For most, the word “pyramid” conjures images of ancient Egypt and the Pyramids of Giza. But other ancient cultures also boasted magnificent architecture. The Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula left behind a vast urban complex at Chichen Itza that includes temples, arcades, an observatory, sports fields, and a magnificent stepped pyramid. Chichen Itza was a sophisticated religious, ceremonial, and cultural center from C.E. 750 to 1200. Today it’s a popular tourist destination.
The Maya were advanced astronomers, incorporating calendars into their architecture. Each of the four sides of the flat-topped, stepped pyramid Temple of Kukulkan (known as El Castillo in Spanish) has 91 steps. Add the top platform and you have a total of 365 steps, representing one year. It features 52 panels, one for each week in a year, and 18 terraces corresponding to the 18 months in the Mayan year. Furthermore, the design of the pyramid causes a shadow to be cast in the shape of a giant snake appearing to descend to the ground precisely on the spring and autumn equinoxes. Kukulkan is a Mayan snake deity depicted as a feathered serpent.
Mayans took their sporting entertainment very seriously. They played a sacred game on an enormous court 554 feet long and 231 feet wide lined with carvings detailing the complex rules. Players tried to hit a soccer-sized rubber ball through stone hoops set high on the court walls. Apparently, winning was extremely important: one of the carvings depicts the captain of the losing team being executed. That’s a rather drastic incentive to encourage a team to win.
Another structure, known as the Temple of Warriors, features sculpted feather serpent columns at its top platform. This temple is also the location of a mysterious chacmool, a stylized sculpture identified with multiple Mesoamerican cultures believed to have been an altar for sacrifices. Life-size, three-dimensional, and carved from a single stone, a chacmool is a reclining male figure. His feet and elbows are down while the knees, chest, and head are up. The head is turned ninety degrees. Thought to represent warriors offering a sacrifice to the gods, the hands often form a bowl-shaped receptacle. Offerings could consist of anything from food to colorful feathers, tobacco, flowers, or even human sacrifice.
The inhabitants of Chichen Itza abandoned their magnificent city to the surrounding jungle during the 1400s, but left no record of why they chose to do so.