The Mayan civilization originated approximately 3,000 years ago in present-day Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico. The Maya created a very sophisticated written language, and also developed a social class system. They carried on trade that went as far south as Panama and as far north as Central Mexico.
Their number system included the concept of zero, an idea unknown to the old Greeks, who were expert mathematicians themselves. Using their mathematical knowledge, along with celestial observations, the Maya created a calendar and monuments which were used to observe and keep track of movements of the moon, the sun, and Venus. The monuments at Chichen Itza are examples of such monuments, and the area existed mainly as a ceremonial center for the Maya civilization.
The main focal point at Chichen Itza is El Castillo (castle, in Spanish). The acoustics at the top, and around the area of El Castillo are amazing. It is estimated that 60-80,000 people lived in the area, and would gather for ceremonies or to hear a high priest speak. Whomever was atop the pyramid need only speak in normal tone, and the sound would easily be heard by the massive crowd. It was amazing how far and clear just a clap from our tour guide was heard.
The phenomenon that El Castillo is famous for occurs twice a year, at both the spring and fall equinox. As the sun sets, light and shadow create the appearance of a snake, that gradually crawls down the stairway of the pyramid. The diamond-backed snake is made up of seven or so triangular shadows, cast by the steps of the pyramid, that the setting sun gives life to. The rolling shadow makes it way down the stairway, eventually uniting with the large snake head sculptures that are carved into the base of the pyramid. We were told that this attracts a crowd of 40,000+ people!
Each of the four very steep stairways are made up of 91 steps. Combined with the step of the top platform, they make a total of 365, the number of days in a solar year. Ninety-one is also the number of days that separate the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and fall equinox. It is believed that the Maya tracked the seasons and the annual solar events, using El Castillo as a calendar, to plant, harvest and perform ceremonies.
The game of Ulama is the oldest known team sport in the world, and was played on the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. I copied an aerial view:
Courts were the size of a modern day football field, and when seen from above looked like a capital “I”. A whisper from one end can be heard clearly enough at the other end, 500 feet away, and throughout the court. The game had ritual significance and was often associated with warfare.
Ulama was played by two teams of one to eight players who competed on either side of a central line that was marked one either side by stone rings set into the walls of the field.
Players used a large rubber ball that could weigh from three to eight pounds, and was about the size of a basketball. Each team tried to keep the ball in play by hitting it across the central line. The ball could be shot high in the air, bounced against the walls or rolled along the field. Points were awarded to one team when the other failed to keep the ball in play, like in volleyball. Unlike football, points were not scored if the ball landed in an end zone. Instead, this caused a penalty. The ball could not be hit with hands or feet, players used their hips and forearms. If a player managed to get the ball through one of the rings, the game ended.
As I mentioned in my previous post, you can easily spend a day or more here. Chichen Itza covers four square miles, and there is much to see and learn about. Here is an overview of the area.
Even though we’d have liked much more time, Scott was glad to have just seen it. Here are more photos of Chichen Itza.
“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”