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Chichen Itza (12th century)

Chichen Itza (12th century)

The legendary city of the Mayan-Toltec Empire was located on the territory of present-day Mexico.



Chichén Itzá, Maya people, Toltec, Mexico, Yucatan Peninsula, Central America, World Heritage, architecture, necropolis, Spanish conquerors, pyramid, native, Middle Ages, conquest, America, history, capital city, civil war

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  • On the territory of which present-day country was Chichen Itza located?
  • Which civilisation was Chichen Itza part of?
  • What is a cenote?
  • When was Chichen Itza probably founded?
  • Which civilisation founded Chichen Itza?
  • Which European country conquered Chichen Itza in 1531?
  • When did Spain conquer Chichen Itza?
  • Who was the Spanish Conquistador who lead the conquest of Chichen Itza?
  • What structure was not built in Chichen Itza?
  • In honour of which god was the largest step pyramid temple of Chichen Itza, El Castillo, built?
  • Which peninsula was Chichen Itza located on?
  • How tall was the Temple of Kukulkan?
  • How many steps does the step pyramid have on each side?
  • The object of the Mesoamerican ballgame was to pass the ball through ...
  • How long was the central playing field of the ball court?
  • According to archaeologists, what was the function of the dome of El Caracol?
  • Whose statue was probably placed at the entrance of the Temple of the Warriors?
  • What was the diameter of the Cenote Sagrado?
  • What kind of rock is the Yucatan Peninsula composed of?
  • What sacrifices were performed at the Sacred Cenote at times of drought to appease the Rain God?
  • What did the Spanish call the Temple of Kukulkan?
  • What was the Tzompantli?
  • What was 'El Caracol' (The Snail) named after?
  • What was not part of Chichen Itza?
  • Where was the Jaguar Throne placed?
  • How long were the sides of the 'El Castillo' pyramid?
  • What animal is depicted on the reliefs decorating buildings in Chichen Itza?
  • What makes the posture of the chacmool statues characteristic?
  • What was the ball used in the Mesoamerican ballgame made of?
  • During the exploration of which building did archaeologists find the Jaguar Throne?
  • The animal depicted on the Jaguar Throne looks ...
  • What colour was the Jaguar Throne originally?
  • What were the eyes of the Jaguar throne made of?
  • What shape is the throne found in El Castillo?


Chichen Itza

  • Sacred Cenote - A natural sinkhole where locals performed sacrifices as acts of worship of the Mayan rain god during times of drought.
  • Tzompantli - A rack where the skulls of sacrificial victims were displayed.
  • Platform of Venus
  • The Castle - The step-pyramid temple, named 'El Castillo' by Spanish conquerors, was built in honour of the Mayan god, Kukulkan, the feathered snake deity.
  • Temple of the Warriors - A step-pyramid with a shrine on top that consists of two cellas.
  • marketplace
  • Plaza of a Thousand Columns
  • Xtoloc cenote
  • dwellings
  • fields
  • Great Ball Court - The ritual Mesoamerican ball game was played here.
  • Platform of the eagles and the jaguars
  • High Priests' Temple - Called Osario, it was a step-pyramid similar to El Castillo, but smaller.
  • El Caracol - The structure was called 'The Snail' by the Spanish, after the stone spiral staircase found inside. It is a unique structure, as it is not rectangular like typical Mayan buildings in the city. It may have served as an observatory.
  • The Nunnery - Named Las Monjas by the Spanish, it was probably a governmental palace. It is the best preserved structure in Chichen Itza.

The city of Chichen Itza, located in present-day Mexico in Central America, was founded by the Mayans in the 5th century. Located on the limestone plain of the Yucatán Peninsula, the settlement was conquered by the Toltecs in the 10th century. The two civilisations formed a military alliance and made Chichen Itza the capital of the Mayan-Toltec Empire.

In the civil war that broke out in the 13th century, numerous buildings of the city were destroyed by fire. Chichen Itza lost its role as a centre and fell into decline. In 1531, the city was conquered by the Spanish led by Conquistador Francisco de Montejo. They captured the city and later forced the Mayans to flee towards the interior of the peninsula.
The city was re-discovered by European travellers in the 19th century and archaeological excavations soon began. But even today, there are still unexplored areas in Chichen Itza.

This exceptional archaeological site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. In 2007, following an international popularity poll, it was included in the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. One of the most popular archaeological sites in Mexico, the city is visited by around 1.2 million tourists annually.

Cenote Sagrado

  • approx. 60 m
  • approx. 27 m
  • sinkhole - A round depression or hole in the ground caused by a collapse of the surface layer in karst areas. They served as freshwater wells.
  • sacrificial victims - The ritual sacrifice was performed to appease the Rain God.

The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone plain with no rivers. There are, however, numerous sinkholes, called cenotes. A sinkhole is a round depression or hole in the ground caused by a collapse of the surface layer. These served as wells for inhabitants of the peninsula.

One of the most important of these wells may have been the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote). It was probably a site where locals performed sacrifices as acts of worship to the Mayan rain god at times of drought. During the exploration of the cenote, archaeologist found many artefacts and human bones, which suggests that the Mayans sacrificed human beings too.

Great Ball Court

  • Jaguar's temple
  • wall
  • bench
  • stone circle - They were placed vertically on the walls along the centre line, usually at a height of 6 m.
  • playing ground - The largest structure of this kind in Central America.
  • 30 m
  • approx. 95 m
  • 8 m

The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is the largest Mesoamerican ball court. The court is 168 m long and 70 m wide; the central playing field is bordered by two 95 m long walls. Stone rings were placed on each wall along the centre line, usually at a height of 6 m. The players had to pass a solid rubber ball through one of the rings without touching the ball with their limbs.

The game also had a ritual purpose, as the court was considered to be a gateway between earthly life and afterlife. Based on contemporary reliefs, it is thought that members of the losing team were sacrificed. The execution of the losing team’s captain was probably the task of the winning team’s captain.


  • raised platform
  • reliefs - The walls of the skull rack were decorated with reliefs depicting skulls, eagles feasting on the hearts of sacrificial victims and skeleton warriors.

The Tzompantli, or the Skull rack, was a structure typical of the Aztec, Mayan and Toltec civilisation.
It is a scaffold-like structure consisting of vertically and horizontally placed stakes on which skulls were placed after holes had been made in them. It served for the public display of the skulls of the defeated enemy or sacrificial victims.

El Castillo

  • shrine - A 6 m tall shrine was built on the topmost terrace; it was used for performing human sacrifices.
  • 91 steps - There are four stairways on each side, consisting of 91 steps and rising at a 45 degree angle.
  • 9 terraces - Square-shaped, approx. 2.5 m high terraces.
  • 6 m
  • 30 m
  • 55 m

One of the most significant structures of Chichen Itza was the step-pyramid named El Castillo (Spanish for 'The Castle') by the Spanish Conquistadors. It served as the temple to the Mayan god, Kukulkan, the feathered serpent deity. According to research, the step-pyramid was built upon an older, smaller pyramid. The structure was built on a square base; its sides measure 55 metre in length and are oriented towards the four cardinal directions. The 30-metre-tall pyramid consists of 9 terraces. Four stairways, each consisting of 91 steps and rising at a 45 degree angle lead to the topmost terrace, where a 6-metre-tall shrine is standing.

During excavations, archaeologists found a chacmool and a jaguar statue in one of the inner chambers of the pyramid that served as the base of El Castillo. The former served as an altar for sacrifices, while the latter was presumably used as a throne.

Temple of the Warriors

  • step pyramid
  • shrine
  • Chacmool - Characteristic pre-Columbian sculptures that are thought to depict the Rain god. A flat space on it served to store sacrificial gifts.
  • Plaza of a Thousand Columns

The central element of the building complex was named after the columns that are decorated with reliefs depicting warriors. It is worth noting that each column depicts a different person.
A chacmool statue stood on the top of the step-pyramid, facing the stairway. The entrance of the shrine was behind it.


  • shrine
  • step pyramid
  • stairway

The step-pyramid called Osario is the scaled-down version of El Castillo. A staircase inside the temple on top of the pyramid led to a cave 12 metres below.
The temple was originally named 'High Priests' Tomb' by archaeologist Edward H. Thompson, because he had found burial artefacts and human bones in the cave when he excavated it at the end of the 19th century.
Today's archaeologists do not agree with Thompson's view and think that the building did not function as a tomb.

El Caracol

  • observatory (?) - According to a popular theory, its doors and windows were aligned to face certain astronomical phenomena.
  • square platform

The building named 'El Caracol' ('The Snail' in Spanish) after the spiral staircase found inside, is a cylindrical structure built on a large square platform. It is a unique building in the city, as traditional Mayan buildings were built on a rectangular plan.
According to some theories, El Caracol served as an observatory, as its doors and windows are aligned to face certain astronomical phenomena (e.g. the transit of Venus).

Las Monjas

The building named 'Las Monjas', or 'The Nunnery' by the Spanish conquerors, is the best preserved structure of Chichen Itza. This outstanding work of Toltec architecture was presumably a governmental palace, contrary to its name.


Chacmool sculptures are characteristic works of art of the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica. They depict a reclining figure with its head turned 90 degrees sideways, supporting itself on its elbows. The name 'chacmool' is not of Native American origin, it comes from Augustus Le Plongeon, an antiquarian who studied Chichen Itza.

The sculptures are presumably related to sacrifices; the stone bowls or discs on the figures’ stomachs support this theory: these may have served to store sacrificial offerings. The Chacmool was therefore a channel between the worlds of gods and humans.

The Chacmool shown in the animation was found in a chamber of an old pyramid inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan (El Castillo), near the Jaguar Throne.

Jaguar Throne

During the excavations of Chichen Itza in the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican archaeologists found a hidden, secret chamber inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan.
In the middle of the chamber they found a Chacmool statue, while in a smaller, inner chamber a throne depicting a jaguar was discovered. The jaguar, which turns its head 90 degrees to the left, was originally red. Its eyes were formed of jade gemstones; jade inlays were also used to decorate the body.



The city of Chichen Itza, located on the Yucatán Peninsula in present-day Mexico, was founded by the Mayans in the 5th century. The settlement was later conquered by the Toltecs and the two civilisations formed a military alliance. They made Chichen Itza the capital of the Mayan-Toltec Empire, creating a unique blend of their culture and art there.

The most important temples were built in the centre. The most significant of these was the step-pyramid that served as a temple to the Mayan god, Kukulkan and was named 'El Castillo', or 'The Castle' by the Spanish.

The largest Mesoamerican ballcourt is located not far from El Castillo. The ball game played here had important ritual aspects and often involved a human sacrifice.

The building complex known for its carved columns, the Temple of the Warriors, is at the other end of the large open space that features platforms.

A bit further away from the community spaces provided by the columns was the High Priests' Temple, a scaled-down version of the Temple of Kukulkan.

El Caracol, the structure that may have served as an observatory stood near the High Priests' Temple.

The city was surrounded by fields. The water necessary for the inhabitants, the animals and irrigation was supplied by natural sinkholes, called cenotes. Most dwellings were located on the outskirts of the city.

After the Spanish conquest, the Mayans abandoned the city, which then lost its significance. It was re-discovered by European travellers and archaeologists in the 19th century. Since then, it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was also included among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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