Ancient temple lights up jungle

By | Travel
Large Crowd at El Castillo During Equinox

In the south eastern region of Mexico, lies one of the world’s greatest wonders. Nestled in the flat plains and jungle expanse of the northern Yucatán Pennisula, Chichén Itzá looms over the horizon. Mexico is home to a Mesoamerican civilisation, the Mayas, the first civilisation to develop a fully functional language of the pre-Colombian Americas. They have survived; colonisation, emperors and modernisation, to form the Maya descendants seen today in sizable populations across the south east of Mexico.

Since their formation, the Maya nation have become renowned for their; astronomy, art, architecture and mathematical systems. Their obsession with time keeping and the cycles of the heavens has influenced their rituals and celebrations, as well as their architecture and education. Celestial and terrestrial cycles were observed and charted into different calendars to form the time line Mayas live their lives by.

The site of Chichén Itzá was once one of the most important cities for the Maya people. Abandoned indefinitely by the Itza people in 1214, this city was prominent between the 10th and 12th centuries. Chichén Itzá is an intricate layout of ancient Mayan ruins, designed to enable the Maya time keeping and astronomy, decorated heavily with the animal effigies they believed in.

Traditional Mayan costume. Credit@ Hugo Pereira via Flickr.com

Traditional Mayan costume. Credit@ Hugo Pereira via Flickr.com

There are several Maya-style temples; Temple of the Jaguar, Temple of the Warriors, numerous ball courts, the observatory and the Pyramid of Kukulcán, or El Castillo. In the 15 square kilometres of the Chichén Itzá, only 30 of several hundred buildings have been excavated.

It may be defined as, ‘the mouth of the well of the dew’ because the buildings are nearly always covered in dew 365 days a year; the well refers to two giant cenotes, or sink holes in the ground. Yucatán is an arid state, with most rivers deep underground. The two cenotes would have been the Itzas only access to water, with the Sacred Cenote being a place to sacrifice objects or even people to the Maya god of rain, Chaac.

What has become the most important building within the Chichén Itzá, is the pyramid of Kukulcán, or El Castillo. The Maya people positioned this four sided pyramid carefully so that the spring and fall equinoxes might be read from the steps, with the north side completely in shadow and the west side bathed in light. Even in architecture, with each set of stairs housing 91steps, combining the top step to represent the 365 days of the year. This culture marks significant solar dates, such as equinoxes, with much regard as they were the main indicators of planting and harvesting times.

El Castillo pyramid in Chichén Itzá. Credit@ Bjorn Christian Torrissen via Flickr.com

El Castillo pyramid in Chichén Itzá. Credit@ Bjorn Christian Torrissen via Flickr.com

Many centuries on and El Castillo still draws a crowd. On September 23rd the Autumnal equinox aims to fall on this ancient pyramid, witnessed by thousands who have travelled to see it. The nine steps of the pyramid cause seven isosceles triangles to reflect one side of the staircase. As the sun shifts in the sky, the triangle shadows move, creating the impression of a snake like figure crawling down the steps. The Maya nation sees this as a highly spiritual event, as the rattle snake is the motif symbol of Kukulcán, the feathered serpent god.

This equinox celebration comes with a festival like atmosphere; folk dance troupes, vendors and guided tours are abundant as the thousands of people gather to witness this play of light and shadow. What was already a marvel of the modern world, comes alive with spiritual and traditional meaning to the Maya people, charging the air surrounding this site, with the mystical divination of this ancient, sacred culture.

How important is it to experience the culture of other nations?

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