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Chichen Itza Pyramid
El Castillo - the Step Pyramid of Chichen Itza Dedicated to Kukulkan
Chichen Itza is an ancient city built by the Mayan civilization. Dominating the center of Chichen Itza is the pyramid commonly known as "El Castillo" (the castle).
This step pyramid (yes it has lots of steps to climb!) was dedicated to Kukulkan (the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity whose name means "feather-serpent"). It is a square based pyramid that has stairs going up each of the four sides to Kukulkan's Temple on the top. It was designed so that, at the equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent that slithers down the northern side of the pyramid to the serpent's head at the base. Cool but somewhat creepy I think!
Who Built this Pyramid at Chichen Itza?
Chichen Itza was built by the Mayan people. They were a Mesoamerican civilization and are noted for having the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas. The art, architecture, and sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems of the Mayan culture are amazing, especially considering the age in which they were developed - at least 3,000 to 4,000 years ago!
Mayan culture was established in the period from around 2000 B.C.E. to 250 C.E. Mayan cities, like Chichen Itza, located in the northern center of what is now the Yucatan state of Mexico, reached their highest state of development during the period from around 250 C.E. to 900 C.E. and continued their dominance until the arrival of the Spanish. Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence approximately 600 C.E. and declined between 1000 and 1200 C.E., with rulership over the Yucatan shifting to Mayapan.
The Maya who built Chichen Itza were much influenced by the more Northerly Toltec culture, as shown by the presence of Chac Mool statues. Chac Mools are statues of a human figure in a reclining position, holding a tray over the stomach and with the head turned to one side. The purpose of the tray is unknown, although speculated to be related to sacrifices.
As wonderful as the Maya probably were, it is undeniable that they were also rather bloodthirsty. They were apparently into sacrifices in a big way, most likely including human sacrifices, which is one of the purposes of their pyramids. I think some of their art is a bit weird too - that's a lot of skulls carved into the walls!
Anyway, one of the things the Mayan people did rather spectacularly was to build pyramids. These are not really like the Egyptian pyramids, like the Great Pyramids of Giza, but are intricately carved stone pyramids featuring stairs on the outside. Chichen Itza has one of the most famous Mayan step pyramids, known today as "El Castillo," the castle.
Great Book on the Chichen Itza Pyramid
The mysterious Chichen Itza pyramid has a profound effect on everyone who visits. If you're a traveler going to the Chichen Itza pyramid, you'll want this excellent guide. If you've already experienced the pyramid's power, you'll treasure this unique memento of your journey.
Climbing the Pyramid is a charming account of the site that contains information and insights into the mystery and history of the pyramid according to Maya shamans and archeologists. The 135 stunning black and white photos almost give you the experience of being on the pyramid yourself.
Chichen Itza Pyramid - El Castillo
The Mayan people often placed their most important religious temples at the top of their towering pyramids, as in the Chichen Itza pyramid. Presumably the top of the pyramid was viewed appropriate for worship, being the closest place to the heavens.
The temple atop the step pyramid at Chichen Itza is known today as "El Castillo" since it clearly resembles a castle. From its imposing location, dominating the center of Chichen Itza, this step pyramid has a square base and stairways up a series of terraces to the Temple of Kukulkan (the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl) at the top, a height of about 75 feet.
The pyramid is constructed with a series of nine terraces, and four stairways of 91 steps each. The total number of stairs is thus 364 plus an extra one to enter the temple at the top, a total of 365. Remembering that the Maya were into astronomy and calendars, this is obviously related to the number of days in the year!
Who Is this Kukulkan the Chichen Itza Pyramid is Dedicated to?
Kukulkan is the "Feathered serpent," a god in Mayan mythology, more well-known by his Aztec name Quetzalcoatl. For the Mayans, the serpent was a very important social and religious symbol. The shedding of the serpent's skin made it a symbol of rebirth and renewal.
The "Vision Serpent" was the most important of the Mayan serpents. For them, the Vision Serpent was a direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world of men. Participants in special rituals would experience visions in which they communicated with the gods who emerged from the serpent's mouth. Kukulkan has been identified as the Vision Serpent of Classic Maya art.
Serpent's Head at Bottom of Great Pyramid, Chichen Itza
The cult of Kukulkan was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend linguistic and ethnic divisions, facilitating communication and peaceful trade. This cult originated in the ancient city of Chichen Itza where Kukulkan's temple sits atop a great pyramid.
Chichen Itza doesn't just have a temple on top of a pyramid dedicated to this Kukulkan. There is also the Great Ball Court, the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. The imposing walls are almost 40 feet (12 meters) high and in the center, high up on each of the long walls, are rings carved with intertwining serpents and other figures.
But the great ball court at Chichen Itza was not built just for playing the great Mesoamerican ballgame. There was also the Mayan prophecy that on December 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkan would rise up from the ground beneath it and this would signify the end of the world. I guess that didn't happen, or at least no-one saw Kukulkan, but if you head for Chichen Itza and Kukulkan's pyramid you might want to keep an eye out for strange happenings!
The pyramid is designed so that, at the equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a serpentine looking shadow that slithers down the northern side of the pyramid to the serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Pretty clever!
The Chichen Itza Pyramid El Castillo Today - Still Impressive!
So the archaeological site of Chichen Itza is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the buildings have been restored or at least preserved. And its open to tourists, which is great!
Ancient Mayan Ruins, Chichen Itza, Mexico
So, El Castillo looks pretty good today although not as splendid as it no doubt was in its heyday. But with a bit of atmospheric weather I think it's quite an impressive sight!
On a nice sunny day looks like a nice little climb to get a good view doesn't it?
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Watch out though, those steps are really steep!
Climbing up looks pretty hard but going back down is even more scary!
In fact, a woman fell to her death from the pyramid in 2006, causing the authorities to prohibit tourists from climbing the steps to the top.
More about Chichen Itza
© 2009 Jennifer P Tanabe