Chichen Itza is the most famous of all the great Mayan cities. This is somewhat ironic because its most famous structures do not have a typical Classic Mayan architecture but show strong influences from other civilizations from Central Mexico. It is also the most developed of the many Mayan ruins and can get crowded. But the combination of grant scale monuments and the mysterious precise astronomical calculation in the buildings make Chichen Itza truly amazing.
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The Casa Colorada (Spanish for “Red House”), is one of the best preserved buildings at Chichen Itza. In one chamber there are extensive carved hieroglyphs that mention rulers of Chichen Itza and possibly of the nearby city of Ek Balam, and contain a Maya date inscribed which correlates to 869 AD, one of the oldest such dates found in all of Chichen Itza. The Casa Colorada may have been an elite residence.
The Temple of the Bearded Man or the North Temple is a small masonry building with detailed bas-relief carvings on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.
Named la Iglesia (the Church) by the Spanish, probably because it was located right next to the Nunnery, this temple is one of the oldest buildings at Chichén Itzá. Masks of Chac decorate two upper stories. Among the crowd of Chacs there are also an armadillo, a crab, a snail, and a tortoise. These represent the Maya gods, called bacah, whose job it was to hold up the sky.
The Tomb of the High Priest or Osario Temple is a step-pyramid temple with staircases on each side. The temple stands atop a natural limestone cave in which skeletons and offerings were found, giving the temple its name. Archaeologists today believe the structure was neither a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.
The Sacred Cenote is a sinkhole that is connected to Chichen Itza by a raised pathway. This large natural well may have given Chichén Itzá (“Well of the Itzáes”) its name. There is a second karst cave in the center of Chichén Itzá that was used as a source of water for Chichén Itzá’s residents. The use of the Sacred Cenote was exclusively ceremonial. Over the years, the murky water has yielded many artifacts including gold, jade, copper, turquoise, obsidian, copal or incense, pottery, rubber, shells and the bones of around 200 people who were thrown in as a sacrifice.
Alongside the Great Ball Court is the Tzompantli (Temple of the Skulls), one of the most gruesome temples in Chichen. It is a low platform covered on all sides by rows of carved skulls. Similar platforms are found in central Mexico, most famously in Tenochtitlan. The heads of sacrificial victims were displayed here, together with those of the players who lost the ball game (see below).
Chichen Itza contain no less than 8 ball courts, but the Main Ball Court is by far the most impressive. At 166 by 68 meters (545 x 223 feet) it is the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. It was dedicated in 864 AD and is radically different than any other Mayan ball court, which are smaller and have sloping sided courts. The two vertical walls of the Main Ball Court are 12 meters (39 feet) high with rings carved with intertwining serpents in the center of each wall. Both walls are carved with scenes showing teams of ball players. One panel shows a headless player kneeling with blood shooting from his neck, while another player holds the head.
El Caracol or Observatory is a round building on a large square platform dating to around 906 AD. It was probably an ancient Maya observatory with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically around the path of Venus. From the tower the Mayans could view the sky above the vegetation without any obstruction. The Spanish name, which means “snail,” refers to the stone spiral staircase inside.
The Temple of the Warriors is a large stepped pyramid that was named after the surrounding carved columns depicting warriors. This temple is similar to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions. The one at Chichen Itza, however is much larger. At the top of the stairway on the temple’s summit sits Chac Mool, a statue depicting a reclining figure supporting itself on its elbows with a bowl or a disk upon its stomach.
Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of exposed columns. When Chichen Itza was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. The columns are in three distinct sections: a west group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors.
Located in the center of an open court stands the Temple of Kukulkan, also referred to as El Castillo (the castle in Spanish). Dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, this is the most famous landmark of Chichén Itzá. On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the pyramid casts a shadow in the shape of a snake, representing the god Quetzalcoatl. As the sun moves, the serpent slowly descends into the earth.
The temple contains many references to the important Mayan calendar. Each of El Castillo’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform , equals the 365 days of the solar year. Each of the nine terraces are divided in two, which makes 18, symbolizing the number of months in the Maya calendar. The terraces contain a total of 52 panels, referring to the 52-year cycle when both the solar and religious calendars converge.