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Chichen Itza Architecture

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Chichen Itza is renowned for its striking architecture. It is synonymous with Mayan culture and architecture and has stood for centuries as a testament to ancient ingenuity and artistry.

Chichen Itza: An Ancient City with Modern Flare

Have you ever seen the pyramids? Many people when asked this question immediately jump to the answer 'You mean the ones in Egypt?' However, what most people don't realize is that there are pyramid type structures around the world, many of which share features with those found in ancient Egypt.

The pyramids and architecture of Chichen Itza, found on the Yucatan Peninsula, are prime examples of this astonishing ancient phenomenon. In this lesson, we will discuss ancient Mayan architecture, city organization, and how culture and religion factor into the architecture of Chichen Itza.

Building Chichen Itza

The Mayan culture of Central and South America was one of rich artistry and architecture that reflected deep religious and social beliefs. Chichen Itza was established around 800 CE, but archaeological evidence places buried structures at the same site closer to 800 BCE. This means the location of Chichen Itza held importance 1000 years before the site was even built!

As one of the most important aspects of survival for any culture is its access to fresh, clean water, Chichen Itza was established near a natural well called a cenote. Its placement near the water source garnered its name, 'at the edge of the Itza's well'.

The central and most impressive structure in the Chichen Itza complex is the Temple of Kukulcan. The Mayan god Kukulcan was also known as Quetzalcoatl, or the winged, feathered serpent. The temple itself is a stepped pyramid, designed to line up with various astronomical events. The most famed event occurs bi-annually during the equinoxes when a slithering shadow is cast down the temple steps, a reminder of the serpent god to whom the temple is dedicated.

Other structures in the complex include the Temple of the Warriors, The Great Ball Court, and The High Priest's Temple. The Temple of the Warriors is a stepped pyramid design, similar to the Temple of Kukulcan, flanked with stone pillars that represent warriors.

The Great Ball Court is by far the most ornate and imposing court remnants of ancient American culture to date. The court itself is 545 by 232 feet with walls over 20 feet high, decorated with intertwining serpents. Finally, The High Priest's Temple is another smaller stepped pyramid supposedly used by the Chichen High Priest.

A map of Chichen Itza with the Temple of Kukulkan at center and other structures radiating from the center.
Chichen Itza Map

Mayan City Planners?

Like many modern cities, Chichen Itza was designed with purpose and function. While form and artistry still exist in the cityscape, the importance of navigability seems to be paramount. The urban design of Chichen Itza appears to have revolved around two primary philosophies: astronomical and practical.

The Mayan culture showed early signs of understanding the heavens and the tracks of stars, constellations, and planets, as well as major events like solstices and equinoxes. As a result, Mayan cities like Chichen Itza were designed to reflect and track major astronomical events. Buildings were aligned in particular directions in order to cast certain shadows or catch specific sunsets and sunrises. The significance of these designs tied closely with Mayan worship and religion.

However, the grouping and organization of Chichen Itza is its primary strength, showing enormous planning and forethought. Central to the complex is the raised platform upon which the Temple of Kukulcan sits. This orientation not only places the temple centrally but makes it visible from every location in and around the city. The rest of the structures surround the temple in a circular orientation.

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