This March 21, the spring Equinox, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza reminds us why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. On this day, visitors gather in the Great Plaza at the foot of El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan, and as the sun begins to set, the secret of the pyramid is revealed, an ancient serpent god returns to earth.
The pyramid was built with such mathematical precision and aligned to catch the rays of the setting sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes. Triangles of light and shadow ripple along the side of the north staircase creating the body of a snake. As it merges with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building, the illusion is complete – a gigantic serpent slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote.
The Coming of a God
The snake symbolizes Kukulcan (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the spring planting and fall harvest seasons for the Maya.
The city’s rulers, priests and astronomers would scan the heavens for portents, recording the movements of the stars and charting the passage of the seasons. They could predict the Equinoxes and on this day, they would have summoned their subjects to the main square for a ceremony invoking Kukulcan with prayers, rites and offerings. Imagine the awe of the populace as the serpent appeared before them.
Experts believe that Kukulcan may also have been the name of a great leader who came from the west and resided at Chichen Itza some time in the 10th century, during the period when the city was ruled by the Itzae, a group of seafaring warrior traders or Putun from Chontal Maya territory in Tabasco and Campeche with political and commercial ties to central Mexican cultures.
A Solar Clock
Dominating the Great Plaza and built only with stone tools, the 25-meter-high El Castillo functions as a solar clock to the wonder of scientists and visitors alike and is also associated with the Mayan calendar. Sitting on a square base measuring 55.5 meters on all sides, the pyramid has nine terraces, divided by two stairways. The number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the ancient year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases (91), in addition to the top platform, the entrance to the temple, equals 365, the days in the year.
The pyramid was built some time between A.D. 650 and 800, with later modifications, possibly from 1000 to 1150. The earlier temples are inside the pyramid we see today and can be visited via a narrow staircase, which is definitely not for the claustrophobic. A chac mool statue guards the entrance to the inner sanctum where there is a magnificent throne in the form of a red jaguar with jade spots and eyes.
The Maya and other pre-Hispanic cultures venerated the jaguar for its strength, stealth and ferocity and at Chichen Itza, this noble animal has its own temple, just one of the wonders to be seen at the huge archaeological site.
The Equinox phenomenon can also be witnessed at Dzibilchaltun (see above photo), an archaeological site to the north of state capital Merida, en route to the Gulf coast port of Progreso. Here, early birds gather to watch the rising sun shine through the doorway of the Temple of the Dolls. Archaeologists have reported similar temple alignments and the play of light and shadow to mark the equinoxes and solstices at Uxmal and at Uaxactun in Guatemala.
One of Yucatan’s Ancient Wonders
Don’t miss the spring Equinox at Chichen Itza. The serpent of light and shadow may also be seen the day before and after, cloud cover permitting. Book your Chichen Itza trip through Thomas More Travel or at the tour desk in your resort. If you would like to explore at your own pace, private tours can also be arranged through the travel agency and if you decide to stay longer, the evening Light & Sound Show is highly recommended.
Chichen Itza is located in the eastern Yucatan, 200 kilometers/125 miles from Cancun via the toll road (take the exit at Piste) or Highway 180.