Latitude 20.684285. Longitude -88.567783. In the north of the Yu-catan Peninsula, Mexico, South America, lie the ancient ruins of the Mayan city of ‘Chichen Itza’ (meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”), which is located in Tinúm Municipality (Yucatan State) some 38 kilometers (24 miles) to the west of Valladolid on the 180 road – just to the southeast of the village of Piste. This remarkable, and quite mysterious site, is a large complex of Mayan temples, halls, strange beast sculptures, human-figure statues (there is a reclining stone figure of Chac Mool at the Temple of the Warriors), and also carved walls, and, in the centre of the court-yard is the stepped pyramid of ‘El Castillo’ (also called the ‘Temple of Kukulkan’). The ruined buildings and temples are thought to date from the Pre-Columbian period 550 AD to 1250 AD and to span three historical Mayan periods: Late Classic, Terminal Classic and Post Classic. Today, this much-visited archaeological site, covering four-square miles, comes under the guardian-ship of ‘The National Institute of Anthropology and History’. Chichen Itza was by far the largest of all the Mayan cities. There are antiquities displayed from Chichen Itza in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.
Wonders Of The World (1930) says of Chichen Itza: “The city, as it stands to-day, consists of a group of six stone buildings which are more or less intact, and the remains of numerous other stone structures in various states of ruin. All authorities agree that these buildings were the palaces of chiefs and officials, temples for the worship of the Maya gods and religious establishments for the housing of the priestly castes, the abodes of the poorer classes being palm-leaf huts, which have long since disappeared, but which in all probability were built in the same manner as the natives erect them to-day.
“The Eyes of Jade: The building which is the most magnificent is, to give it its Spanish name, El Castillo. This is a truncated pyramid faced with solid slabs of stone with a building on top. From the ground-level to the top of the building it is over one hundred feet high, while the base lines of the pyramid are round about two hundred feet each. The four sides all but face the four cardinal points, and on each of them is a gigantic stairway leading to the summit. The main entrance to this building is on the northern side, looking towards the sacrificial pool. The doorway, which has now partly fallen, still bearing traces of its former magnificence. It is twenty feet wide and the lintel was supported by two pillars carved in the pattern of snakes and ending at their bases with enormous, open-mouthed, flattened heads of these reptiles, the now empty eye-sockets being at one time filled with eyes of polished jade.
“The building was erected for the purpose of a temple, and inside the doorway is the Maya Holy of Holies which was used only for the per-formance of the most sacred rites. Whether the ghastly sacrificial acts celebrated on the pyramids of Mexico, in honour of the God of War and the Sun Diety, were enacted in this temple is not known, but it would seem probable that those flattened heads of serpents on the platform of the pyramid served another purpose than that of an ornamental base for the door-pillars. If it was a fact that human sacrifices similar to those performed in Mexico were practiced in Yucatan, then it was on the flattened heads of these serpents that the ceremony of tearing the palpitating heart out of the human sacrificial victim’s body was performed by the Maya priests, and the body, scarcely lifeless, was rolled down the side of the pyramid to be sacramentally eaten by the hundreds of worshippers congregated on the plain below.
“Home of the Rain God: From the northern base of El Castillo a forest path, showing traces here and there of the remains of a cemented roadway, leads to one of the grimmest pools in the world. It is one of the wells, or cenotes, from which Chichen takes its name. An enormous circular basin, two hundred feet in diameter, its sides drop sheer and perpendicular over one hundred feet to its limestone basin. As you stand adventurously on the brink and, clutching the branch of a tree for safety, gaze over its precipitous edge into the black water seventy feet below, you do not wonder that the ancient Maya saw in its sepia depths the home of their Rain God. In a report sent to Madrid from Yucatan, in 1579, the sacrificial ceremony of throwing human victims into the cenote to appease the wrath of the Rain God in times of drought was described, but for centuries there was nothing to verify this tale. In 1906 the dredging of the bottom of the cenote was commenced, and several human skulls and bones were brought to the surface. On closer examination these human remains proved without exception to be those of females of immature age, and this confirmed once and for all the truth of the early Spanish report.
“To the south-west, one hundred and thirty yards from El Castillo, is what is now known as the Tennis Court. Running north and south are two parallel walls twenty-five feet high, thirty feet thick, two hundred and seventy-four feet long and one hundred and twenty feet apart. The court was used for a ball game of which the ancient Maya were very fond. It was played by teams whose object it was to get a ball made of rubber through a hole in a stone disc jutting out from the upper part of the wall.
“The Mayas at Play: One of these big stone discs, measuring all but an inch of four feet in diameter, pierced through its eleven and a half inches of thickness with a hole one foot seven inches in diameter, is still in position. The Spanish historian tells us that the ball was bounced from the hips of the players through the ring, and the winning team had the right to take as their prize all the clothes of the spectators. At each end of the court stand the remains of a small temple, and on the eastern wall at the southern end is a building called the Temple of the Tigers, which gets its name from an elaborately carved frieze design of these animals around the wall coping. On the walls of the interior of this building are the most remarkable Maya paintings that have so far been discovered. They depict the scenes of everyday life as it was lived by the Mayas before the coming of the Spaniards, in greens, reds, blues, and yellows. The designs are crude and out of proportion, but much can be gleaned of the life of the past inhabitants of Chichen.
“Workers without Tools: To the south of El Castillo stands a ruined building, known as the Caracol, from a ‘“winding staircase”’ by which the top is reached from the interior. The building is turret-shaped and stands on two terraces one above the other, the lower one measuring two hundred and twenty feet by one hundred and fifty feet. The top of the building was about sixty feet from the ground-level and on it was originally an observation platform, which was, it is believed, used for the study of the heavens and was possibly connected with sun and star worship. Only a short distance from the Caracol is another building which is a fine example of Mayan architecture. It is known as the Casa de las Monjas (‘“Nuns’ House”’), probably on account of its having been set apart for the housing of that body of young maidens who were known to have performed special services in the temples, and whose ultimate fate was in all probability the cenote. It has well withstood the elements for four centuries, and given a good idea of Maya architectural ornamentation.
“The other buildings standing to-day at Chichen Itza are: the Akad-zib (‘“House of Mysterious Writing”’), which gets its name from a series of Mayan hieroglyphics over the doorway; the Chichanchob (‘“Red House”’), in allusion to the remarkable, possibly symbolic, decorations on the interior walls, which take the form of a hand painted in red, which design is, curiously enough, found also in parts of Asia; and a small building close against the Casa de las Monjas.”
There is an article (1952) in the book ‘Gods, Graves, And Scholars’ by Ceram, recalling the expedition to Chichen Itza of Edward Herbert Thompson, the American explorer. The following is a part of that article, in which we are told that: “A full moon was shining down on the jungle. Accompanied only by an Indian guide, the American explorer and archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson—fifteen hundred years after the Mayas had left their cities and made a break for the country farther north—was riding through the New Empire that they had built for themselves, which had collapsed after the arrival of the Spaniards. He was searching for Chichén Itzá, the largest, most beautiful, mightiest, and most splendid of all Mayan cities. Horses and men had been suffering intense hardships on the trail. Thompson’s head sagged on his breast from fatigue, and each time his horse stumbled he all but fell out of the saddle. Suddenly his guide shouted to him. Thompson woke up with a start. He looked ahead and saw a fairyland.
“Above the dark tree-tops rose a mound, high and steep, and on top of the mound was a temple, bathed in cool moonlight. In the hush of the night it towered over the tree-tops like the Panthenon of some Mayan acropolis. The Indian guide dismounted, unsaddled his horse, and rolled out his blanket for the night’s sleep. Thompson could not tear his fascinated gaze from the great structure………Steep stairs overgrown with grass and bushes, and in part fallen into ruins, led from the base of the mound up to the temple. Thompson was acquainted with this architectural form, which was obviously some kind of pyramid. He was familiar, too, with the function of pyramids as known in Egypt. But this Mayan version was not a tomb, like the pyramids of Gizeh. Externally it rather brought to mind a ziggurat, but to much greater degree than the Babylonian ziggurats it seemed to serve mostly as a stony back providing support for the enormous stairs rising higher and higher, towards the gods of the sun and moon.
“Thompson climbed up the steps. He looked at the ornamentation, the rich reliefs. From the top, almost 96 feet above the jungle, he surveyed the scene. He counted a dozen scattered buildings, half-hidden in shadow, often revealed by nothing more than a gleam of moonlight on stone. This, then, was Chichén-Itzá. From its original status as advance outpost at the beginning of the great trek to the north, it had grown into a shining metropolis, the heart of the New Empire. Again and again during the next few days Thompson climbed on to the old ruins. ‘“I stood upon the roof of this temple one morning,”’ he writes, ‘“just as the first rays of the sun reddened the distant horizon. The morning stillness was profound…..Then the great round sun came up, flaming splendidly, and instantly the whole world sang and hummed. The birds in the trees and the insects on the ground sang a grand Te Deum. Nature herself taught primal man to be a sun-worshipper and man in his heart of hearts still follows the ancient teaching.”’
Ceram (1952) adds that: “In one respect at least, Edward Herbert Thompson was very much the Schliemann of Yucatan, for when he pushed forward to Chichén-Itzá he was staking everything on a book that no one but himself took at all seriously. Schliemann himself could not have acted more credulously. Thompson also brings Layard to mind, for like Layard, who set out on his first expedition with only £60 in his purse and one companion to guide him, he plunged into the depths of the jungle with the most meager backing. And when he ran into difficulties that would have cowed any other man, he reacted with all of Petrie’s stub-bornness. We have seen that when the world was excited by Stephens’s first discoveries, the question was hotly debated whether the Mayas were the descendants of the people of the lost Atlantis, one of the lost tribes of Israel, an offshoot of the primordial American Indian stock, or what not. As a budding archaeologist, Thompson defended the Atlantean theory of Mayan descent in an article published in 1879 in a popular periodical. This was one of his very first ventures into print. The special problem of origins slipped into the background of his critical consciousness, however, when he actually went to Yucatán in 1885. At this time he was twenty-five years old, the youngest man in the American consular service. Once on the spot, he had no time for theory. It was an instinct rather than a considered judgment that drew Thompson to Yucatán. He took a long chance on the validity of Diego de Landa’s reports. In one of the volumes written by the archbishop he discovered the story of the Sacred Well, the cenote of Chichén-Itzá. Basing his account on old Mayan stories, de Landa described how, in times of drought or disaster, processions of priests and common people went to the Sacred Well of Sacrifice to propitiate the angry gods who lived in the depths. The marchers brought offerings with them to appease the diety, including beautiful maidens and captive warrior youths. After solemn ceremonies the maidens, de Landa said, were cast into the well, which was so deep that no victim ever rose to the surface.
“But there was to be more to de Landa’s story. It was a custom, he said, to throw in rich offerings after the sacrificial victims—household utensils, ornaments, gold. Thompson had read that ‘“if this land once contained gold, the largest part of it must be in the Well.”’ Generally this description had been dismissed as a quaint old tale with a great deal of rhetorical flourish and little factual basis. But Thompson accepted it as gospel truth, and he was determined to prove the validity of his belief. When he looked down on the Way to the Well of Sacrifice from the pyramid platform, little did he know what toil was to be his before arriving at the goal.”
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
All the coloured photos are by James Stephen Strickland. Many thanks James.
Ceram C. W., Gods, Graves, And Scholars — The Story of Archaeology, Victor Gollancz Limited in association with Sidgwick And Jackson Limited, London, 1952.
Wonders Of The World (forward by Sir Philip Gibbs, K.B.E.,) Odhams Press & Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London, 1930.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2020.