Chichen Itza

The immense sacred cenote or well of Sacrifice, just outside Chichen Itza in south-east Mexico, lies at the heart of the Maya civilization.
The cenote is in reality an eerie place. It covers almost half a hectare and from its tree-covered edges the sheer limestone cliffs drop some 20 metres down to the water below. As a source of water in the dry Yucatan northern area, it was doubtless the original reason for the settlement here.

A walk through Chichen Itza is a journey through most of Maya history. The present road from Merida, the modern capital of the Yucatan, divides the city into two. In general, the older Maya part lies to the south of the road, while the larger-scale Toltec buildings are to the north and so nearer to the sacred cenote. The ruined buildings are spread over an area of 10.4square kilometers ( 4 square miles ), with the main centre running 800 metres (880 yards) from north to south. Many of the ruins are still covered with bushes, but when the Spaniards arrived here in the sixteenth century most were well maintained by the people who remained from the high civilization of their ancestors.

In Classic Maya times the religion behind those rites had grown from man's general early concern with sustaining the order of nature into a complex system of personalized gods. Each of these gods apparently represented a natural force. Thus kinich Ahau was the sun gold and Chac the god of rain. Ah Mun was the important maize god. Ek Chuah stood for merchants, Cizin for death and Ix Chel was the moon goddess. Each of these had a dual nature good evil, day-night hot-cold and the like.

The idea of an afterlife, in which everyone expected paradise, was important to the Maya, for there was no concept of social progress in their fixed society. They saw themselves very much as fitting into the balance of nature and so the appropriate gods had to be appeased for every act that disturbed other parts of that balance even for the clearing of the forest for their maize fields.

The priestly caste was an exclusive one and held a number of key roles in Maya society. To prepare for the festivals the priests decided on the appropriate ceremonies and sacrifices and performed them when the time came . To determine what rites were needed, they were learned in an abstruse system of astrology. At their astronomical observatory they prepared the most intricate calendars o f past and future. They were the community's prophets and healers, with a wide knowledge of herbal and root remedies. Their voices were heard in vivil debates and by disposing of the cocoa harvest, they controlled the economy.

The roads built by the Maya were certainly daring and titanic in scale. The most notable example still exists and is the 96.5 kilometers causewayed stone road that starts at Coba and ends a few kilometres from Chichen Itza. It is 9 metres wide and the road surface is 61 cm above ground for most of its length, rising to 2.4 metres in swamps or floodland. The big blocks of stone were cemented together and the road was apparently surfaced with cement as well. There are many other shorter stretches of road of this standard, one of them 29 kilometres long in a dead straight line. But what were they used for ? The Maya had no wheeled vehicles and used no animals to pull loads. Men of importance were sometimes carried in litters, but a good path serves better for that than a wide hard road.

The new ceremonial centre of the city, now called Chichen Itza after the Toltec family, was built in the area between the sacred cenote to the north and the Maya buildings to the south. Its great buildings, on a much grander scale than the Maya works, are grouped around a broad space known as the Main Plaza.

From the upper terrace of the Temple of the Jaguars, one can imagine the Maya or Toltec priests watching the ball game in the court below. The precise rules of the game as played at Chichen Itza are unclear. It seems that the game could be played by two teams of between three and nine players on each side, though the size of the main Chichen court seems to indicate larger teams.The court is much bigger than others found at Chichen Itza and elsewhere. It is 137 metres in length, with both sides bounded by high vertical walls for the greater part of that length..

Ball games were played with passionate intensity throughout Maya territories and further north, too. But the games on the giant Chichen court were probably the high point of festival days and may even had religious significance. The players, while the priests conducted the ceremonies before the game started. The players would be dressed in splendid regalia, with massive padding on their loins as well as their elbows, hips and knees for they were not allowed to use their hands to hit the ball. This clothing can be seen in the wall sculpture.

At the start of the game the ball, of solid rubber weighing about 2.7 kilograms , was struck with knee, elbow or hip. It would rebound from one of the stone walls at great speed, to be hit again by another player. Large rings of stone project from the masonry walls on both sides of the court. To keep the ball in play at all, it was not allowed to touch the ground-to score, it had to be hit thorough one of the stone rings. The players would run and leap with dazzling speed, twisting to strike the flying ball with one of the permitted parts of the body. At the end, the winning team paraded in triumph. If the sculptured friezes around the Chichen ball court, the victors carried them the bleeding decapitated head of at least one of the losing side. Death, for the Toltecs, was part of the game.

Given such advances, the inventions the Maya did not make are almost equally extraordinary. They did not use animals for transport. They never quite developed a true arch. They did not discover the principle of balances or scales. They had no knowledge of the wheel. They could not cast metal, so their swords and the tools that cut their intricate carvings were of stone.


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