Chichen Itza History

Chichen Itza
Photo by: Daniel Schwen Creative Commons

Chichen Itza is a beautiful pre-Columbian city of Mexico which is likely one of great cities authors speak of in Meso-American literature. It can be found in the state of Yucatán and was built by the Mayan Civilization. The city has a history spanning over one thousand years. It was built around 400 A.D. and was one of the largest Mayan cities. Chichen Itza was abandoned a few times before the Toltecs took over the land in 987 A.D. The city is known for its diverse architecture and rich history.


The name of the Mayan city means “At the mouth of the well of the Itza”. Historians believe that there are more than one possible translations for the word “Itzá”. It refers to a certain group of people or a political-economic lineage. It could also mean “enchanter of the water”. It is spelled Chichén Itzá in Spanish, however the accents are also maintained in other languages to show where the syllables are stressed in both names.

Mayans and Toltecs

The early Chichen Itza history is very obscure. This is true for a lot of other aspects of Mayan history. Not a lot of written records are found about this area. Dates and events are scattered because of the way the Mayan calendar is arranged. This is the reason why many periods or dates which were years apart are given the same name.

During the early years of Chichen Itza, this area was mainly used as a ceremonial center by the Mayans. The area was abandoned for about one hundred years, however no records of why this happened could be found. Shortly after resettlement, the land was invaded by the Toltecs who made a home in Tula. This is the reason why some architecture in Chichen Itza mirrors that of Tula. The Toltecs were said to be an aggressive group. They were ruled under the king named Topiltzin. The new king that ruled over the Iztas introduced human sacrifice and, through labor, recreated the area as a new religious center. The Toltecs introduced many new ideas to the Iztas and left their mark on the land.

Centralization of Control

The layout of Chichen Itza started its development around 750. with the final design developed around 900 A.D. The land rose to prominence in 600 A.D. Chichen Itza expanded and took control of northern and central Yucatán. This era was considered to be a part of the Early Classic period. By the time the Late Classic period was ending Chichen Itza became one of the biggest cities, being named the major regional capital. The Iztas were responsible for dominating an centralizing the area through political, economic, social and ideological means. The rise of Chichen Itza correlates with the decline of cities around the boarder of the land.

Major centers in the Mayan lowlands were seen to collapse just about the same time as Chichen Itza saw best days. The lands to the south and to east of Chichen Itza, Yaxuna and Coba, saw decline. These two cities were seen as allies throughout their own history. Yaxuna was dependent on Coba. When Coba lost much of its territory to Chichen Itza, Yaxuna soon collapsed as well. It is suggested that Chichen Itza played a major role in the collapse of both cities.

The Decline

Elite activities were said to have ceased in Chichen Itza during 1250. There is some archaeological evidence that suggests the land was looted by an unknown people who were not interested in conquering the land. Shortly after the collapse of Chichen Itza, the area was conquered by Hunac Ceel, a Mayapan leader. He prophesized his own rise to power and eventually conquered the Iztas in the late thirteenth century.

Spanish Conquest

A petition to the king of Spain to charter and conquer Yucatán was successfully approved in 1526. Conquistador Francisco de Montejo led the campaign in 1527, covering most of the Yucatán peninsula. The objective of the Spanish conquistador was to conquer Chichen Izta to establish a capital. de Montejo sent his son in 1532 to take over the peninsula from the north. Eventually, he arrived at Chichen Izta and later renamed the land Ciudad Real.

The younger de Montejo divided the land amongst his soldiers. Though he saw no resistance from the Iztas at first, they soon became hostile. The troops of de Montejo were forced to barricade themselves in the city’s ruins, losing about 150 soldiers and receiving no reinforcement. After a failed assault on the Mayans, de Montejo was forced to abandon the land. He later returned after recruiting Mayans and building a large Spanish-Maya army, eventually conquering the entire peninsula. After the Spanish crown issued a land grant which included Chichen Izta, the area became a working cattle ranch by 1588.

Though the land saw a decline in the late 13th century, both politically and economically, Chichen Izta was not abandoned. When the Spanish first arrived, it was recorded that they came across thriving land which was maintained by the locals. A capital was established in Izta because of its high density of population.

Modern Day Chichen Izta

Chichen Izta is one of the largest archaeological tourist attractions in Mexico. Tourism has been popular in this area since mid to late 1800s after a man named John Lloyd Stephens wrote about the land in his book about traveling around Yucatán. His book prompted the exploration of the Mayan ruins which intrigued a lot of travelers. Now, tourists can take a bus from different resorts in Cancún for a day-trip around the ruins. Though some archaeological sites are closed due to public safety concerns, tourists can still walk around the structures.

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