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The Maya pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza in Mexico. 	Source: IRStone /Adobe Stock

Chichen Itza: Ancient Maya City Built Above A Gateway to the Underworld

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Chichen Itza is an ancient Maya city located in the northern part of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The city is thought to have been founded around the 6th century AD. Nevertheless, it only rose to prominence several centuries later. Chichen Itza dominated the Yucatan Peninsula during the early part of the postclassic Maya period, from about the 10th to 13th centuries AD. The supremacy of the city during this period is reflected by the great monuments that were constructed by its rulers. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Chichen Itza had been largely left abandoned. Since the 19th century, the site has been explored and excavated by archaeologists. Apart from being an active archaeological site, Chichen Itza is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico.

Where does the name Chichen Itza come from?

The name Chichen Itza comes from a combination of three separate Mayan words. Chi means “mouth” or “edge”, chen means “well,” and Itza is the name of the Maya ethnic group that settled at the site. Therefore, the name of this ancient city may be said to mean “the mouth of the well of the Itzas.” The word Itza can also be translated to mean “magicians of the water”. This is because Itza itself is a combination of two words, itz, meaning “magic”, and a, meaning “water”.

Chichen Itza is thought to have been founded during the 6th century AD, presumably by the Maya people who had occupied the Yucatan Peninsula since the preclassic period, which lasted from around 1500 BC to 300 AD. There is evidence that during the 10th century the city was invaded by foreigners. It was around this time that the Maya cities of the southern lowlands were collapsing. The identity of these invaders, however, is not entirely clear. Some scholars, for instance, believe the invaders were the Itza, whilst others believe that they were Maya who were influenced by the Toltecs of central Mexico, or even the Toltecs themselves. There is also a suggestion that the Itza came to occupy the site, though only two or three centuries after this initial invasion.

Relief sculpture in the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza showing sacrifice by decapitation. (HJPD / CC BY-SA)

Relief sculpture in the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza showing sacrifice by decapitation. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Interestingly, there is evidence in the Books of the Chilam Balam (“Chilam Balam” meaning “Secrets of the Soothsayers”) that Chichen Itza had a different name prior to the arrival of the Itza. Since there is no single standard of orthography for the Yucatec Maya, the original name for the site has been represented in different ways, including Uuc Yabnal, Uuc Habnal, Uuc Hab Nal, or Uc Abnal. Whilst Uuc or Uc means “seven”, the meaning of the second word varies. Yab, for instance, means “many”, whilst an ab is a type of fruit.

The Sacred Cenote: Ritual Sinkhole Becomes Treasure Trove for Archaeologists

One of the factors that led to the establishment of a settlement at Chichen Itza is the presence of several cenotes at the site. These are large, natural sinkholes that serve as a source of water. Considering that the northern Yucatan is arid, and that its interior has no above-ground rivers, cenotes would have played an important role in the survival of the people who lived there. The most famous cenote at Chichen Itza is the Cenote Sagrada or Sacred Cenote, which was formed by a collapsed cave in the limestone bedrock.

The Sacred Cenote is considered one of the largest repositories of offerings in the Americas. (Subbotina Anna/Adobe Stock)

The Sacred Cenote is considered one of the largest repositories of offerings in the Americas. (Subbotina Anna/Adobe Stock)

As its name suggests, the Sacred Cenote was not just a source of water, but was also a place of ritual significance. According to sources written during the Spanish period, the Maya deposited luxury goods, and made human sacrifices at cenotes as a means of worshipping Chaac, the Maya rain god. Over time, researchers have found truth in these claims, as a variety of luxury goods have been found deposited in the cenote. As a matter of fact, the Sacred Cenote is considered to be one of the largest repositories of offerings found in the Americas during the pre-Columbian period.

During the 20th century, the Sacred Cenote has been investigated by archaeologists. Between 1904 and 1910, for example, a controversial dredging project was undertaken by the American archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson. The project recovered a large quantity of artifacts, including pottery, gold objects, and goods made of jade. In addition, human remains, which displayed wounds consistent with ritual sacrifice, were found.

Deciphering History Through Architecture at Chichen Itza

As mentioned earlier, Chichen Itza was established during the 6th century AD, but was later captured by foreign invaders. This change in the city’s occupants is physically visible in the structures that have survived. Before the coming of the Itza, the inhabitants of Chichen Itza constructed their buildings in an architectural style known as Puuc. This style is named after the Puuc Hills to the southwest of Chichen Itza, and may be identified by several characteristics. For instance, Puuc buildings normally face inwards towards the city’s ceremonial plaza, and are grouped around a general north-south axis. Apart from that, Puuc buildings consist of a solid core of stone and plaster, covered by well-cut, worked stone that serves a purely ornamental function.

Aerial view of Chichen Itza, UNESCO World Heritage site. (Dronepicr / CC BY 3.0)

Aerial view of Chichen Itza, UNESCO World Heritage site. (CC BY 3.0)

The buildings of Chichen Itza that were constructed in the Puuc style are located to the south of the main plaza, in the area known today as Chichen Viejo, or Old Chichen. The structures of Old Chichen are considered to be the oldest in the site, and include el Caracol, la Iglesia, and the Akabtzib. El Caracol, which means “the snail”, is named as such after the stone spiral staircase within it. The structure consists of a round building (where the staircase is found) on a square platform, and it served as a sophisticated astronomical observatory. La Iglesia, meaning “the church,” is a small temple decorated with elaborate masks of Chaac, whereas the Akabtzib, which is Maya for “House of the Dark Writing’, was the home of the city’s administrator. The name of the latter is derived from the intricately carved glyphs found on the lintel above one of the structure’s doorways. Incidentally, the building was once known as “The Flat House with the Excessive Number of Chambers.”

Temple of Kukulcan: The Mesoamerican Step-Pyramid at the Heart of Chichen Itza

The most famous monuments at Chichen Itza, however, were only built after the arrival of the foreign invaders. These include El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, and the Temple of the Warriors. El Castillo, meaning “the castle,” is arguably the most recognizable monument of Chichen Itza. This structure, known also as the Temple of Kukulcan, is situated at the center of the city. The prominence of the temple is enhanced by the fact that it is the tallest structure at the site. The pyramid itself is 24 m (78.7 ft.) in height, whilst the temple on the platform is 6 m (19.7 ft.). Thus, the entire monument is 30 m (98 ft.) high. In addition, the Temple of Kukulacan is the largest temple in Chichen Itza, having a base measuring 53.3 m (174.9 ft.) on all four sides.         

El Castillo, know as the Temple of Kukulcan, at the center of Chichen Itza. (Daniel Schwen / CC BY-SA)

El Castillo, know as the Temple of Kukulcan, at the center of Chichen Itza. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Temple of Kukulcan is not only impressive for its size, but also for the mathematical brilliance of its architects. According to legend, twice a year, when day and night are in balance, Kukulcan (the Maya version of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl) would visit this temple. The god would commune with his followers, give them his blessings, and continue into the sacred waters. After taking a bath there, he would continue his journey to the Underworld. The architects of the Temple of Kukulcan designed the pyramid in such a way that during the equinox, those who came to the temple would be treated to a magical spectacle of light and shadow. For five hours on those days, the shadow of seven triangles would appear on the side of the staircase, starting from the top, and making its way down to the giant stone head of Kukulcan at the bottom. The top and the bottom of the pyramid are connected by the shadows for 45 minutes, before it slowly descends, and disappears. For the ancient Maya, this must have been proof of the legend. Interestingly, this phenomenon has been recreated artificially in modern times on a nightly basis, so that tourists need not wait for the equinox to see it.

Great Ball Court and the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

To the northwest of the Temple of Kukulcan is located the Great Ball Court. Although seven ball courts have been discovered at Chichen Itza, this one is considered to be the most impressive. The Great Ball Court measures 166 m (544.6 ft.) by 68 m (223.1 ft.), making it the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. The walls of the court are 12 m (39.4 ft.) high, on the top of which are rings carved with intertwining serpents. The walls are also decorated by sculpted reliefs. One of these reliefs has been interpreted as depicting the victors of a game holding the decapitated head of a member of the losing team.

Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) / CC BY-SA)

Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As for the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, this is a large, stepped pyramid with rows of carved columns portraying warriors. The columns are located in front and on the side of the temple. Similarities in design have been noted between this temple and Temple B at Tula, the Toltec capital. This has led to the suggestion that there were cultural contacts between the peoples of the two cities.

Decline of Chichen Itza and the Spanish Conquest

Scholars believe that Chichen Itza dominated the Yucatan Peninsula between the 10th and 13th centuries. According to written sources, a revolt and civil war broke out about 1221 in Chichen Itza, leading to the city’s decline. This is corroborated by the archaeological evidence, as the wooden roofs of the Temple of the Warriors and the Great Market were found to have been burned around this time. In more recent years, however, archaeologists have suggested that Chichen Itza went into decline around the 11th century, 200 years earlier than originally thought.

After its decline, Chichen Itza was replaced by Mayapan, a neighbouring city to its west, as the dominant power on the peninsula. For a period of time, Chichen Itza joined Mayapan and Uxmal to form a political confederacy called the League of Mayapan. The league, along with the supremacy of Mayapan, came to an end around 1450. During the 16th century, the Spanish arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula, and began their conquest of the Maya. Chichen Itza was claimed by the conquistador Franciso de Montejo in 1531. Although de Montejo intended to make the city the capital of Spanish Yucatan, he failed to do so, as the Spanish were driven out by a native Maya revolt several months later.

Page from the illustrated book Incidents of Travel in Yucutan by John Lloyd Stephens. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)

Page from the illustrated book Incidents of Travel in Yucutan by John Lloyd Stephens. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0)

Forgotten Maya Ruins Capture the Imagination

In any case, by the time of de Montejo’s arrival, Chichen Itza had been largely abandoned, as its inhabitants had moved to smaller towns. The situation remained as such in the centuries that followed, and the site was gradually reclaimed by the jungle. Although Chichen Itza remained sacred to the Maya, it was slowly forgotten by the rest of the world. The site, however, entered popular imagination during the 19th century. In 1843, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan was published by the American explorer, John Lloyd Stephens. As a result of Stephens’ book, which recounted his journey in the Yucatan Peninsula, other explorers began to visit the ancient Maya city.

In the decades that followed, various archaeological excavations were conducted at Chichen Itza. As a result of these investigations, the site’s ruins were mapped, and some monuments were restored. The archaeological work at the site has also led to a greater understanding of Chichen Itza. Archaeologists continue to work at Chichen Itza even today, on the hunt for new discoveries. In 2019, for instance, archaeologists were searching for a sacred well under the city. Instead, as they were exploring the Balamku, or ‘Jaguar God’ cave system, they stumbled upon a trove of over 150 ritual objects.

Chichen Itza has become an extremely popular tourist attraction. Stephens’ book not only prompted archaeologists to explore the site, but tourists were not far behind. In the early 1920s, for example, Yucatan’s first official tourism business was established. In recent years, it has been estimated that up to two million tourists visit Chichen Itza annually, which makes it one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Chichen Itza is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2007 it was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a global survey of more than 100 million people.

Top image: The Maya pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza in Mexico. Source: IRStone /Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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