Chichen Itza Ruins in Mexico: History & Facts

Instructor: Margaret Moran
Ancient civilizations were responsible for some amazing architectural wonders. One of those structures is that of Chichen Itza, the focus of this lesson. We will discuss the history of this monumental complex and a few of the known facts about it.


The Mayan civilization is one of the oldest in central America, and Chichen Itza, meaning at the mouth of the well of Itza, was a sacred and sophisticated urban center for this empire from 750 - 1200 AD. The core of the city was conceived during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 - 900 AD, though many believe its settlement and construction began around 550 AD.

The most notable structure in this settlement is the step-style pyramid called the Temple of Kukulkan, and it is the site's centerpiece attraction. The pyramid is a testament to the Mayan focus on the solar calendar, and it is closely tied to what was visible in the dark night skies over the city. Each side of the temple has 91 steps to the peak, ending at a single step at the temple's entrance. This gives a total number of 365 steps, the number of days in the Mayan calendar.

The Mayans possessed advanced skills in astronomy, and they were even capable of predicting solar eclipses. An impressive and rather sophisticated observatory structure remains on the site even today.

Chichen Itza observatory.

The city has been traditionally divided into two distinct parts and periods. The earliest, in the southern part of the city, is native Maya dating to the Epiclassic period, 800 - 1000 AD. These buildings display a distinct Puuc architectural style and have Mayan hieroglyphs. This plan is far more spacious than the other parts of the city, constructed on a roughly north to south axis. This alignment may reflect the course of the Xtoloc Cenote water source.

The second portion of the Chichen Itza complex is dated to roughly 1000 - 1200 AD and is a bit more mysterious. This section of the city is built more in a Florescent style and has more of an orderly plan. These buildings also offer a bit more of a Toltec civilization feel, leading many to believe the city of Chichen Itza was perhaps a trading center or there was some form of cultural sharing between the two.

Sadly, Chichen Itza's influence in the area fell into a rapid decline around 1200 AD, and the city of Mayapan became the new capital. But unlike many other civilizations that change capitals, the city of Chichen Itza was never lost to history, and the city continued to be revered as a place of pilgrimage for the Mayan people throughout the PostClassic period through the Spanish Conquests and beyond.

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