Chichén Itzá is one of the great, monumental cities of ancient Mesoamerica. It flourished on the broad, flat reaches of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula between the 7th and 13th centuries CE. Chichén Itzá is a mixture of Maya, Itzá and Toltec influences.
The city developed as Maya migrated from existing cities in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico around 400 CE. During this period many of the structures in so-called "Old Chichén" were built. This area, although open to visitors willing to brave the mosquitoes, is about a fifteen minute walk down a dirt path from the main area of the site, few buildings have been restored and a knowledgeable guide is needed to understand the remains. (There are no photos here from this part of Chichén Itzá.)
Most of the Maya-influenced structures are in Chichén Itzá's "southern zone" and were built during Chichén Itzá's "Classic" era prior to 900 CE. These include El Caracol (the "snail"), a round tower used by the Maya as an observatory, and a structure that has come to be known as Casa de las Monjas (the "nunnery," also a Spanish appellation).
Around the 10th century, Itzá traders and seamen (who were also known as the Chontal Maya or Puntún) moved into the Yucatán from what is now the Mexican state of Tabasco and gradually assumed control over the Maya at Chichén Itzá. Scholars are divided on what happened next. Most once believed (and some still believe) that the Itzá were soon followed by an invasion of the militaristic Toltec from the distant city of Tula. There is no doubt that Chichén Itzá shares many characteristics with Toltec Tula, including the monumental scale of the structures built after the 10th century (most particularly the main pyramid), worship of the feathered serpent Kukulkan (a Maya translation of Toltec Quetzalcóatl), a reverence for Chac-Mool (the messenger of the gods), the practice of human sacrifice and the frequent depiction of human skulls and jaguars or eagles holding human hearts. But most scholars now believe that it was Chichén Itzá that influenced Toltec Tula through trade and other contacts, rather than Tula overwhelming Chichén Itzá through military victory.
In any event, it was during this later period that the monumental structures of Chichén Itzá's "northern zone" were built. The most prominent structure is Kukulkán's Pyramid (dubbed "El Castillo" by the Spanish), which rises 100 feet above the central plaza of the ancient city. The pyramid has ninety-one steps leading up each of its four sides for a total of 364. At the top, one more step makes 365, or the number of days in the Maya year. Each of the four sides also has eighteen terraces (two on each side of the central staircase) that coincide with the eighteen months of the Maya calendar and on these terraces are fifty-two panels that correspond to the cycle of fifty-two years in the Maya calendar. In further tribute to the precision of the early builders, each year at the spring and fall equinoxes the sun moves across the pyramid in a such a way that it appears that the feathered serpent, Kukulcán, is slithering down the main staircase toward his sculpted head at the base. The event reportedly draws throngs of visitors from around the world.
Other grand structures also date from Chichén Itzá's "Early Postclassic" period (900-1200 CE). The large Temple of the Warriors is a pyramid that shares many influences with Tula's Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, including rows of carved warriors and a reclining Chac-Mool figure. Nearby is the Temple of the Skulls (Tzompantli), adorned with macabre reliefs of human skulls, where the heads of sacrificial victims were once displayed on poles. (Tula had a similar Tzompantli.)
Chichén Itzá also boasts the largest ball court (550 feet long by 230 feet wide) in Mesoamerica. Many early Mesoamerican cultures played variations of a game where contestants used their hips to move a heavy and solid rubber ball toward their opponents' goal. At Chichén Itzá, it appears that players had to somehow send the ball through small stone rings high up on the court's walls. (At Tula, by contrast, there are no rings.) Although the ball game may have also been played by many Mesoamericans for sheer sport, ancient depictions indicate that it often had political overtones and deadly consequences. Losers might find themselves decapitated. In some versions, a victorious ruler would play one-on-one against a defeated enemy. (In order to assure the desired outcome, the enemy player might be starved for weeks or have a bone or two broken before taking the field.) Once the heroic ruler vanquished his foe on the ball court, the loser was killed. Modern archaeologists have found the remains of human victims, from the ball games or other sacrificial rites, in the sacred "cenote" (a deep, well-like body of water at the northern end of Chichén Itzá) into which sacrificial victims were thrown
By the 11th century, Chichén Itzá was a major commercial and religious center. By the end of the 13th century it was abandoned. By some accounts, the ruler of Chichén Itzá (Chac Xib Chac) abducted a foreign leader's bride-to-be during the wedding and unleashed a war that Chichén Itzá ultimately lost. Survivors migrated to the Maya city of Petén in Guatemala. Thus, despite its one-time grandeur, Chichén Itzá was a ghost town when the Spanish arrived three centuries later.