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For a thousand years, the slanting rays of the setting sun have played a spectacular shadow and light game with this great Mayan pyramid. During the equinoxes, at the appointed hour, the shadow of the Feathered Serpent, Kukulcan appears on the northern stairway...and vanishes.

Don't miss: Geometry of the sunset at Chichen Itza on the Vernal Equinox

Chichen Itza - Architecture

Chichen Itza¡ - Introduction  |  HISTORY Architecture  |  Design and Dimensions 

 Decoding Kukulkan's Longitude  |  Precessional Alarm Clock  |  The Shadow of the Equinox
Chirping Pyramid  |  Kukulcán - The Legend of Quetzalcóatl  | Celestial AlignmentsKhufu and Kukulcan
 CHICHEN ITZA - More Photos, 3-D MODELChichen Itza Main MenuResources

Chichén Itzá Architecture

The architectural characteristics of Chichen Itza have a direct relationship with the Mayan Toltec style.  All of its buildings: "El Castillo", "El juego de la Pelota", "El Grupo de las Mil Columnas", "El tzompantli", El Edificio de las Aguilas", "El templo de los Guerrerros", and "El Mercado", have the same decoration motives found in Tula. 

The most frequent representations are warriors and Quetzalcoatl. The cult of the Feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl in Tula and Kukulkan in Mayan, was very important.

Map of the Chichen Itza archaeological site.

Copyright © 2005 by Robert Frerck and Odyssey Productions, Inc.  
( Image source: http://www.odysseyphoto.com )

Aerial View of the Chichen Itza ruins.

El Castillo (Kukulcan) Pyramid in center and the ballcourt on the left.

Source: Ancient Observatories - Satellite Images

The archaeological site is divided into 3 areas: the Northern group (distinctly Toltec), the Central group (early period) and the Southern area known as the Old Chichen (located far away from the other buildings and its visit requires a guide).

El Castillo

"The Castle", aka "The Pyramid of Kukulkan", or the "Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl" (another name for Kukulkan from the Toltecs) believed to be built before 800 AD, is easily the most impressive and widely recognized of the structures in Chichén Itzá or indeed anywhere in the Mayan region. A true masterpiece of the Toltec-Mayan architectural genius.

El Castillo
(Photo © World-Mysteries.com )

"El Castillo" ("castle" in Spanish) sheds light on the Mayans impressive astronomical knowledge. It is, in reality, a solar calendar. There are 91 steps on each side and 1 for the roof/altar. Each day's shadows fall upon a different step.

Learn more about El Castillo >>

It was surely the place where the ceremony of the descent of Kukulkan was held. The pyramid has special astronomical layout so that a game of light and shadow is formed. On March 21st the body of the serpent metaphorically descends from the temple on top of the pyramid and arrives at the heads at the foot of the staircase.

3View the 3D model of El Castillo and animation of the shadow >>

"El Castillo", western side of the pyramid.
For a thousand years, the slanting rays of the setting sun have  played a spectacular shadow game
with this great Mayan pyramid.  At the appointed hour, the shadow of the Feathered Serpent, 
Kukulcan slides down the northern stairway...and vanishes.

Castillo.jpg (14938 bytes)

The northern and eastern faces of El Castillo. The Northern stairs have
the large stone heads of Kukulkan at the base and the eastern face (on the left) is the un-restored side.
The main stairway is easily distinguished by the presence of two large serpent heads,
representing the god Kukulkan, at the base. This is the northern-most staircase and faces towards
the Platform of Venus as well as the Sacred Cenote.

castillobluesky.jpg (49432 bytes)

This is a view of El Castillo on a sunny day.
This photo  is showing the symmetry of this structure.
It shows several uniquely Mayan attributes that went into the construction:

  1. It reveals the nine tiers, split by the stairway to give 18 smaller tier sections, the same as the number of months in the Mayan calendar.
  2.  It shows the twenty six rectangular panels on either side of the stairway (about three or four per tier). Adding to fifty-two panels, the same as the number of years in a Mayan cycle.
  3.  Though not feasable to show here, there are 91 steps on each of the four stairways leading up to the top of the structure with a common step at the top to all four sides, leading to a total of 365 steps... same as the number of days in a year.
  4.  An overhead view of the structure shows that it is skewed exactly 18 degrees, same as the number of months in the calendar.

There are 91 steps on each side of the pyramid of Kukulkan
(Photo © World-Mysteries.com )

El Castillo was primarily built to represent Snake Mountain, the mystic place where creation first occurred in Mayan folklore. Snake mountain is a design practice adopted in Teotihuican as well as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Though brought to its full artistic maturity in Chichén Itzá, the design is much older than any of these cities. There are examples of the Snake Mountain design at Waxaktun and at Cerros as early as 100 BC. The upright bodies of the snakes that act as supports for the upper temple are meant to represent the "Kuxan Sum" or "Living cord" that connected the rulers of the earth with their gods. Nowhere in the Mayan world is there a larger or more impressive representation of the Snake Mountain design than in El Castillo, nor one with as much functionality as is detailed below. Snake Mountain was also where Xmucane, the first mother, used maize dough to mold the first humans at the beginning of the fourth creation.

The visible structure seen today is at least the second temple built at this spot. Beneath the huge outer structure is a smaller temple of similar design. A small doorway on the west face of the northern stairs is the only access up a small stairway to the inner temple beneath. In this inner temple is another Chaac Mool and a jaguar throne, sealed off to tourists by an iron gate.

The Maya were known to be great mathematicians and are credited with the invention of the "zero" in their counting system. They were also great astronomers, and EL Castillo is a perfect marriage of their sciences with their religion. By far the most amazing aspect of the pyramid is the accuracy, significance, and relevance it has within the Mayan calendar and social system. There are many numerical details regarding the location of this structure that could not have all occurred by accident. Each side of the pyramid is made up of nine larger tiers or layers with a staircase in the center of each side leading to the temple at the top. Each stairway consists of ninety one steps, with one step at the top common to all four sides, for a total of three hundred and sixty five steps, the exact number of days in a solar year. Each side of the pyramid has fifty two rectangular panels, equal to the number of years in the Mayan cycle (at the conclusion of which they typically constructed a newer structure over an older one). The stairways divide the tiers on any given side into two sets of nine for a total of 18 tiers which corresponds to the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. The "square" that makes up the overall base of the structure is exactly 18 degrees from the vertical. Every aspect of the structure relates in some way to the Maya and their culture. The very physical presence of this structure and the shadows it casts, are also significant within the Mayan culture and are more fully explained in here the section detailing the Shadow Of The Equinox. The Maya universe was comprised of 13 "compartments" in 7 levels with each compartment being ruled over by a different god. El Castillo reflects these beliefs as seen in the shadows it casts. 7 levels are shown in the 7 light triangles. 7 Triangles of light and 6 darker triangles give 13 triangles in all corresponding to the 13 overall levels of the underworld.

Suffice it to sum up here and say, the pyramid casts unique and identifiable shadows on the exact days of the year that represent the solstice and equinox that occur twice a year. This shows the Maya were aware of the rotation of the sun and the exact length of a year. Indeed, we know that the Mayan Calendar was more accurate than the one we use today.

On the west side of the base of the northern staircase there is an entrance to a smaller inner structure. This inner structure existed alone and was a pyramid similar to the main outer one that was covered over after the 52 year cycle was complete. This inner temple resembled the outer one in that it also was made up of a nine terraced pyramid with a temple at the top. There are only sixty one steps to this inner structure and the temple contains a stone statue of the reclining Chaac-Mool (which means"red claw") That can also be found at the portico of the Temple of the Warriors. Also with Chaac-Mool in this antechamber is a stone Jaguar, also worshipped by the Maya after the Toltec influenced them in this belief, that may have served as the throne for a leader or high priest. When first found, this throne had a delicately wrough Turquise mosiac disk sitting on it. The staircase leading up to this inner chamber is enclosed by the larger structure over top of it and it is a very small stairway by modern standards. Barely six feet high and three feet wide, with slick damp stones for steps, some may find it difficult to enter and it is not for the claustrophobic. The stairs are smooth and slick and are narrow enough that people going up may not be able to pass people on the way down.

Apart from the religious and ceremonial significance to the structure, it is believed to have an additional, more sinister purpose to its design.

It is believed that maya priests would sacrifice hundreds of captured enemy warriors at the top of its steps and, in some cases before the body had completely died, would throw the bodies down the steep steps. Now, before they were cast down they typically had their hearts cut out so ensuring their demise with such a horrific fall wasn't in question. More likely it was symbolic of the priests in casting the enemy away from the sacred temple atop of El Castillo, signifying that the unfortunate prisoner was not worthy to stand upon Snake Mountain.

The base of the steps would be heaped with dozens of bodies after such a ceremony.

Learn more about El Castillo>>

Templo de los Guerreros / Temple of the Warriors

"Templo de los Guerreros" is a temple with the typical Toltec entrance columns. Another one of the buildings that has a Toltec seal without is the "Muro de los Craneos". These buildings were destined to be the mausoleums of the tying up the years. Every 52 years the ancient Mayans and other cultures would tie up a sheaf of years to end a cycle.

Temple of the Warriors and Group of the One Thousand Columns
(Photo © Shaun Tennant )

Temple of the Warriors
(Photo © World-Mysteries.com )

Group of the One Thousand Columns
(Photo © World-Mysteries.com )

El Caracol

Another important buildings is "El Caracol", an astronomical observatory.

El Caracol (conch shell) is another astronomy-oriented structure. It is a giant observatory dome where many rituals and celebrations took place. The dome has many windows peppered throughout. Stars can be seen through different windows on specific dates. This structure is one of the pinnacles of Mayan architecture. Creating a stone dome is hard work, but creating it with windows at precise points takes an enormous amount of time and skill. El Caracol simultaneously displays the Mayans' expertise in both astronomy and engineering. This is one of the main attractions of Chichen Itza today.

El Caracol and Castillo from Nunnery.
(Photo Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester )

El Caracol from NW (Photo © 2006 by World-Mysteries.com )


El Caracol from N (Photo © 2006 by World-Mysteries.com)

El Caracol - inside wall (Photo © 2006 by World-Mysteries.com)



El Caracol - The dome (left) and windows 3 and 2 (right)
(Photos Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester )


El juego de la Pelota / Great Ball Court

El juego de la Pelota, the largest Ball Court in Mesoamerica is found in Chichen Itza. It is 168 meters in length and 70 meters in width. In Mesoamerica, the Ball Game was an entertainment, but it also had a ritual side in which the losers were sacrificed.


Chichen Itza's Ball Court is the largest in Mexico. Ball Courts were part of almost every Mayan city. The courts were designed very much like today's soccer fields. Raised stone hoops were placed at each end. The Mayans would play a game very much like a cross between soccer and basketball. A hard rubber ball (the Mayans had rubber in this era) was used. The teams were supposed to keep the ball in play using everything but their hands, and score by putting the ball through the hoop. The Chichen Itza Ball Court measures 272 by 199 feet, about the dimensions of a football field. After the invasion of the Toltecs, the Ball Court took on a more somber note, with the losing team often being sacrificed. Chichen Itza must have been home to the finest athletes due to the size of their court. The size of it often indicates that many important games were played at Chichen Itza.

Text copyright 1998 by David W. Koeller.

"El juego de la Pelota", the largest Ball Court in Mesoamerica is found in Chichen Itza. (Photo © World-Mysteries.com)

One of the two stone rings used during the game.
(Photo © World-Mysteries.com)


Eastern Annex of Nunnery facade. 
(Photo Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester)

El Osario - Tomb of the Great Priest

Tomb of the Great Priest owes its name to the tombs found inside.

The Tomb of the Great Priest
(Photo Copyright
©2006 by World-Mysteries.com)

El Chichancob - Colored House

One of the oldest and best preserved structures in Old Chichen.

Colored House - El Chichancob
(Photo Copyright
©2006 by World-Mysteries.com)

El Castillo - Computer Model

© World-Mysteries.com

Computer Model of El Castillo - the shadow of the Feathered Serpent
on the northern stairway on March 21 (different viewing angle)

© World-Mysteries.com

Computer Model of El Castillo - the shadow of the Feathered Serpent
on the northern stairway on March 21 - Detail (different viewing angle).


Vernal Equinox Animation. This animation can be viewed as: 
Flash Movie (452KB), or Animated GIF (424KB)

View our 3D Model of El Castillo>>

Purchase 3D model of the Chichen Itza pyramid:

Geometry of the sunset at Chichen Itza on the Vernal Equinox

The following images are the result of amazing hi-tech combination of satellite images with program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows you the exact direction of where the sunrise and moonrise will be at any particular location and time using Google maps.

Geometry of the sunset at Chichen Itza on the Vernal Equinox (March 21, 2010). Click to enlarge.
Image generated by The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) -

Geometry of the sunset at Chichen Itza on the Summer Solstice (June 21, 2010). Click to enlarge.
Image generated by The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) -


HOT  The Photographer's Ephemeris

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a free application for Mac/Windows/Linux designed for landscape photographers. It shows you the exact direction of where the sunrise and moonrise will be at any particular location and time using Google maps. Landscape photographers typically wishing to plan their shoots around the times of sunrise/sunset or twilight, or alternatively when the moon is in a particular place or a particular phase. Click on the logo to learn more and download this free program.

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Satellite photo of the ruins of Chichen Itza

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