Chichen Itza (12th century)

Chichen Itza (12th century)

The legendary city of the Mayan-Toltec Empire was located on the territory of present-day Mexico.



Chichén Itzá, Maya people, Toltec, Mexico, Yucatan Peninsula, Central America, World Heritage, architecture, necropolis, Spanish conquerors, pyramid, native, Middle Ages, conquest, America, history, capital city, civil war

Related items


  • Which civilization was Chichen Itza part of?
  • Which civilization founded Chichen Itza?
  • In honor of which god was the largest step pyramid temple of Chichen Itza, El Castillo, built?
  • According to archeologists, what was the function of the dome of El Caracol?
  • What was "El Caracol" (The Snail) named after?
  • How long were the sides of the "El Castillo" pyramid?
  • During the exploration of which building did archeologist find the Jaguar Throne?
  • What color was the Jaguar Throne originally?


  • - A natural sinkhole where locals performed sacrifices as acts of worship of the Mayan rain god during times of drought.
  • - The step-pyramid temple, named "El Castillo'' by Spanish conquerors, was built in honor of the Mayan god, Kukulkan, the feathered snake deity.
  • - The structure was called "The Snail" by the Spanish, after the stone spiral staircase found inside. It is a unique structure, as it is not rectangular like typical Mayan buildings in the city. It may have served as an observatory.

The city of Chichen Itza, located in present-day Mexico in Central America, was founded by the Mayans in the 5th century. Located on the limestone plain of the Yucatán Peninsula, the settlement was conquered by the Toltecs in the 10th century. The two civilizations formed a military alliance and made Chichen Itza the capital of the Mayan-Toltec Empire.

In the civil war that broke out in the 13th century, numerous buildings of the city were destroyed by fire. Chichen Itza lost its role as a center and fell into decline. In 1531, the city was conquered by the Spanish led by Conquistador Francisco de Montejo. They captured the city and later forced the Mayans to flee towards the interior of the peninsula.
The city was re-discovered by European travelers in the 19th century and archeological excavations soon began. But even today, there are still unexplored areas in Chichen Itza.

This exceptional archeological site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. In 2007, following an international popularity poll, it was included in the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. One of the most popular archeological sites in Mexico, the city is visited by around 1.2 million tourists annually.

  • approx. 60 m (196.9 ft)
  • approx. 27 m (88.6 ft)

The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone plain with no rivers. There are, however, numerous sinkholes, called cenotes. A sinkhole is a round depression or hole in the ground caused by a collapse of the surface layer. These served as wells for inhabitants of the peninsula.

One of the most important of these wells may have been the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote). It was probably a site where locals performed sacrifices as acts of worship to the Mayan rain god at times of drought. During the exploration of the cenote, archeologist found many artifacts and human bones, which suggests that the Mayans sacrificed human beings too.

  • - They were placed vertically on the walls along the center line, usually at a height of 6 m (19.7 ft).
  • 30 m (98.4 ft)
  • approx. 95 m (311.7 ft)
  • 8 m (26.3 ft)

The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is the largest Mesoamerican ball court. The court is 168 m (551.2 ft) long and 70 m (229.7 ft) wide; it is bordered by two 90 m (295.3 ft) long walls. Stone rings were placed on each wall along the center line, usually at a hight of 6 m (19.7 ft). The players had to pass a solid rubber ball through one of the rings without touching the ball with their limbs.

The game also had a ritual purpose, as the court was considered to be a gateway between earthly life and afterlife. Based on contemporary reliefs, it is thought that members of the losing team were sacrificed. The execution of the losing team’s captain was probably the task of the winning team’s captain.

The Tzompantli, or the Skull rack, was a structure typical of the Aztec, Mayan and Toltec civilization.
It is a scaffold-like structure consisting of vertically and horizontally placed stakes on which skulls were placed after holes had been made in them. It served for the public display of the skulls of the defeated enemy or sacrificial victims.

  • - A 6 m (19.7 ft) tall shrine was built on the topmost terrace; it was used for performing human sacrifices.
  • - Square-shaped, approx. 2.5 m (8.2 ft) high terraces.
  • 6 m (19.7 ft)
  • 30 m (98.4 ft)
  • 55 m (180.5 ft)

One of the most significant structures of Chichen Itza was the step-pyramid named El Castillo (Spanish for "The Castle") by the Spanish Conquistadors. It served as the temple to the Mayan god, Kukulkan, the feathered serpent deity. According to research, the step-pyramid was built upon an older, smaller pyramid. The structure was built on a square base; its sides measure 55 m (180.5 ft) in length and are oriented towards the four cardinal directions. The 30-meter-tall (98.4 ft) pyramid consists of 9 terraces. Four stairways, each consisting of 91 steps and rising at a 45 degree angle lead to the topmost terrace, where a 6-meter-tall (19.7 ft) shrine is standing.

During excavations, archeologists found a chacmool and a jaguar statue in one of the inner chambers of the pyramid that served as the base of El Castillo. The former served as an altar for sacrifices, while the latter was presumably used as a throne.

The step-pyramid called Osario is the scaled-down version of El Castillo. A staircase inside the temple on top of the pyramid led to a cave 12 meters (39.4 ft) below.
The temple was originally named "High Priests' Tomb" by archeologist Edward H. Thompson, because he had found burial artifacts and human bones in the cave when he excavated it at the end of the 19th century.
Today's archeologists do not agree with Thompson’s view and think that the building did not function as a tomb.

The building named "El Caracol" ("The Snail" in Spanish) after the spiral staircase found inside, is a cylindrical structure built on a large square platform. It is a unique building in the city, as traditional Mayan buildings were built on a rectangular plan.
According to some theories, El Caracol served as an observatory, as its doors and windows are aligned to face certain astronomical phenomena (e.g. the transit of Venus).

The building named "Las Monjas", or "The Nunnery" by the Spanish conquerors, is the best preserved structure of Chichen Itza. This outstanding work of Toltec architecture was presumably a governmental palace, contrary to its name.

Chacmool sculptures are characteristic works of art of the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. They depict a reclining figure with its head turned 90 degrees sideways, supporting itself on its elbows. The name "chacmool" is not of Native American origin, it comes from Augustus Le Plongeon, an antiquarian who studied Chichen Itza.

The sculptures are presumably related to human sacrifices; the stone bowls or disks on the figures’ stomachs support this theory: these may have served to store sacrificial gifts. The Chacmool was therefore a channel between the worlds of gods and humans.

The Chacmool shown in the animation was found in a chamber of an old pyramid inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan (El Castillo), near the Jaguar Throne.

During the excavations of Chichen Itza in the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican archeologists found a hidden, secret chamber inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan.
In the middle of the chamber they found a Chacmool statue, while in a smaller, inner chamber a throne depicting a jaguar was discovered. The jaguar, which turns its head 90 degrees to the left, was originally red. Its eyes were formed of jade gemstones; jade inlays were also used to decorate the body.


The city of Chichen Itza, located on the Yucatán Peninsula in present-day Mexico, was founded by the Mayans in the 5th century. The settlement was later conquered by the Toltecs and the two civilizations formed a military alliance. They made Chichen Itza the capital of the Mayan-Toltec Empire, creating a unique blend of their culture and art there.

The most important temples were built in the center. The most significant of these was the step-pyramid that served as a temple to the Mayan god, Kukulkan and was named "El Castillo", or "The Castle" by the Spanish.

The largest Mesoamerican ballcourt is located not far from El Castillo. The ball game played here had important ritual aspects and often involved a human sacrifice.

The building complex known for its carved columns, the Temple of the Warriors, is at the other end of the large open space that features platforms.

A bit further away from the community spaces provided by the columns was the High Priests' Temple, a scaled-down version of the Temple of Kukulkan.

El Caracol, the structure that may have served as an observatory stood near the High Priests' Temple.

The city was surrounded by fields. The water necessary for the inhabitants, the animals and irrigation was supplied by natural sinkholes, called cenotes. Most dwellings were located on the outskirts of the city.

After the Spanish conquest, the Mayans abandoned the city, which then lost its significance. It was re-discovered by European travelers and archeologists in the 19th century. Since then, it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was also included among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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