Chichen Itza: A Place of Wonder by Any Measure, This Architectural Complex on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Expresses the Worldview of the Maya with Mathematical Precision

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The Pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya ceremonial center on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The history of this architectural complex, whose name means "at the mouth of the Itza well," inspires a sense of wonder worthy of the name given to its early inhabitants: "water sorcerers."

Surrounded by dense rainforest, Chichen Itza sits in the north central part of the Yucatan, about 75 miles east of the stale capital of Merida. It hides two freshwater sinkholes, or cenotes, within its boundaries: one, known as Xtoloc, the source of drinking water for Chichen Itza; and the deep, emerald-hued Sacred Well where the rain god Chac was invoked to bring water. During droughts, countless jadeite offerings and even some sacrificed maidens or children were flung to the bottom of the well, which glistens within towering walls of blackened rock that seem to lead down into the underworld.

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But what is extraordinary about this city, which reached the height of its splendor around the tenth century, has to do not only with the ceremonies that unified the natural beauty of its surroundings with the worldview of the Maya people, but also with a concept of architecture that reflected the movement of the heavenly bodies with remarkable accuracy. This was clear during a visit we made recently, accompanied by one of the most experienced guides at the site, Manuel Pardenillas.

In this land where subterranean waters created underground cavities and deep mysteries, where "sorcerers" explored the passage of time and its relationship to the stars, rituals were organized around the edifices of calcareous stone, built according to precise astronomical calculations. That same search for mystery had led the Maya to become the first people ever to conceive of the number zero, predating even their counterparts in ancient India. But unlike Old World civilizations that found practical uses for their discoveries about space and time--developing, for example, hourglasses and the wheel--the Maya devoted themselves to examining the power of time and its influence on human life. Long before Jorge Luis Borges, they considered the idea of circular time: all that is, already was, and will be again.

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The Maya thought in terms of figures as large as those of the Alautun, a period equivalent to more than 63 million years. They were capable of calculating eclipses that had taken place many centuries earlier--and not only did they figure out the exact duration of the solar year and the phases of Venus, but they also conceived of a way to unite architecture with the everyday. They organized their lives in order to make sense of time and to read the stars, looking to the sky to see what was written on the earth.

A trip to Chichen Itza can be made geographically in less than three hours from Cancun or two hours from Tulum, but it represents a journey through time, to the grandeur of pre-Hispanic America. Back then, the power of a city such as this one grew out of its sacredness which did not exempt it from historical dramas such as those that precipitated its fall.

Chichen Itza holds ceremonial vestiges that correspond to different eras. One of the oldest buildings is known as the Nunnery, because its latticework reminded the Spanish of their own religious structures. A grand staircase leads up its north face. This building--like the Observatory and other structures such as the Akab Dzib--dates back to the Classic Period, which began around 600 A.D. Although some structures are older, it was not until the eighth century that Chichen Itza began to emerge as a ceremonial center.

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The oldest structures, which contain the famous Maya arch and representations of the large-nosed rain god, reflect the influence of the Puuc architectural style. …

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