Surrounded by dense rainforest, the Pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza is an ancient Maya ceremonial centre on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and is voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The history of the architectural complex, whose name means ‘at the mouth of the Itza well’, inspires a sense of wonder worthy of the name given to its inhabitants, the ‘water sorcerers’.
The architectural wonder sits in the north-central part of the Yucatan, 75 miles east of the capital of Merida. It hides two freshwater sink-holes or cenotes within its boundaries. One is called Xtoloc, which is the source of Chichen Itza and the other one is a deep, emerald-hued, sacred well where the rain god Chac was believed to have been invoked to bring water.
What is extraordinary about this city, that reached its height of splendour around the 10th century, is the architecture that reflected the movement of the heavenly bodies with remarkable accuracy. In this land where subterranean waters created underground cavities and deep mysteries where ‘sorcerers’ explored the passage of time and its relationship to the stars, rituals were organised around the edifices of the calcareous stone built according to the precise astronomical calculations.
With this feat, the Maya became the first people ever to conceive the number zero, predating even their Indian counterparts. Other ancient civilisations have found practical uses with this discovery in such fields as space and time and the Maya devoted themselves to examining the power of time and its influence on human life.
The Maya thought in terms of figures as large as those of the Alautun, a period equivalent to more than 63 million years, and they were capable of calculating eclipses that had taken place centuries earlier. Moreover, they not only figured out the exact duration of the solar year and the phases of the planet Venus but they also conceived a way to unite architecture in their everyday lives.
Taking a journey to Chichen Itza represents a journey through time; to the grandeur of pre-Hispanic America where the power of a city grew out of sacredness but did not exempt it from historical dramas the led to its demise.
Chichen Itza holds ceremonial landmarks that correspond to the different eras. The oldest building, known as the Nunnery, has latticework similar to the religious structure of the Spanish and has a grand staircase that leads upwards towards its north face. It dates back to the Classic Period that began around 600 AD and though some structures are older, it was not until the 8th century that Chichen Itza emerges as a ceremonial centre.
The oldest structure, which contains the famous Maya arch and the representation of the large-nosed rain god reflects the influence of the Puuc architectural style. A similar style was used by the great Maya builders in Guatemala’s Peten region before they mysteriously disappeared.
Varying theories have emerged about the waves of occupation at Chichen Itza. The Maya of the Classic Period built cities without walls and carved out their scientific knowledge using high level mathematics and astronomy, employing stone stelae that calculated their own calendar back to the year 3113 BC in accordance with an important astronomical event.
According to the archaeologist Eric Thompson, the classic Maya disappeared before the arrival of the Itza people whose culture introduced non-Maya influence. The Post-Classic Period was initiated with the construction of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the Temple of One Thousand Columns, the Temple of the Warriors and the Great Ball court. With these constructions, the architecture and sculpted stone underwent a transformation under the dominion of the Toltecs from Tula.
In his books about the Maya, archaeologist Alberto Ruz argues that the Itzae discovered the early structures and settled in Chichen Itza where they built temples and laid down the white paths. They stayed for a couple of centuries before abandoning the place in the year 632 AD. It is thought that they abandoned the place for Chekanputun and are believed to have stayed for almost three centuries until they were expelled and became dispersed. In 848 AD, a group of Itzaes founded Mayapan and established the Cocom dynasty while others went back to Chichen Itza and brought with them hybrid Toltec influences.
The water sorcerers re-established themselves in the city and created the impressive buildings of the second Maya empire which would last only a few centuries. By the end of the 10th century, other priests and warriors arrived under the command of the Toltec ruler Kukulcan, a historical figure that gave rise to the myth of the plumed serpent, who had been expelled from Tula. Dressed in black and vested with full powers, he promised to return by way of the east.
Four centuries later, they would confuse him with Hernan Cortes but the Itzaes never held that belief since they had never supplanted their belief in the god Huizchilopochtli, nor did they wage glorious wars to hunt down men. But nevertheless they did not escape the increase of human sacrifices that characterised the Post Classic Period.
The new style that brought together Maya and Tolmec traditions was seen by the omnipresent image of the plumed serpent called by many names such as Gucumatz, Kukulcan and Quetzalcoal. It was expanded with a fusion of worldviews that led to modification of the structures. Its Tolmec heritage is evident in the growing representation of military symbols where sculptures and carvings of warriors began to appear on altars as well as images of the god of death, Tezcatlipoca, and scenes of hearts being ripped out in human sacrifices. The power of the warrior caste would later increase in Mesoamerica until the end of the Aztec Empire.
By the 10th century, Chichen Itza was a metropolis inhabited by 50,000 people divided in classes that included the Halach Unich along with the nobilities, the warriors, merchants and peasants. Due to wars recorded in ancient epic poetry, Chichen Itza would fall three centuries later. The traces of that world left behind in the stones of the temples and in the carvings that mark the passage of time reveal that this was a culture rich in the contemplation of numbers and the heavens.
The fall of Chichen Itza was a result of in-fighting between former allies that brought the kingdom to decline so that when the Spaniards came to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517, they found only minor chiefdoms still at battle with each other and that facilitated their submission.
Last November archaeologists have found a second pyramid hidden deep within the Kukulkan pyramid. They said that the discovery of a pyramid 10 meters tall (33 feet) inside two other structures that make up the pyramid also known as El Castillo, or the Castle. Earlier excavations in the 1930s had already revealed one structure inside the pyramid containing a red jaguar throne studded with jade.
New tomography undertaken by researchers found another pyramid deep inside the Kukulkan pyramid. Using a noninvasive imaging technique, researchers were able to look inside and discover a second substructure below the first one. “The structure that we have found, the new structure, is not completely in the centre of the Kukulkan pyramid. It is in the direction where the cenote is,” said Rene Chavez Segura, a scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM.
The recent field work in the area, completed in 2015-16, determined that the most important habitation period of Chichen Itza was divided into three eras: that of 550 to 800, corresponding to the era of “pure Mayas”, from 800 to 1000, a transitional period, when pilgrims from the centre of Mexico arrived and began the Maya-Tolteca style; and a final stage of occupation from 1000 to 1300.
The structure discovered in the 1930’s corresponded to the transitional period, and the one found now is from the pure Mayan style, according to the research team from the Geophysics Institute of UNAM’s Engineering School and the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
“If this could be investigated in the future, this structure would be significant because it would speak to the first few periods of habitation of the site and would provide information about how the settlement developed”, said Denisse Argote from the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
“With the discovery of this structure we’re talking about something from the pure Mayans. A lot has been excavated, and there is a lot of information on the transitional periods (of the Mayas) and there is a Mexican style at the site, but there is little information on the original site”, she added.
Argote described the ruins as sacred, cosmic locations where “the governors, the priests were in contact with the spiritual world”.