Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Last year, I went on vacation to the Mayan Riviera, Mexico for a friend's wedding and had the wonderful opportunity to visit Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Believe me when I say, this was such an amazing, fascinating experience. Not only are you seeing these incredible structures that were built around 600 AD but you are learning about Mayan civilization; their daily life and culture.
Chichen Itza was built by The Maya who were an ancient civilization of southern Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras Belize and El Salvador. Today there are an estimated 6 million Maya living in these regions and speaking a variety of Maya languages.
This site has mystified thousands of people for hundreds of years and what fascinated me most was how advanced the Mayans were. Every detail of what they built was thought out and extremely well-planned, and they based their daily life off of astrology and were extraordinarily good astronomers themselves.

El Castillo, is a square-based, stepped pyramid that is approximately 75 feet tall that was constructed around 1000-1200 AD. There are 91 steps on each of the four sides, leading to the throne room at the top making a total of 365. (Which is, as you know, the number of days in a year). The stairways divide the nine terraces of each side of the pyramid into eighteen segments, representing the eighteen months of the Mayan calendar.
One of the most fascinating features of this pyramid happens twice a year, during the Spring and Autumn equinox. The sun is in exactly the correct position to cast a shadow which resembles a snake descending to the ground. (This would happen in the left side of the pyramid shown in the first photo) It is said that this was constructed this way in connection to agricultural rituals.
Unfortunately, because of vandalism to the pyramid over time, people are no longer allowed to climb or go inside in order to preserve it's beauty.

El Castillo was actually built on top of another temple, which wasn't discovered until the 1930's. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. You can see the excavations in this photo, which began in 2006.
From this photo, you can also see on the left side that the entire pyramid has not been restored. A local hotel actually came to the site long ago and stole pieces of the pyramid before the restoration began and used it to build parts of their hotel. Since archaeologists will not replicate any of the structure, unless these pieces are given back, El Castillo will never be fully restored. Locals are currently petitioning against the hotel. 

This is the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza, where a ball game would be played consisting of two teams. It has no vault, no discontinuity between the walls and is totally open to the blue sky. A whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court.
The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day and also night. Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction noted that the sound transmission became more and more strong and clear as they proceeded.
In 1931 Leopold Stokowski spent 4 days at this site to determine the acoustic principals that could be applied to theater for an open-air concert he was designing. Stokowski failed to learn the secret. Today it has not been explained.

The object of the game was to get the ball through the stone hoop. This was extremely difficult, so if it actually happened the game would be over. Points could also be scored by tossing the balls so that it touched the ring. Players of the game couldn't hold or touch the ring. Other basic rules were applied to the game as well, the ball could not touch the ground and players couldn't hold or touch the ball with their hands - only the elbows, knees, hips, and head were used. The players were very skillful, and the ball could stay in the air for an hour or more.
The player who won the game by getting the ball through the stone hoop, was then declared the winner, and in return would be decapitated. Legends have also said that it is the winning Captain who would present his head. Of course, for us, it seems strange to fight to win just to die but for the Mayans it was considered the ultimate honour, and would lead to heaven.

On either side of the ballcourt, royalty would sit to observe the games.

Here's a closer look at the structure that the Mayan Kings and family would sit at, you can still see hints of the colour that was used even back then that hasn't completely vanished over time. You can also see the elaborate carvings that were etched into the stone. These types of carvings were seen throughout the entire stretch of the ballcourt, often depicting images of warriors.

This is the Wall of Skulls, or the Tzompantli, where the heads of the sacrificed were placed as a sort of shrine to the game. You can make out the carvings of each individual skull in the stone.

These two pictures are interesting because you see in the first photo, that the structure, which is called The High Priests' Temple (although it isn't believed that this was a tomb or that priests were buried here) has been restored. And in the second photo, our tour guide is pointing out what it would've looked like when it was first discovered. This, in actual fact, was a painting, since colour film didn't exist back then.
Another interesting fact, in some religions, the serpent or snake represents evil or the devil but in Mayan mythology, the serpent actually represents rebirth.

Did I mention that we saw of ton of these little guys? Seriously. Everywhere.

P.S. Stay tuned for tomorrow's post about my favourite structure that we saw at the Chichen Itza site!

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