Monday, 21 October 2013

Preview: Chichen Itza

Think of a pyramid - probably the Great Pyramid of Giza comes to mind. Ok, think of another, this time in Mexico. Probably, you'll be thinking of this one.

This is El Castillo, the focal point of the ruined Maya city of Chichen Itza. In most of the images and media of the site, it's El Castillo that is used. It has has become synonymous with Chichen Itza to the point that many people think El Castillo is Chichen Itza, which would be rather like looking at Big Ben and calling it London. But, befitting one of the largest cities of a civilisation that spanned over a thousand years, there's a lot more to Chichen Itza than just one pyramid.


These are the El Caracol ("the snail") observatory, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Great Ball Court respectively, just a few more of Chichen Itza's showcase pieces. In fact, to call Chichen Itza just a city kind of understates its importance: it was a city-state, and in the manner of many of the Maya city-states it was very much its own society and mini-civilisation. However, unlike the bulk of prime-time Maya cities, Chichen Itza is in the north of Maya territory, in the Yucatan peninsula of modern-day south-east Mexico. Most of the famous Maya cities were in the southern lowlands of Mexico and flourished roughly around the 5th to 9th Centuries in what is termed the "Classic Period". But Chichen Itza's greatest days occurred later on, right into the Postclassic Period and centuries after the likes of Tikal and Palenque (to name just two) were being lost to the jungle.

Getting a handle on Chichen Itza can be a tricky one, not just for me but for archaeologists and historians too. There isn't much in the way of recorded history. The Maya people did write things down, but unfortunately after the Spanish conquest... well, let's hear direct from Bishop Diego de Landa, one of the first Spanish priests tasked with converting the natives to Christianity (italics are mine): "We found a large number of books in these [Mayan] characters, and as they all contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction".

Yes, in 1562 the Spanish collected and burnt virtually every original Maya text in what has been described as a "funeral pyre of a civilisation going back as far as 4000 years." It's breaktaking to think about. Imagine a bunch of people rocking up in Europe in the late medieval years and burning every book we'd ever written. That's what the Spanish did to the Maya. The collected science, religion, art, and history of the civilisation was lost. Subsequently, a Maya chronicle of their own history was written, but it is all retrospective and much of it is mythical and doesn't really match up with the hard evidence. It's like you and your friends were asked to write down the last thousand years of your national history based upon what your parents had told you.

So, according to the chronicles, Chichen Itza went out in a blaze of glory in 1250 upon civil war and total self-destruction. The evidence suggests otherwise - by 1250, Chichen Itza was already finished as a power. In terms of known dates, by inscriptions, the earliest is 867 and the latest is 998, and while this is hardly definitive it gives a good idea of the rough period that Chichen Itza was at its best. This would have been when most of the great buildings appeared, sometimes new and sometimes as a significant extension upon an existing structure (El Castillo, for example, is built over an earlier version). The core site covers an area of around 5 square kilometres and has hundreds of structures. There's plenty more beyond that.

Chichen Itza's origins can surely be put down to the existence of cenotes, which are natural sinkholes in the ground. Indeed, this is reflected in the city's name, whuch roughly means "at the mouth of the well of the Itza" (Itza being the name of later occupants). The Yucatan peninsula sits on limestone, and lacks rivers or streams, and would at first seem to be wholly inappropriate for a civilisation to hang around in. But it is dotted with these cenotes, effectively natural wells with a ready water supply. Mostly, these were used for water, but one particularly large one (50 metres wide and a 20 metres drop to the water), now called the Sacred Cenote, was used to throw offerings to the rain god. Early 20th Century excavations recovered almost 30,000 such offerings, usually in the form of ceremonially broken items. According to the chronicles it was also a scene of human sacrifice, whereby virgin girls were thrown in at daybreak - if they were still alive by noon, they were fished out. True enough, skeletons have been found in the cenote, although usually of young men who were likely sacrificed before being thrown in. Whichever it was, it seems very much like the Sacred Cenote was a big part of the religion of Chichen Itza.

The city seems to have kickstarted into life in around the 7th Century - possibly a little later - but the ascension to power came a few centuries after. A few things conspired to make Chichen Itza great and powerful. Aside from the cenotes, it was a cosmopolitan place, with a mixture of Maya and other American people. This appears to have been an productive mix in a stable political society that eschewed the absolute rule of kings. Chichen Itza's timing seems to have been critical: its rise seems to mirror the rapid decline of lowland Maya cities like Tikal. Not for any direct reasons like war or emigration, but because as the lowlands faded away, trade routes and resources opened up for Chichen Itza and the Yucatan peninsula. In effect, a power vacuum opened, and Chichen Itza filled it, very successfully.

There are many ways to grade a successful society, with architecture and construction being what I tend to look for. Building material was never was problem for Chichen Itza - everything is built from locally quarried limestone, which was in abundance. Chichen Itza blended a mixture of Maya and other American influences to create its own distinctive look. I'm tempted to describe it as a "modern" twist to existing Maya styles, but wouldn't look an archaeologist in the eye while saying that. Significantly for visitors today, in the early 20th Century, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. and the Mexican government extensively renovated the most famous monuments, giving them the clean, orderly look that many other Maya ruins don't have.

There's a lot to take in with Chichen Itza. It certainly fits into my "ensemble Wonder" category, being a collection of remarkable constructions rather than one single grand edifice. However, it's a little more than just a collection, because it has the focal point of El Castillo, which some might regard as a candidate in its own right. It's not huge - at just under 30 metres tall and 55 metres wide you could fit over 60 (!) El Castillos into one Great Pyramid. But maybe that's not very fair. 30 metres is still fairly big, and pictures give it a commanding presence. It has the swagger of a bigger building, and the subtle touches that you can never be quite sure were intended strokes of genius or just extrapolations by over-eager archaeologists. With four symmetrical sides, each with a steep staircase up them, it rises in nine terraced layers. Each stairway has 91 steps, making 364 steps. Plus the final platform, that makes 365, ie days in a year. Additionally, on March and September 21st each year (very close to the spring and autumn equinoxes), at 3pm the sun strikes the upper slope, and a serpent seems to appear on the north west side. El Castillo is dedicated to a Kulkulkan, a serpent-like deity.

But El Castillo is just the most famous part of an extensive series of ruins, some in very good condition, and all this constitutes what has to be regarded as one of the frontrunners to be one of the Seven Wonders. Certainly, it touts itself as such following the 2007 global vote. My own view has yet to be formed - this seems like a place that really needs to be visited to be understood, but I have a slight, nagging feeling it won't make the Seven. Don't get me wrong, I think it will be a fascinating place to visit, and it will certainly be rating right up there, but I have a feeling there could be a sense of "is this it?". In short, I think its reputation might precede it. But let's face it, I thought the same about the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China: this is exactly why I need to visit all these places to properly give an opinion.

I'll be visiting Chichen Itza next year I hope, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. " I'm tempted to describe it as a "modern" twist to existing Maya styles, but wouldn't look an archaeologist in the eye while saying that. Significantly for visitors today, in the early 20th Century, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. and the Mexican government extensively renovated the most famous monuments, giving them the clean, orderly look that many other Maya ruins don't have."

    True, although as I once commented in your article about Cologne Cathedral, originally these ancient structures were meant to look new, and not covered in overgrowth or grime. I think that the difficulty for modern scholars and archeologists is how to renovate monuments while being true to their original state.

    In one interesting example in today's Guardian, the Chinese have managed to get it wrong in this instance:

    1. Ha, that's awful, but quite hilarious.

      It brings to mind Registan, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. I've not been yet, but am really looking forward to it - three huge 15th(ish) Century facades of Muslim buildings, adorned in colourful tiles and Islamic art, facing a square. It looks terrific, but a book I read recently suggested it had been "over-restored", and lost the sense of age. The author suggested it had been Disneyfied.

      I think one of the great appeals of old buildings is that they look old. This doesn't mean that they have to be falling apart, but if a 2000-year-old buildings looks brand new, it just doesn't look real. It's a fine balance that needs more than just this blog comment devoted to it, but ultimately it boils down to sensitive restoration that keeps the character of the building.

      In my view, buildings still in use - "living" buildings - are better candidates for fuller restorations. Abandoned buildings, like Angkor Wat or Maya cities, should be prevented from collapse, and restored carefully, but not overdone.

      In saying that, I think Chichen Itza suits its clean, orderly look. But I wouldn't want all Maya ruins to be like that.

  2. I visited Chichen Itza in early 2005, and really liked it. With your criteria for pure objectivity in assessing wonders, I may be biased, as I had a really great moment chilling with an iguana on the top of El Castillo while drinking a Cerveza Negra...

    That said, the place is remarkable. It's a good size, with plenty of variety in building style and (apparent) function, and the restoration work has been very sensitively done. At least when I was there, the areas immediately around each of the major structures were mostly cleared, so you could see them properly and appreciate the scale and layout, but the jungle between buildings had been left. So you end up being able to see the buildings properly and also get some sense that these are ruins hidden in the jungle.

    I'm sure you've learnt this lesson by now, but I found that the best approach to Chichen Itza was to read up on it beforehand, take a guidebook, and just walk around. The "guided trips" inevitably end up dragging you to a random market for several hours, and wasting another couple of hours at lunch (with both the restaurant and market giving kickbacks to the tour operators), and leave you with fairly little time at the actual ruins. Even if the only way to get there is hiring a car for the day, or renting a taxi, the extra money will be more than worth it.