Where Is Chichen Itza?
In 1839, two men—-Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens—-were on their way to Central America. The US president was sending them there to seal a trade agreement. But the men were also adventurers. Between them, they had already explored Egypt, Greece, and the ancient site of Petra in Jordan. They decided that once their work for the US government was finished, they would look for “ruined cities, places, scenes, and monuments.”
Leaving from New York, they sailed to the Gulf of Honduras. From there, they traveled up the Rio Dulce (Sweet River) to Guatemala City. Then, from the heart of Guatemala, Catherwood and Stephens began to explore the jungles of Central America.
For more than a year, the two men traveled with mules and teams of local guides. They went south to Honduras and then back up through El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. They found ancient ruins, mysterious temples, and stone carvings.
In 1841, they made another trip to explore the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is the land that separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. This time, they traveled with their guides by horseback. They battled mosquitoes and the malaria the insects carried with them. They moved tangled jungle vines to reveal temples and palaces that had not been seen in hundreds of years. From the Mexican town of Merida they traveled to Mayapan and found small—-but impressive—-ancient sites all along the way.
They had been exploring Central America for a total of about three years when they came upon a most amazing sight—-a huge stepped pyramid and massive ball court. They had seen fine examples of the architecture of the Maya—-the native people of parts of Mexico and Central America—-all along their journey. But here they saw an astonishing arrangement of columns, a tower with a spiral staircase, and hundreds of carved inscriptions. They were thrilled to find the remains of a city—-Chichen Itza.
In time, it became clear that Chichen Itza had been one of the most important and powerful cities of the ancient Maya civilization.
Stephens and Catherwood’s discovery proved that the Americas had not been populated by primitive cultures. The ancient Maya people had developed mathematical systems, writing, amazing architecture, beautiful artwork, and the ability to chart the stars and planets in the sky.
The two explorers not only discovered the ruins of the Maya, they made a record of them (in Frederick Catherwood’s detailed drawings and John Stephens’s journals). They opened a world for people who knew next to nothing of the history of Native Americans, the culture of the Maya, and their truly magnificent accomplishments. Chapter 1: World of the Maya
By around the year 500, the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica was reaching its peak. The most important royal families had established powerful cities throughout Central America from present--day Honduras in the south to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the north. For over seven hundred years—from around AD 250 to 900—-there was intense building, and constant battling between Maya power centers. During that time, the region they covered was around 120,000 square miles, nearly the same size as the state of New Mexico. The population may have reached up to fifteen million people!
Although there were between forty and fifty notable city--states, there was no single king of the entire region. Each city had its own king or queen who governed over the people in their area and performed important rituals for them.
The Maya called their mountain regions the highlands and the areas closer to sea level the lowlands. Even deep in the jungles, they established trade routes with other city--states along inland rivers, coastal waters, and paved pathways.
The Maya worshipped many gods. In each city, the biggest temple was devoted to one of the major gods.
Much of the landscape of the Maya is covered with tropical rain forest. It is home to animals such as toucans, tapirs, jaguars, bats, macaws, and snakes. These animals were revered by the ancient Maya and were often represented in their art and religious ceremonies. However, they fished and hunted more common birds and animals like deer for food.
The Maya were skilled farmers who cleared parts of the rain forest to grow their crops. Their farms produced corn, beans, chili peppers, and squash. They gathered honey, cotton, and cacao (say: cuh--COW) pods from the trees of the rain forest. They harvested the cacao seeds from the pods to make a foamy drink that tasted like bitter chocolate.
Corn—-which they called maize—-was their most important crop. They roasted it, ground it, and even crushed it to make drinks and thicken stews.
The Maya paid close attention to their appearance. Both Maya men and women wore their hair long. They decorated their bodies with paint, and sometimes elaborate tattoos and piercings. They wore thin cotton coverings, similar to ponchos, over their shoulders, and sandals on their feet. The women wore skirts underneath their long tops. They used embroidery to decorate their clothing. The designs of their tattoos, embroidery, and body paint were always carefully chosen symbols that were important to each person.
Only a few people in this ancient culture could read and write. Some kings and priests (called shamans) were educated. However, it was mainly the scribes who created a written record of Maya life. They recorded stories about the religion, politics, and history of their people. They made records of royal families and important events, like marriages, battles, and major wars.
Using around eight hundred different symbols, called glyphs, scribes wrote books on folded tree bark. Their glyphs represented people, words, sounds, and numbers. This writing system was the most advanced of all ancient Native American cultures. Although only a handful of these books have survived, Maya scribes also helped craftsmen carve thousands of glyphs onto buildings and stone pillars, called stelae. These stelae serve as historical records of the world of the Maya that are still studied today.
The ancient Maya were skilled city planners, architects, and builders. They designed many great palaces, temples, and monuments out of stone. The Maya believed that their universe was divided into three parts: earth, sky, and underworld. They built their pyramids to resemble mountains, reaching high up to the sky. These impressive structures often stood at the ceremonial centers of Maya life and culture.
The community would gather in plazas surrounding the pyramids at special times of year for religious events and to celebrate important occasions for their city--state. For the Maya, each spectacular building and monument was a symbol of the power of their ruling family and also a reminder of their connection to the universe. Chapter 2: People on the Move
Beginning around AD 800, long droughts (low rainfall) and increased warfare had weakened southern city--states. Without enough rain, farmers could not grow enough food to feed armies on the march and large city populations. Even though they cut down more and more of the rain forest to plant crops, the people were starving. They wondered if the gods were punishing them. And they may have begun to question the authority of their kings.
Many Maya migrated north, some to Chichen Itza, which became a huge fifteen--square--mile city. Even during the droughts, the city had access to underground water and reservoirs. It became the home of citizens from many other previously independent states. That’s why the carvings, glyphs, and buildings at Chichen Itza represent a combination of styles. Some were elaborately detailed, and others were simple and quite plain.
Unlike other ancient Maya cities, Chichen Itza had no king. The people in government may have been elected by noble families and the high priests of Kukulkan (say: koo--kool--CAN), the feathered snake god that the city was built to honor. Kukulkan was thought of as the Vision Serpent, the messenger who traveled between the Maya kings and their gods.
The wealthy and important families of Chichen Itza lived in stone homes that were painted with colorful murals. They were big enough to host large parties. Not far from the huge central pyramid, a market filled with an amazing variety of items served the noble families’ every need. Fruit and vegetables, salt, cotton, feathers, tools, precious stones, and copper were sold there. The city’s connections to other communities made it a trading center like no other in this area.
The more common people of Chichen Itza, the farmers and laborers, were not so fancy. They lived in wooden houses with thatched roofs woven from palm leaves and tall grasses. They grew their own corn, chili peppers, and other vegetables. They hunted in the surrounding forests.
The most powerful families organized spectacular events and displays dedicated to Kukulkan. These festivals were for all the citizens of the city. Everyone took part in ceremonies, rituals, and games in and around the great courtyard of Chichen Itza. It was big enough to hold many thousands of people.
The festivals in honor of Kukulkan drew religious travelers as well. The spread of the worship of the feathered serpent god—-as far away as Guatemala—-shows the city’s growing might throughout the world of the Maya.
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