Tuesday, March 15, 2011

7 wonders of the world's fifth Chichen Itza

. Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In its heyday (most of the first millennium A.D.), the Mayan Empire stretched from the top of the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico, through Guatemala and Belize, and as far south Honduras. It included not only Chichen Itza but other famous cities, all worth a visit, such as Uxmal, Palenque, Tulum, and especially Tikal (in Guatemala). You may recognize the Mayan temples not only from Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto, but from Star Wars IV: A New Hope, where the X-Wing fighters are rising from their Rebel base in the jungles of Yavin.
The Mayans were the most sophisticated indigenous empire in North America, just as the Incas were the most sophisticated indigenous empire in South America. This is probably why each was chosen by the New Seven Wonders committee to represent those continents, respectively. The Mayans had an unbelievable grasp on astronomy, mathematics, writing, calendar, and architecture, far more advanced than most other world civilizations of their time.
The Pyramid at Chichen Itza is, in actuality, a giant Mayan calendar. There are 365 steps (one for each day of the year), 18 terraces (one for each 20-day month of the Mayan year), and 52 panels (one for each year before the world self-destructs and is reborn anew—their cyclical view of the cosmos).
Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the Itza well” due to the “cenote sagrado” (sacred well) nearby. This city was used as both a religious and political capital.
My perspective:
Although people often think of Chichen Itza as just a single pyramid, it actually is the name of the entire Mayan complex, comprised of the Ossuary, Temple of the Jaguars & Eagles, the Observatory, the “Nunnery,” the cenote (sacred well), the “Juego de Pelota” ball court, and the Group of Thousand Pillars, just to name some of the major landmarks. The most famous building in the complex, however, is the great Pyramid of Kukulcan (the Maya word for the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl), aka El Castillo (The Castle). Though it is not as big as the pyramids in Egypt or Teotihuacan (outside of Mexico City), there is something abundantly more pleasing to the eye about Mayan architecture than those other hulking masses.
One of my favorite things on the Chichen Itza site is the ball court, where the Mayans played a ball game (the loser would be sacrificed the gods, so there was a lot at stake!) called “Juego de Pelota” which was a cross between volleyball (the ball can’t touch the ground), soccer (you can’t use your hands), and basketball (you have to put the ball through a hoop). The ball court at Chichen Itza is the largest of its kind in the world.
Also, go to Chichen Itza on the Spring or Autumn Equinox to see a special effect: the shadows play on the staircase of El Castillo imitating a climbing serpent (representing the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl), but then again, with the tourists that mob the place on those days, perhaps it’s better to stay away!
Also, go check out the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam instead of, or in addition to, Chichen Itza. It’s only about an hour away, but what a contrast! Unlike Chichen Itza which is overrun with tourists, souvenir sellers, and everything is roped off, at Ek’ Balam you can climb on all the structures and it has few tourists and is devoid of the annoying hawkers. Or better yet, take a week to travel the entire so-called “Mayan Riviera” and see the Mayan civilization in its full glory.
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