Building of Chichén Itzá Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Occupied primarily between 700 and 1000, the Chichén Itzá core consists of structures such as the Castillo, the Observatory, and the Great Ball Court. Architectural similarities between Chichén Itzá and the Toltec capital of Tula in Hidalgo, Mexico, have spurred debates about foreign influence, and while once thought to be a Late Postclassic site, many believe it was occupied earlier.

Summary of Event

Located in the north-central portion of the state of Yucatán in Mexico, the site of Chichén Itzá is situated in the midst of a karstic limestone environment. There are no rivers or lakes nearby, and the primary water source besides rainfall includes karstic sinkholes known as cenotes. Caves abound in the region, and the major cave site of Balankanche is located about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) from Chichén Itzá. [kw]Building of Chichén Itzá (c. 700-1000) [kw]Chichén Itzá, Building of (c. 700-1000) Chichén Itzá Central America;c. 700-1000: Building of Chichén Itzá[0460] Architecture;c. 700-1000: Building of Chichén Itzá[0460] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 700-1000: Building of Chichén Itzá[0460]

The name Chichén Itzá is Yucatec Mayan for “the mouth of the well of the Itzá.” According to legend, the site of Chichén Itzá was founded by the Itzá and ruled by three brothers, one named K’ak’upakal (or Fiery Shield). There are several ideas about where the Itzá originated, including the northern Yucatán coast, the Tabasco/Campeche coast, and the central Mexican Toltec region; however, they most likely originated in the southern Maya lowlands. Major wars and defeats in the south involving kingdoms such as Tikal, Naranjo, and Dos Pilas during the Classic period (between 672 and 692) may have led to the deaths of kings, a loss of power by the noble class, and mass migrations to the north, perhaps resulting in the populating of Chichén Itzá.

Although minor occupation of the site of Chichén Itzá is first thought to have started in the Preclassic and Early Classic periods (350 b.c.e.-250 c.e.), it has long been thought to have been a primarily early Postclassic site (900-1200) that came to power after other major Maya centers were abandoned. This Postclassic settlement was associated with a Toltec Toltec Empire “invasion” stemming from the capital site of Tula in Hidalgo, about 1,000 miles (about 1,600 kilometers) away. The French explorer Claude-Joseph-Désiré Charnay was the first to note the similarities between the style of architecture, art, and iconography of Chichén Itzá and Tula during an 1857-1861 expedition. Supporting the idea of a foreign conquest is the myth of a once great Toltec king known as Quetzalcóatl Quetzalcóatl (god) (Feathered Serpent; also known as Kukulcan in the Maya area), who, after years of successful rule of the Toltecs, fell from power and led them to ruin. He left Tula in shame and is believed to have headed to the east. Spanish bishop Diego de Landa, who wrote about Chichén Itzá during the contact period, noted that a foreign ruler known as Kukulcan arrived to conquer the site. Modern interpretations have interpreted this legend as reflecting a Toltec conquest of Chichén Itzá.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan (Quetzalcóatl) at Chichén Itzá.

(Digital Stock)

Additionally, this foreign conquest was believed to have occurred because of the distinct architectural styles that were once thought to have represented different chronological periods and cultural influences. Old Chichén, which includes the elaborate mosaic stonework of the Puuc-style architecture Architecture;Chichén Itzá such as the Nunnery Palace and the Red Deer House, was thought to represent the earlier “Maya” occupation. In contrast, New Chichén architecture, such as the Castillo and Great Ball Court, was thought to represent the later Toltec-style architecture. These “foreign” structures exhibit few Maya inscriptions, are generally larger, and include images that appear to have Central Mexican influence. However, radiocarbon dating and a reassessment of the ceramics indicate that the site of Chichén Itzá rose to power around 700 and was in decline by around 1000. Additionally, most archaeologists recognize that Old Chichén and New Chichén were actually contemporary and everything was constructed before 1000. As the Toltec occupation at Tula is thought to date to 950-1150, this would indicate that Chichén Itzá was occupied long before Tula Tula;similarity to Chichén Itzá rose to prominence.

The layout of the site core includes major architecture that radiates out from the Cenote of Sacrifice Cenote of Sacrifice , which measures 150 feet (46 meters) across. A second, smaller cenote, known as Xtoloc, is also located in the site center and probably served as a water source. The Cenote of Sacrifice served a primarily ritual function and was the site of ceremonies and offerings to the gods. The cenote was dredged by American archaeologist Edward Herbert Thompson in 1904, during which he recovered objects made of jade, obsidian, gold, and pottery. Evidence suggests that a large number of human sacrifices were offered and included men, women, and children.

The site core also contains amazing constructions that exhibit jaguar, sacrifice, and feathered serpent imagery, as well as elaborate stone mosaics. The most prominent structure at the site is the Castillo Castillo (at Chichén Itzá) (or Temple of Kukulcan), located in the main plaza. This four-sided pyramid has a stairway on each side and a large amount of feathered serpent imagery. An earlier pyramid was found inside, with a beautiful jaguar throne painted red and with jade spots and eyes. A reclining chacmool figure, representing a Mayan fertility or rain god, a captive noble coaxing the rains, or a figure holding a receptacle for receiving sacrificed hearts, was located nearby. The Temple of the Warriors consists of a temple located on top of a stepped platform surrounded by square columns carved with soldiers who exhibit non-Maya regalia. Two feathered serpent sculptures are found at the entrance to the temple, and a chacmool is located at the top of the stairs.

Another important structure, known as El Caracol El Caracol (or “the snail,” named for the spiral staircase inside), is a round structure located on square platforms. It is also known as the Observatory and is believed by many to have astronomical alignments, in which the rising and setting sun, moon, and Venus can be tracked from the doors and windows. Other important structures include the Red House (the Chichanchob), the Nunnery Palace (Casa de las Monjas), the High Priest’s Grave (or Osario), the tzompantli (skull rack), the Venus platform, the Lower Temple of the Jaguars, and the Great Ball Court, the largest known ball court in Mesoamerica. It should be noted that large numbers of raised roads or sacbeob (“white roads” or “white ways”) made of stone also radiate throughout the site.

The limestone that is ubiquitous in the region was used to construct the architecture, and plaster made of sascab (soft limestone) covered the outside of the buildings. Structures often had elaborate masks and were painted in bright pigments such as red, green, yellow, and blue. However, it should be noted that the site of Chichén Itzá includes a large amount of settlement outside the site core and included perishable structures made of pole and thatch. Although this is where the largest portion of the population lived, small, round rock rings and associated artifacts (such as tools and ceramics) are often the only remnants of this nonelite occupation.


Chichén Itzá controlled much of the surrounding area during its reign, including major trade ports on the north coast. After 1000, the site’s importance waned, construction stopped, and squatters made up the majority of the settlement. The importance of this site was recognized long after it was in decline. The conqueror Francisco de Montejo (senior) and his soldiers established a temporary settlement in the site center in 1533. Later they were forced out after continued attacks by the Maya. Bishop Diego de Landa visited the site in 1566 and noted that the Cenote of Sacrifice was still a pilgrimage site where visitors went to throw offerings. Other important outside visitors included American adventurer John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood in 1842.

A major archaeological project was conducted by the Carnegie Institution in the 1920’s in which many of the structures were reconstructed, including the Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors. Today, archaeologists of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia continue to research the site, and thousands of visitors flock to this great center every year.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 6th ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Coe argues the traditional view that Chichén Itzá is a Postclassic site that was invaded by the Toltecs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coggins, Clemency Chase, and Orrin C. Shane III, eds. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984. Exhibition catalog of objects recovered from the Cenote of Sacrifice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Landa, Diego, and Alfred Tozzer, ed. “Landa’s ’Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán’: A Translation.” Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 18. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941. A translation of Bishop de Landa’s study of Mayan culture at the contact period, including Chichén Itzá and its continued use as a pilgrimage site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Lindsay. Twin City Tales: A Hermeneutical Reassessment of Tula and Chichén Itzá. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1995. This volume examines the way in which scholars have created a polarized view of the Maya versus the Toltecs, and critically examines the arguments for the similarities between the two sites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krochock, Ruth J. “Women in the Hieroglyphic Inscriptions of Chichén Itzá.” In Ancient Maya Women, edited by Traci Ardren. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2002. Argues that while women rarely are included in the inscriptions of the site, they were nonetheless powerful and provided legitimacy to the male rulers of Chichén Itzá.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. “Chichén Itzá: The Great Ballcourt.” In The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Scribner, 1998. Describes the debate about the Toltec invasion, discusses information about who founded the site, and focuses on the imagery and inscriptions associated with the Great Ball Court.

Categories: History