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What is Chichen Itza?

Chichen Itza is a Mayan city in Mexico.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 July 2014
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Chichen Itza is a large Maya city in Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1988. It is located on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the heart of what was once the Classic Maya civilization.

The area where Chichen Itza was settled is rather devoid of surface water, with no large rivers. Throughout the Yucatan, however, can be found large sink holes, or cenotes, which fill with underground water. There are two enormous cenotes near Chichen Itza, which was likely the reason the site was originally chosen. It is thought that these cenotes were the site of human sacrifices by the Maya to pay homage to the god Chaac.

For many years, the area around Chichen Itza was the site of small settlements. Beginning in the late-6th century it began to rise as the center of a powerful kingdom. Over the next few centuries it acquired more and more power, eventually coming to dominate much of the political and social landscape of the entire lowland region of the Mayan civilization.

Chichen Itza is one of the later sites of the Classic Maya period, rising to power as Tikal’s star waned. The kingdom had substantial interaction with the Toltec powers to the north, and there are some schools of thought which believe Chichen Itza was at one point ruled by a Toltec king, Quetzalcoatl.

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Chichen Itza itself is said to have begun to decline during the 13th century, when it was conquered by Mayapan. The ruler of Mayapan at the time, Hunac Ceel, is said to have foreseen his own rise to power over Chichen Itza. According to tradition at the time, sacrificial offerings who survived being flung into the cenote were imbued with the power of the oracle, as a gift from the gods. Hunac Ceel, after a sacrifice in which there were no survivors, is said to have flung himself into the cenote, surviving and predicting that he would rule over Chichen Itza.

The actual story of the decline of Chichen Itza may be more complex than this, however. Archeological evidence seems to show that Chichen Itza had already fallen by the 11th century, long before the recorded conquering by Mayapan.

Chichen Itza is one of the most impressive of the Mayan sites in Mexico, with a number of fantastically preserved ruins that run the gamut of intended uses. The site contains numerous ball courts, including the Great Ball Court, which is more than 540 feet (160m) long, and which is adorned with numerous carvings showing the ball game and post-game sacrifice.

The Temple of the Warriors is another major site as Chichen Itza, with an enormous step pyramid guarded by row upon row of warrior columns. The Temple of the Warriors shows one of the clearest links between the Maya and the Toltec, as the pyramid is incredibly similar to Temple B at the Toltec site of Tula.

The Temple of Kukulkan, also known simply as El Castillo, is the major site at Chichen Itza. This enormous step pyramid is among the largest in the Maya region, and is a beautiful example of Maya architecture. A tunnel excavated by the Mexican government goes beneath El Castillo to reveal an older structure the temple was built on top of.

Various tour buses and taxis visit Chichen Itza every day. Once at the site, travel is on foot, and a full day can easily be spent exploring the site. After dark, a light and sound show takes place, which provides a unique experience of the ruin.

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