Have you ever attended an end-of-the-world party? I had not, either, until on Friday December 21, 2012, when I took a bus from my hotel in Cancun, Mexico, to the ancient Mayan site known as Chichen Itza.
I made the journey on this specific day so that I could attend “the end-of-the-world party.” That’s right! According to some Mayan scholars, December 21, 2012 (the first day of winter) is a long-anticipated date because it coincides with a date scrawled on a stone 1,300 years ago by the ancient Mayans. The date that was etched so long ago was August 11, 3114 BC. Using the Mayan long-date count and allowing for leap years, August 11, 3114 works out to be exactly 5,000 ago from December 21, 2012.
According to Mayan thinking, the end of this 5,000 year epoch will bring about some cataclysmic event. But just what event? This is where Mayan scholars disagree. On the one hand, there is the interpretation that December 21, 2012 will mark the dawning of a new “age” in which the earth and its inhabitants will undergo a positive physical and/or spiritual transformation. This new age will bring about a milieu in which human beings come to appreciate, respect, and care for their physical environment. Another theory suggests, more provocatively, that December 21, 2012 will mark the end of the world as we know it, e.g., the earth will collide with a mythical planet called Nibiru and will be no more! I definitely wanted to be on hand for this red-letter day. But just in case . . . I booked a round-trip flight!
So on December 21, 2012, festivities were organized at the leading Mayan sites throughout the countries that were part of the Maya civilization, a five-country area that is often referred to as Mundo Maya (“the Mayan World”). It contains more than 150 archaeological sites where visitors may admire the remains of one of the most amazing civilizations in history. Main events were planned at Chichen Itza and Tikal in Guatemala, even though the ancient Mayan culture was spread over a wide area now occupied by five Central American countries: Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Perhaps none of these sites is more indicative and illustrative of this ancient culture than Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as the sixth in our review of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
When I arrived at Chichen Itza, I was surprised to see the news media out in force. I had never seen so many TV vans with satellite dishes sitting on top since watching the coverage outside O.J.’s house when he returned home from the interstate chase in 1994. I began to wonder if I would really need that ticket back to Atlanta!
Chichen Itza is a large pre-Columbian city built by the Mayan people from about 600-900 AD. It is located some 120 miles from Cancun. The site includes a multitude of architectural styles, including some that are not Mayan. Today, scholars conclude these diverse styles point to the general cultural diffusion of the period. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities, and it was likely to have been one of the mythical “great cities” referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Mayan world, a factor that certainly contributed to the variety of architectural styles reflected here.
Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico with nearly 3 million visitors annually. The site has a variety of structures densely packed in the ceremonial center of less than 2 square miles. The stepped pyramids and the colonnade, as well as the many temples and other stone structures of Chichen Itza, were sacred to the Maya. This incredible complex reveals much about the Mayan vision of the universe – which was intimately tied to what one could see in the night skies above the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Mayan name “Chichen Itza” may mean something like “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The site is located in the eastern portion of Yucatan State in Mexico – an area that is quite arid, and where all the rivers run underground. There are four natural sink holes (called “cenotes”) that provide sufficient water year round. Of these cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” (“Sacred Cenote” or “Well of Sacrifice”) is the most famous. According to historical sources this was the place where the Maya sacrificed human beings as a form of worship to the Mayan rain god. One archaeologist dredged the “Well of Sacrifice” in the early 1900s and recovered artifacts of precious stones and pottery, as well as human remains. These remains have been carefully studied and found to exhibit wounds that would be consistent with human sacrifice.
Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Mayan lowlands participating in the water-borne peninsular trade route through its port site on the Isla Cerritos on the north coast. By means of this port the Mayas at Chichen Itza were able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant places such as volcanic glass from central Mexico and gold from southern Central America. Between AD 900 and 1050 Chichen Itza expanded to become a powerful regional capital controlling the north and central Yucatan.
The initial layout of Chichen Itza developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD. By the end of the 10th century the city had become a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatan to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula.
According to tribal beliefs at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to receive the power of prophecy should they be fortunate enough to somehow survive this harrowing ordeal. During one such ceremony, as the story goes, a Mayapan ruler of a pre-Columbian city located about 100 kilometers away hurled himself into a Cenote. He did manage to survive, and after he was removed he invoked those prophetic powers and predicted his own ascension and ultimate conquest of Chichen Itza.
While there is evidence that Chichen Itza was at one time looted and sacked during the 12-13th centuries, many scholars suggest that there is greater evidence that the conquerors were not the Mayapan. Much of the archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250 well before the rise of the Mayapan city.
Easily the most recognizable structure at Chichen Itza is the Temple known as El Castillo. This remarkable step-pyramid demonstrates the accuracy of Maya astronomy because it has 365 steps – one for each day of the year. Each of its four sides has 91 steps, and the top platform makes the 365th. Devising a 365-day calendar was a notable feat of Maya science, but listen to this: twice a year (on the spring and autumn equinoxes) a shadow falls on the pyramid and forms the shape of a snake. As the sun sets, this shadowy creature appears to descend the steps so that it eventually co-joins a stone sculpture of a serpent’s head located at the base of the steps. The remains at Chichen Itza include a very advanced and sophisticated observatory.
Despite the huge crowds and all the members of the press, I found Chichen Itza to be an incredible and breathtaking place. Its beauty and grandeur is almost “other-worldly.” I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see the largest calendar in the world and to witness the ingenuity its construction reveals. I concur with the millions who voted: this place definitely belongs among the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
Next time: “One Colossal Statue: Christ the Redeemer”