Deep Six: Visiting the Temple at Chichen Itza

November 4, 2008 5:22:05 AM PST
New Deep Six podcast on 6abc.com.Title: "Visiting the Temple at Chichen Itza"

Details: I promised you we would visit many different places around the region, and around the world with this podcast. This time, Deep Six is going global. I have recorded your latest podcast on the Yucatan Penninsula of Mexico. The topic is the fantastically wonderful ancient Maya settlement of Chichen Itza.

Watch Matt's latest Deep Six podcast in the video box above OR download the file by visiting the 6abc.com podcast page.

You can also subscribe to Deep Six by going to iTunes and searching for "matt" and "o'donnell." It's real easy - we promise!

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As you probably already know, the Maya are the indigenous people who live in what is now the Yucatan, and what is now parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Their prime, or classical, period of civilization was between the 3rd and 10th centuries. By the time the Spaniards began their conquest of the region, much of that civilization had "disappeared."

That has caused some people to believe that there was something mysterious about the Maya, which there was, but also something special about them, which there was, but also something supernatural, which there probably wasn't. Maybe the Maya knew the world would come to an end soon, and somehow were transported to another world to save themselves, you will hear some say. Maybe they had connections to the Egyptians (who also built pyramids - albeit pyramids that looked quite different). Maybe the Maya had special powers. Maybe they were not of this Earth.

We here at Deep Six tend to not believe such theories unless proven, and it would take a lot of evidence to prove any of that. We wanted to journey to the land of the Maya to discover the things that we do know. For instance, the Maya did not disappear. In fact, there is still a significant Maya population on the Yucatan today - they just don't all live in large settlements. Rather, they are scattered across many towns in several countries on the penninsula. What really happened was the Maya abandoned its settlements for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: political unrest, war, lack of food, lack of water, and environmental destruction.

I visited Chichen Itza, because it is among the most famous of all Maya settlements. It collapsed in 1000 AD. In the center of this former Maya metropolis is El Castillo, which is the name the Spaniards gave it - translating to "the castle." It's really a temple that looks like a pyramid, and when you first see it, it takes your breath away.

The Maya built the temple between the 11th and 13th centuries, as a tribute to their god "Kukulcan," the feathered serpent. And wait until you hear what the Maya people did - during the same period of history known as the late Middle Ages in Europe.

First of all, the temple is nearly 100 feet tall. It is massive. Steps go up along all four sides. Take a look at the slideshow of pictures I took during my visit on the top of this web page.

Constructing this must have taken an enormous amount of engineering ingenuity. After thinking about that, a number of other facts flat out astounded me.

There are 91 steps on each of the four sides leading to some type of altar on top. If you add up all of those steps, and add one more for the top, you get 365 steps. 365. Yes, the Maya somehow figured out - roughly - how many days there are in a year, a huge accomplishment in that time. We all know now that there are actually 365.242199, which is why we have leap years.

The Maya were very skilled in tracking the sun - so skilled that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, when day and night are equal, the Maya positioned the temple so that the sun would cast a shadow resembling a serpent. Throughout those two days, the serpent would travel down the steps, ending at a statue depicting the head of a serpent - of the god "Kukulcan."

Yet another fascinating aspect of the temple is the sound it makes when you clap at the base of its steps on the west side. This would be a good time to download my podcast "Visiting the Temple at Chichen Itza," so that you can hear this clapping phenomenon for yourself.

In ways that I personally cannot understand, the Maya were able to position the temple to send back different noises when one claps. If you clap the right way, and the tour guide we were with was able to do this, you can actually make the temple ECHO these words: "Ku - Kul - Can."

Yes, clapping at the temple makes it speak the name of the god it was built for. I heard the tour guide do it myself. Absolutely fascinating.

You'll also notice there are pictures of the ball court at Chichen Itza in our slideshow. It is considered to be the largest ball court in Central America. The Maya played a game that was a variation of what we know today as basketball and soccer. They bounced a ball around the court, and tried to send it through a tiny, vertical hoop placed on each side.

This game was played to the death. One can only assume that the loser would die. However, given that the Maya held the afterlife in such high esteem, some wonder if the winner would be the one who would "get" to die. We'll never know - the Spaniards had destroyed all remaining records at Chichen Itza in an effort to convert the Maya to Christianity.

You'll notice a few other pictures showing a wall with several skulls drawn on the side. These were actually replicas of the skulls of those who were killed after the games at the ball court. Each one is quite different.

There is so much more going on at Chichen Itza - but of course, the best part is seeing El Castillo, and discovering its magical "powers." If you ever plan a trip to see this wonder of the ancient world, considering visiting on either the vernal or autumnal equinoxes (to witness the shadow of a serpent crawling down the temple). However, the site is crowded just about every day of the year - and especially on the first day of spring and fall.

Thanks for joining us on the very first international journey for Deep Six!

-Matt

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