Chichen Itza

The Great City of the Maya


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The grand, ancient city of Chichen Itza sits in the strategic center of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Every year more than a million tourists visit the so-called archaeological zone, bounded by the notorious Sacred Well (Cenote Sagrado) to the north and Las Monjas, the Nunnery, to the south. The actual city may have covered more than 25 square kilometers, and many buildings and monuments outside the primary zone, most notably in Chichen Viejo (Old Chichen) to the south, have been excavated by archaeologists (although not open to the public).

Maya History of Chichen Itza

There is no record of when Chichen Itza was first settled. The early chroniclers write that one of the original names of the settlement had been Wuk Yabna. As a city, Chichen Itza rose to prominence roughly 600 AD. There are several buildings dated in the 9th century that are constructed in the "Puuc" style, refering to Maya civilization from the hills surrounding Campeche.

According to the Chilam Balam, chronicles written by the Maya but after the Conquest, a group of Maya foreigners called the Itza took over the city, and eventually the city took their name ("Chichen Itza" is Maya for "in the mouth of the well of the Itza"). the Itza "spoke our language brokenly." Several archaeologists have suggested that the Chontal Maya, who speak a dialect of Maya, best fit the description of the Itza. The Chontal Maya came from what is today southern Campeche and Tabasco, and would have interacted with the Mexican tribes to the northwest, as suggested by the early chronicles. The city became the most prominent city on the Yucatan Peninsula, and was the driving political and commercial force in the region for 300 years.

During this period a group of foreigners today called the "Toltecs," possibly led by a man named Kukulcan (the Maya version of Quetzalcoaltl), took over Chichen. These people remade Chichen in their own image, introducing a new style of architecture and pottery. It is not known if they were related to the Itza, or even whether they preceded or antedated the Itza at Chichen.

Chichen Itza was well known among the Maya for its Sacred Well, into which the Maya sacrificed men, women, children, and objects of great value. When the city went into decline around 1200 AD, and was abandoned, the chroniclers write Maya personages from around Yucatan would make pilgrimages to the Sacred Well.

Under Spanish Rule

When the Spanish first tried to conquer the interior of Yucatan in 1543, they marched through the thick jungle and took Chichen Itza with the intention of establishing a Spanish capital there. Led by Francisco Montejo, the soldiers held the city for several months, and divided its lands among 100 Spanish. They built a series of houses in the Maya style, and began plans to build a great city on the bones of the old one. Before that could happen, the Maya rose up and over a series of several weeks, broke the Spanish supply lines and eventually starved out Montejo and his men.

The Spanish forces were forced to flee to the coast and eventually abandon, for a time, their plans of conquering Yucatan. Montejo later returned, and by pitting one group of Maya against another, brought the indigenous people under Spanish rule. This time the Spanish established a capital closer to the coast, at T'Ho, which was renamed Merida, Every significant Maya building was torn down and its stone recycled to make Spanish buildings. The territory was divided into haciendas, including the city of Chichen Itza, whose ruins became a cattle ranch.

The future bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, visited Chichen Itza in the early years after the conquest. He described the Maya rituals of sacrifice into the Sacred Well and theorized that if there was gold to be found Yucatan, it would be in that well.

Modern History

Chichen Itza became famous following a visit in the early 1840s by American writer John Lloyd Stephens, who along with an English artist, Frederick Catherwood, published a bestselling book about the region and its ruins, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Over the next half century, Chichen Itza received visits from several prominent explorers, such as Alfred Maudslay, Teobert Maler and Desire Charnay.

In 1894, the American consul in Yucatan, Edward H. Thompson, purchased the Hacienda Chichen which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For the next 15 years, Thompson explored the breadth of the ancient city, including a significant excavation of the Ossario, and, his most famous (and infamous) accomplishment, the dredging of the Sacred Cenote, in which he found gold and other valuables, confirming de Landa's assertion.

In 1926, almost 20 years after the dredging, the Mexican government went after Thompson, charging him with theft. It seized Chichen Itza, which at the time was being reconstructed by the Carnegie Institution (see below) and by the government. The case crawled through the courts, but in 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in Thompson's favor. He had been dead for almost 10 years, so the title to Chichen reverted to his heirs, who in turn sold it to the Barbachano family, which owns Chichen Itza today.

Carnegie to Today

Beginning in 1924, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., reconstructed several buildings at Chichen Itza, notably the Temple of Warriors and El Caracol, the Maya observatory. At the same time the Mexican government restored El Castillo, the great pyramid, and the Great Ball Court. The year before the state of Yucatan completed a highway to Chichen Itza, beginning a wave of tourism that continues to grow every year.

The Carnegie discontinued its operation at Chichen in 1944. In 1939, the Mexican government formed INAH, an agency in charge of the nation's patrimony, including sites such as Chichen Itza. Although Chichen is on private property, the monuments belong to the people, and are managed and maintained by INAH. Over the decades, as the budget allows, INAH restores more and more of Chichen Itza. Most recently it completed a restoration of Akab Dzib, behind the Caracol.

For tourist and other visitor information on visiting Chichen Itza, click the Visitor Guide links above.