Chichen Itza
El Castillo, Chichen Itza Pyramid Photo

Chichen Itza was first settled around 435 C.E., however, in later centuries it became subject to waves of attacks from semi-nomadic tribes from northern Mexico. This and a period of prolonged drought gradually weakened Mayan society. In the 900s, the Toltec Itza tribe conquered the city, radically changing its culture. The Mayan renaissance that followed brought with it a new militaristic ethic. The Toltec people were ancestors of the Aztecs. Theirs was a warring culture, dominated not by royalty and priests classes, but rather by the warrior caste: the Jaguar and Eagle Clans. With their arrival, the existing Puuc and Chenes architecture merged with Toltec influences from the north, developing a new Maya-Toltec style. Depictions of war and sacrifice became much more prominent in reliefs on their architecture, as did strong references to the Toltec Itza pantheon of gods, particularly the cosmic Feathered Serpent, the Jaguar, and the Eagle.

In no city is the importance that the Maya placed on astronomy and astrology more apparent than in the city of Chichen Itza. Kukulkán's Pyramid (above), referred to as "El Castillo" in Spanish, has exactly 365 steps, the number of full days in a solar year. It was build in such a way that during the spring and fall equinoxes a shadow is cast along the steps to resemble the feathered serpent god slithering down towards it's sculpted head at the foot of the pyramid. Interestingly, the Maya were so precise in their astronomical observations that they calculated the number of days in a solar year to 365.2420 - a number only off by .0002 from modern scientific standards. They calculated lunar cycles and the movements of Venus and Mars with similar accuracy.

Today, Chichen Itza is perhaps the most famous of the Mayan sites, largely due to its close proximity to the popular vacation destination of Cancun.

The Observatory, Chichen Itza, Photograph

The Observatory, or Caracol

This unique building is a monument to the Maya's understanding of astronomy. It was built with doors in the four cardinal directions, and with windows on its upper levels used to track astrological events such as seasonal solstices.

Plumed Serpent Photograph, Chichen Itza

Kukulkán

This "Feathered Serpent" was fundamental in Mayan Mythology. The god was inherited from the Toltec pantheon of the north, where it was known as Quetzalcoatl.

Jaguar Alter Photograph, Chichen Itza

Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars

Used for ritual and sacrifice, this monument's defining feature is its godlike depictions of the animals that represented Chichen Itza's warrior caste.

Jaguar Throne Photograph, Chichen Itza

Jaguar Throne

This ceremonial throne was probably reserved for a priest or dignitary. Archaeologists also discovered a more extravagant Jaguar throne, painted red with jade inlays, within the sanctuary of the internal pyramid buried deep inside the larger feathered serpent pyramid.

Thousand Columns Photograph, Chichen Itza

The Thousand Columns of the Temple of the Warriors

These columns supported a large hall, which was used to house assembles of the Maya-Toltec warrior castes.