Chichén Itzá, ravaged ancient Maya city occupying an range of 4 square miles (10 square km) in south-central Yucatan state, Mexico. It is based some 90 miles (150 km) east-northeast of Uxmal and 75 miles (120 km) east-southeast of the stylish city of Merida. The only source of water in the barren region around the spot is from wells (cenotes) formed by sinkholes in limestone constructions. Two big cenotes on the spot made it a good place for the city and gave it its name, from chi (“mouths”), chen (“wells”), and Itzá, the name of the Maya clan that settled there. Chichén Itzá was nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Chichén was established about the 6th century ce, apparently by Maya peoples of the Yucatan Peninsula who had engaged the land since the Pre-Classic, or Sensitive, Period (1500 bce–300 ce). The principal early buildings are in an architectural style noted as Puuc, which shows a number of deflections from the styles of the southern lowlands. These earliest architectures are to the south of the Main Plaza and add the Akabtzib (“House of the Dark Writing”), the Chichanchob (“Red House”), the Iglesia (“Church”), the Casa de las Monjas (“Nunnery”), and the tower El Caracol (“The Snail”). There is confirmation that, in the 10th century, after the debacle of the Maya cities of the southern lowlands, Chichén was breached by foreigners, probably Maya speakers who had been strongly altered by—and perchance were under the direction of—the Toltec of central Mexico. These intruders may have been the Itzá for whom the site is known; some authorities, yet, believe the Itzá arrived 200 to 300 years later.
In any event, the intruders were responsible for the development of such big buildings as El Castillo (“The Castle”), a pyramid that rises 79 feet (24 metres) above the Main Plaza. El Castillo has four sides, each with 91 stairs and facing a basic direction; counting the step on the top platform, these blend for a total of 365 steps—the number of days in the solar year. At the same the spring and autumnal equinoxes, shadows cast by the setting sun give the display of a snake undulating down the stairways. A carving of a boast serpent at the top of the pyramid is figurative of Quetzalcoatl (known to the Maya as Kukulcán), one of the big idols of the ancient Mesoamerican chapels.