My Travel Map

My Travel Map

22 December 2013

Chichen Itza, Mexico

In my previous post on Merida, I included some details about the Mayan people, both past and present.  It is impossible to journey to the Yucatan and not recognize its Mayan past... Mayan history is something that the locals are proud of (it is their heritage!) and many other people from around the world travel to the region to experience.  Most of those people would agree that the ancient city of Chichen Itza is close to the heart of what remains of the ancient Mayans.  The site is huge, with many buildings and features having survived into modern times, and it was so much more incredible than I had anticipated.  For those reasons, I'm devoting this post to that place, Chichen Itza, which is an in your face reminder of the ingenuity and remarkable capabilities of human beings, as well as the levels of evil societies can reach. 

At the center of it all is what Chichen Itza is most famous for, the step pyramid known as El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcan.  This is one of many ancient Mayan pyramids, which are not as large as those other pyramids in Egypt but are still monumental.  The pyramid is four sided, and a wide staircase climbs the center of each side, leading to the temple platform at the top.  In total height, El Castillo is 30 meters (~100 feet) from ground to the top of the temple, and each side of its square base is ~55 m long.   I visited the site alone, but most people go on organized tours.  Regardless of how you go, you'll see plenty of people standing about 30 feet away from the staircases and clapping.  It seems odd, until you step into that magic zone in which they are standing (if they're doing it right).  Due to a wonderfully simple and well-understood effect of physics, only the higher frequency sound waves from a clapping hand are echoed by the staircase back toward the clappers, making for a truly bizarre sound effect.  The sound from each clap echoes back as high pitched, almost electronic sounding "pings" or "twangs".  It is a really cool effect, so I'd recommend not worrying about looking like a fool and just giving it a try.

Now, here is a little math word problem: if a four sided pyramid has staircases on all sides, each of which has 91 steps and the single altar at the top is included in the count, how many steps does the pyramid have in total?  OK, despite that being pitifully easy, I'll spare those of you that hate math: the answer is 365... the same number of days in a usual year (excluding leap years).  This is no coincidence.  The Mayans kept a very accurate record of time in a very accurate and complex calendar, something for which they became particularly famous in recent years.  I wont get into details on the calendar... it was complicated and actually floated throughout the solar year since they didn't account for the ~1/4 day that we make up for on leap years.  The long count for the calendar relies on base units of 1 day, 20 days, 360 days, and so on.  Around a year ago now, the calendar just turned over to the 13th of one of the higher base units (equivalent to 13*394 = 5122 years).  So, it wasn't at all "the end of the Mayan (really Mesoamerican) calendar" as so many people had been led to believe (thanks to a generally under-educated and poorly informed media and probably more than one profiteer).  According to that infallibly accurate source of information, Wikipedia, the highest base unit is equivalent to 63,081,429 years... so basically, we have plenty of time left before we have to worry about hitting the end of the Mayan calendar.

El Castillo and Chichen Itza are most famous for another feature related to Earth's orbit around the Sun and the passage of time.  Flanking each of the four large staircases are feathered serpents, with their heads at the bottom as if they were slithering down from the temple above to consume those below.  These serpents and the stepped shape of the pyramid hide a deeper secret though, which is only revealed twice per year.  On the equinoxes, these serpents appear to come to life, as the shadow from the stepped corners of the pyramid is cast onto the broad side of the staircase.  The effect looks like the rippling body of a snake, which crawls its way down the pyramid and links with the head below.  It is truly spectacular (you can look up video online), and it hints at a much deeper understanding of the Universe and the relative motion of the Earth and Sun.  This is even more incredible when you consider that the calendar the Mayans used wasn't based on a true solar year!  Yet somehow, they figured out the exact geometry needed to set up the spectacle of light and shadow that we can still watch now, hundreds of years after that empire declined into the dark depths of history. 

A view up the serpent's back...

This iguana was posed just perfectly in there... as if tempting the old gods or mocking their power.  There are plenty of iguanas around the place... remember it is in the middle of a (practically) Central American jungle.  

The pyramid is devoted to Kukulcan, the plumed serpent deity, but chaac still makes an appearance.  This chaac carving sits at the top of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, which stresses just how critical rain was to this society.  The thing that really stood out to me is how the carving is not symmetric with the rest of the pyramid, as you can tell from the placement with respect to the lintel on the temple door at the bottom of this picture...  There is also a lot of mystery surrounding the nature of Kukulcan, but it may have been one of the creator gods in the Mayan pantheon.  Interestingly, based on modern Mayan lore, Kukulcan had close relations to chaac (the rain gods) and the Sun deity.

Now a view of one of the incompletely restored sides of the pyramid.  It is starkly different from the restored sides, which look quite new and less authentic in comparison.  This brings up some interesting and controversial questions concerning the restoration of ancient sites: how far should we go?  Should we leave a ruined monumental site as we found it, letting nature continue to slowly but surely deconstruct the hard work of our predecessors?  In one extreme, in which we leave the ruins as is, we shouldn't even clear a site of jungle, sand, or modern structures that may have covered and hidden it.  In the other extreme, we restore it completely, leaving a modern copy of an original structure.  As with most controversial issues, I feel the answer lies somewhere in the gray area between these two extremes.  We should protect and preserve these monuments of our past.  We should not let them succumb to the crumbling forces of nature, but we also should not alter them so much that they are no longer recognizable as something ancient.  They have come close to that in Chichen Itza, as they are also doing with the Parthenon in Greece... though I think overall those restorations are being carried out with respect for the original monuments and their architects.

Chichen Itza was an ancient city, so there are many other monumental ruins around the site.  It is a huge place, well worth a half a day or more to explore by foot, appreciating the shear size, complexity, and details of these relics from a lost civilization.

The thing that first drew my attention after El Castillo was the Temple of the Warriors.  This is another enormous building (featured two pictures above) surrounded by rows and rows of columns.  The columns, like that pictured immediately above, are inscribed with the images of warriors, which is what gave the temple its name.  War was apparently an important part of ancient Mayan society...

Chaac again... featured in carvings on the wall at the top of the Temple of the Warriors (seen here at center-left). Also in a prominent position here at the top of the staircase is a chacmool, identifiable as a reclining figure with head turned 90 degrees and cradling a bowl on its belly.  Chacmool were supposedly related to the rain god (chaac) and important for sacrificial purposes, which provides a nice explanation for the bowl.  Supposedly, this temple was built over an older, smaller one, which was dedicated to chacmool.  These features tie together warfare, sacrifice, and rain... kind of scary when you think about it: if rain was required to grow crops that the society relies on to survive, and religion dictated that sacrifices had to be made to make it rain, then logically, a leader sent warriors out to collect sacrifices from neighboring communities.

A view of the colonnades around the Temple of the Warriors.  Archaeologists figure that these colonnades were once roofed, and some of the others around the site may even have served as a marketplace.

The carvings on the various structures around Chichen Itza are somewhat eerie... featuring bizarre creatures, part-human, part-beast... or monster.  Fear may have played an important part in ancient Mayan religion and government... it is most definitely one of the most powerful sociopolitical tools.

There are many other pyramids around the site... most of which also feature serpents flanking the central staircases.

Chaac again... there were chaac carvings all over the place at Chichen Itza.  This is not a unique feature of the site though, chaac also is a prominent feature of the area's other large Mayan ruins.  For example, at Uxmal, which is just south of Merida, there are many chaac carvings, including one with a configurable nose.  Legend has it that the nose is placed in the face with the spout pouring down (as pictured above) to ask the gods for more rain, but it is placed upside down, with the spout pouring up to ask the gods to make it stop raining!  Remember, too much rain will also kill crops...

This column beside one of the smaller pyramids was just a stack of chaac faces.

Another of Chichen Itza's most famous buildings is El Caracol (The Snail).  Named for its round, central tower, the structure is thought to have been an observatory, offering a raised viewing platform above the canopy and points of reference for mapping and tracking the motion of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars.

I hadn't expected so many large buildings as there are at Chichen Itza.  It makes me wonder how many people lived there... and where and how they lived.  Obviously, average people wouldn't have lived in the monumental structures that have survived the onslaught of natural forces and time.  They would have lived in simpler wooden structures.  I wonder how those dwellings and shops were distributed amongst the monuments.  If only we could take a trip back in time to see... but we cannot, so we have to make due with our imaginations.  Fortunately, these ruins stoke the imagination and provide such an awesome backdrop for the world it produces.

Chaac everywhere!

One of the few chaac that actually had the nose spout turned up (bottom left)!

I'm always amazed and impressed by ancient architecture.  The amount of time, effort, and finesse put into shaping stones and specifically placing them to make complex structures in just incredible considering the extremely limited tools available at the time.

I was lucky during my visit: it didn't rain, it was sunny, and those clouds made for some epic backgrounds.

The Sacred Cenote.  The Yucatan doesn't have any major rivers or lakes.  However, it is full of fresh water.  The peninsula is like a sponge; the rock that forms it is porous, pockmarked with sinkholes and an intricate network of interconnected caves.  This network is flooded, since the water table comes up to near the surface.  Cenotes are flooded sinkholes, like the one picture here, and they were crucial to Mayan civilization in the Yucatan.  Cenotes provided sources of fresh water and tools for understanding the motion of the Sun and the passage of time (see next post).  Due to their importance, they were also a place of worship... the Sacred Cenote is one of several cenotes around the Chichen Itza site.  It is known as the Sacred Cenote because of the various sacrificial objects found within it, including gold, weapons, tools, jewelry, carved jade, and human remains...

This is where the story gets a lot darker... as I walked from the Sacred Cenote back past El Castillo and onto my last stop at the site, the importance of death and human sacrifice to the Mayan society living at Chichen Itza became glaringly obvious.

This platform stopped me dead in my tracks.  This is the Tzompantli.  It is a large platform, taking more than a minute to walk around, and it is covered on all sides by carvings of human skulls.  Archaeologists figure that the platform served as a display case for the heads of those sacrificed.  Nearby, the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars depicts eagles and jaguars holding human hearts... this was most definitely a place of human sacrifice.  It left me with an unsettling feeling to be standing in such a place.  The thing that feeling reminded me of most was the disgusted repulsion I felt at Auschwitz and Birkenau, though I have to admit the feeling was much more fleeting and less intense at Chichen Itza.  Chicen Itza is one of those "special" places that is a monument to the darker side of humanity; it provides a chillingly haunting reminder of how cruel and destructive humans can be to each other.

Walking on from the platform of the skulls, I entered the great arena of the ball game...  this place is the Mayan version of the Roman Coliseum, and like coliseums, there were ball game arenas at most of the large Mayan cities.  Also like coliseums, the "sport" played within it was not a friendly one...  

The "game" was a match between two teams of men.  Historians seem to agree that the purpose of the game was to get a ball through these raised hoops on either side of the elongated field.  Interestingly, the hoops are located on opposite sides of the shorter dimension of the field... they are placed high up... 5 or 6 meters or so from what I can tell and apparently the players of the game couldn't use their hands to throw the ball.  They had to hit it with other parts of their bodies.  

The Temple of the Jaguars sits above the field on the side nearest El Castillo... Jaguars were important symbolically in ancient Mayan religion.  The animals were thought to be able to pass freely between the worlds of the living (daytime) and spirits (nighttime); they were associated closely with the transition between life and death.  So, the fact that this temple was devoted to the Jaguar insinuates the close relationship between the ball "game" and death.

If the purpose of the "game" wasn't clear enough from its proximity to the sacrificial place, platform of the skulls, and Temple of the Jaguar, the carvings around the entire playing field leave no doubt as to the violent nature of the ball game.  Key features pictured here include: 1) the beheaded warrior on the right, with a fountain of snakes spouting from his neck; 2) the standing warrior on the left, holding a knife in one hand and a severed human head, also spewing snakes (representing the life force, blood, escaping the body after the beheading); 3) the decorated skull with a serpent tongue in the center bottom.  Historians still don't know if the beheading was the fate of the losers or the victors of the game... or maybe just all the participants.  It is clear that you didn't want to play the game if you had any concern for keeping your life though.  The nature of the execution adds a bit of historical context to the more recent beheadings carried out by Mexican drug cartels, too.  Beheading by knife is a disgusting, excruciating, and terrible way for anyone to die, and the Mayans apparently did this routinely.

More ghostly carvings of decorated warriors around the ball game arena.  There was something about how the stone has aged that lent so much to the eerie and dark character of these carvings.

Another view of the Temple of the Jaguar and El Castillo.  Chichen Itza is an incredible place, where you can come face to face with the remains of one of humanity's great civilizations.  It's a place where , if you're able to get past all the souvenir stalls and tourist hordes, one can lose themselves in thoughts of the lighter and darker sides of ancient human civilization and reflect on parallels to modern society.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank You! I enjoyed the adventure.