today and in ancient times. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I have a feeling you will get to Belize someday and you will see ancient Maya ruins there. They also inhabited that country during their Golden period. This area of Mexico and Central America is amazing and interesting because of the Maya, Aztec and Spanish influence. These are more people from great civilizations rather than just native American indians although they are considered indiginous people. I have been fortunate to travel and it does teach a lot. I know that you will have that opportunity someday also. Thanks so much for your visit. I always enjoy them.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

I enjoyed the journey with you today. I have been to Chichen Itza. It is beautiful and kind of spooky. Thank you for a good read.

James :)


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Quite interesting hub with some good pics on Chichen Itsa. It has been speculated by some that the sacrifices were designed to instill fear into the victims thereby producing the proper energy forces the gods needed as sustenance. The young virgin girls had a particularly pure essence if you will. Their astrological knowledge was really astounding. El Caracol is a good example of a structure built for it. So much with the Mayans is remarkable. Good one Suzette, didn't realize Itza was the most visited.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

This particular geographical location and era holds such high interest. Their structures resemble the pyramids yet there is no link between the two civilization. Mexico in general has such a rich history. You covered a lot of ground here in this short presentation. You are certainly presenting a diverse array of information.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Suzette, great history lesson. Always been interested in the Mayan culture. Great job presenting this and great photos. VU, interesting, etc.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks to the above for reading this. I have been away from HP for a while. I have been substitute teaching in the new year and have not been able to get to all my comments. Thanks so much for supporting my writing because it is much appreciated!


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

Definitely someplace I'd like to see! Thanks for sharing the great info. Voted up and interesting!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

heidithorne: Thanks so much for your visit and reading this. I think the Maya civilization is so interesting. Their culture is amazing to learn about and they were quite advanced for a pre-Columbian people. Thanks so much for your interest.


Emese Fromm profile image

Emese Fromm 23 months ago from The Desert

Great article on the Maya!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 23 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Emese: Thank you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. The Maya civilization was amazing and quite ahead of their time mathmatically and astrologically. Certainly not a boring civilization.


Emese Fromm profile image

Emese Fromm 23 months ago from The Desert

I agree. It certainly is a civilization worth studying. I have been fascinated by their history, I have visited most of their sites (at least the more accessible ones), read most of the books I could find about them and even learned some of their writing at one point, years ago (I am a linguist, couldn't help it). I have known the facts you have written about, but enjoyed reading them again. I appreciated the way you put the information together, very professional.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 23 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Emese: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. It is wonderful that you have actually seen these places. I hope to one day. The Maya history and culture is an interesting one and they were such an intelligent people and way ahead of their time. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this and I am glad it brought back good memories for you.

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