Chichén Itzá is a large archaeological site in what today is the municipality of Tinúm in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
The ancient city is also the engine of Yucatán’s
tourism industry, bringing in an average of well over one million visitors every year over the past couple of decades and over 2.6 million tourists in 2017 alone. Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was declared one of the New 7
Wonders of the World from a selection of over 200 sites voted on by people across the world.
The name Chichén Itzá means “At the mouth of the well of the Itza” and is derived from the Yucatec-Mayan words chi, meaning
mouth or maw, and ch’en meaning well. Itzá is the name of a distinct pre-Hispanic ethnic group that achieved political and economic dominance in the northern Yucatán Peninsula during the late terminal classic period sometime near the beginning
of the second millennia.
The Water Wizards or Itzá are thought to have migrated to the Yucatán from the south. After the fall of their great cities including Chichén Itzá, Edzna, and Mayapan, it is believed that they returned
to their ancestral land on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá in modern Guatemala.
But the history of Chichén Itza dates way back well before the arrival of the Itzá, whose name is thought to mean “enchanted waters”
or “water wizards.”
Because Chichén Itzá has gone through so many phases of occupation and construction, the origins of the site are difficult to date precisely using archaeological methods. That being said, it is widely accepted
that the city first reached prominence sometime in the fifth century CE, and was likely permanently settled by Mayan peoples in the third or fourth century. Epigraphers of Mayan hieroglyphics suggest that before the arrival of the Itzá, Chichén
Itzá was known as Uuc Yabnal or Uuc Hab Nal, meaning Seven Great House or Seven Bushy Places respectively.
During this earlier period, the city would have been in competition with other important centers in the region including Yaxuná
By the time Chichén Itzá reached the height of its power in the 11th or 12th century, it was one of the most diverse cities in all of Mesoamerica. The ancient metropolis attracted migrants and merchants from across the region
— a fact that is reflected in the city’s diverse architecture.
Remember when I mentioned that it was ironic that Chichén Itzá has become nearly synonymous with the Maya? Well, the thing is, Chichén Itzá’s
most iconic structures are not very “classic” Maya at all, but rather examples of Toltec architecture with a Mayan flair.
Now, it’s true that in past articles I have made reference to the influence of “non-Mayan” architectural
styles in other sites, but in Chichén Itzá, these influences are turned up to 11 on a scale of one to 10.
Now, this is not to say that Chichén Itzá is not really a Mayan site, just that it’s funny that structures like
the Pyramid of Kukulcán and The Grand Ballcourt have become so closely identified with the Maya when in reality, they are great examples of amalgamation from across Mesoamerica.