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The Mayan City of Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is the most impressive and intact ruins of Mayan civilization that the modern world has. This now popular tourist attraction is located on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and has fast become the best restored record of the spiritual, domestic, and agricultural lives of these people. Mayan ruins in central America, such as Chichen Itza, are remnants of cities that were abandoned long before Columbus reached the area; yet this culture has influenced many areas of architecture, art, and astronomy, that live on even in our modern world.

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The Mayan people are most famous for their brilliant and advanced astronomical knowledge and their resiliency. Stone remnants of their civilization are currently being preserved at various sites in Mexico; in Tilkal, Guatemala; in Altun Ha, Belize; and in Copan, Honduras. Mayan civilization spread from their origin on the Yucatan Peninsula to the rain forests of Mexico eastward and the other surrounding countries. Today, mostly on the Yucatan Peninsula and in the state of Chiapas, Mayan culture is still thriving with four to six million people, over 30 languages, and many ethnic backgrounds represented. Modern Mayans still continue many of the traditions of their ancient culture, such as speaking their ancient dialects instead of Spanish, growing their traditional crops (corn, beans, chile, tomatoes, and squash) with the same techniques, and using herbal medicinal treatments instead of modern medicine. Many spiritual aspects of Mayan life, the purpose for their ancient cities, is still exercised with many offerings and pilgrimages to modern churches, sometimes fusing Catholicism with Mayan beliefs from antiquity.

Around 550 AD, Mayans settled Chichen (translated "the mouth of the well") around two wells; one sacred and one "profane," used for everyday use. These underground wells and subsequent waterways, known as "cenotes", were the lifeblood of the community. Chichen Itza was primarily a rain forest area settled on flat, porous limestone that rain seeped through to became trapped in the insolvent bedrock below. These cenotes were, therefore, the oasis of the society, full of rain and run off water for their living needs. Chichen Itza, like most Mayan centers, was primarily a spiritual, ceremonial site instead of a commercial area. The loose arrangement of decentralized farming communities came together for offerings, sacrifices, and ceremonies in the town. Some trade, education, and recreation were also performed there. Exhumed from the sacred well were many ceremonial objects, skulls, and entire skeletons.

Evidence suggests that Chichen Itza was abandoned by the Mayans in the tenth century. This is concurrent with evidence of all Mayan cities being abandoned around this period. The abandonment has not yet been fully explained. The Mayans returned to and resettled their cities around 1000 AD. Chichen Itza's architecture is seen to have two distinctive styles; traditional Mayan architecture, and more recent Toltec architecture. The Toltecs were another more warlike tribe who invaded Chichen Itza around the year 800 AD. The Toltecs were much more fierce than the Mayans and human sacrifice was a large part of their rituals. It is quite easy to decipher which structures in Chichen Itza were built before and after 800 AD.

One of the structures believed to be built before 800 AD is El Castillo ("castle" in Spanish). It is a 78 foot tall pyramid that sheds light on the Mayans impressive astronomical system. El Castillo is, in reality, a solar calendar. There are 91 steps on each side and 1 for the roof/altar. Each day's shadows fall upon a different step. The discovery of the use of astronomy is incredible given the era in which the Mayans lived. With El Castillo, the Mayans knew exactly when to plant their crops. This only hints as to what else the Mayans discovered with astronomy.

El Caracol (conch shell) is another astronomy-oriented structure. It is a giant observatory dome where many rituals and celebrations took place. The dome has many windows peppered throughout. Stars can be seen through different windows on specific dates. This structure is one of the pinnacles of Mayan architecture. Creating a stone dome is hard work, but creating it with windows at precise points takes an enormous amount of time and skill. El Caracol simultaneously displays the Mayans' expertise in both astronomy and engineering. This is one of the main attractions of Chichen Itza today.

Chichen Itza's Ball Court is the largest in Mexico. Ball Courts were part of almost every Mayan city. The courts were designed very much like today's soccer fields. Raised stone hoops were placed at each end. The Mayans would play a game very much like a cross between soccer and basketball. A hard rubber ball (the Mayans had rubber in this era) was used. The teams were supposed to keep the ball in play using everything but their hands, and score by putting the ball through the hoop. The Chichen Itza Ball Court measures 272 by 199 feet, about the dimensions of a football field. After the invasion of the Toltecs, the Ball Court took on a more somber note, with the losing team often being sacrificed. Chichen Itza must have been home to the finest athletes due to the size of their court. The size of it often indicates that many important games were played at Chichen Itza.


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