A Trip to Chichen Itza

American Section

By: G.B.G.

Originally Published in 1911

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“The first description of (Chichen Itza is to be found in the notes of Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan, which are supposed to have been written in the year 1566. It is as follows:

`Chichen Itza is very well situated 10 leagues from Izamal and 11 from Valladolid, and the elders among the Indians say that they remember to have heard from their ancestors that in that place there once reigned three Lords who were brothers and who came to that land from the west. And they brought together on the sites a great number of towns and people, and ruled them for borne years with justice and in peace.

Fig. 8.—Like a ruined watch tower looking towards the Lost Atlantis.

`They paid much reverence to their God and on this account they raised many and fine buildings, and of one in particular, the greatest of them all, I will here draw the plan, as I drew it when I was standing on it, so that it may be the better understood.*

Fig. 9.—Upper tier of a building at Sayil, Yucatan.
Image Number: 162489

`These Lords, they say, came over without any women, and they lived chastely, and all the time that they thus lived they were held in high esteem and obeyed by all. Then, as time went on, one of them disappeared, and doubtless he must have died, although the Indians assert that he left the country in the direction of Bacalar.

`The absence of this Lord, however it may have come to pass, caused such a change in those who ruled the State that soon they split into factions, so wanton and licentious in their ways, that the people came so greatly to loathe them that they killed them, laid the town waste and themselves dispersed, abandoning the buildings and this beautiful. site which is only ten leagues from the sea, and has much fertile land around it. The plan of the principal building is the following:

`This building has four stairways which look to-the four quarters of the world, each is thirty-three feet in breadth and has ninety-one steps, and it is killing work to ascend them; the steps have the same height and breadth which we give o ours. Each stairway has on a level with the steps two low balustrades, two feet in width, of good masonry, as indeed is the whole edifice. The building is not square cornered, for from the edge of the ground and from the balustrades in the opposite direction they have begun to work some rounded blocks which rise at intervals and confine the building in a very pleasing regularity. There was, when I saw it, at the foot of each balustrade, the savage mouth of a serpent curiously worked out of a single block of stone. The stairways being finished in this manner there remains on the summit a small level plain, on which stands a building arranged in four chambers. Three of them run round the outside without division, each one with a door in the middle and covered with a gable roof. The fourth, that to the north, stands by itself with a corridor of thick pillars. The chamber in the middle, which must have been the little enclosure formed by the arrangement of the walls of the building, has a door which opens into the northern corridor; it is roofed above with wood, and it was used as a place for burning incense.

Fig. 10.—The House of the Nuns at Chichen Itza.
Image Number: 14535

`And at the entrance of this door or of the corridor a sort of arms was sculptured on a stone which one could not well understand. This building must. have had many others (sculptures) and still has them today round about, large and well done and all the surface plastered over with them, and there still are in places survivals of the plaster-work, so strong is the cement which they made there.

`There was in front of the stairway, to the north a little way off, two small theatres built of stone with four stairways, and paved with flagstones on the top, on which they say they played farces and. comedies for the solace of the public.

Fig. 11.—Temple of the Tigers at Chichen Itza. Rear view showing the position of the painted wall sculpture in the ruined lower chamber.
Image Number: 14510

`There runs from the patio in front of these theatres a beautiful broad causeway to a pool about two stone throws off. In this pool they have had, and had at that time, the custom to throw into it live men as a sacrifice to the Gods in time of drought, and they hold that these men do not die, although they are never more seen. They threw in also many things made of precious stones and other things which they prized, so that if this land has had gold in it, it would he in this pool that most of it would be, so greatly did the Indians revere it.

`This pool has a depth of fully seven fathoms to the surface of the water, and is more than a hundred feet across and is round in shape, and it is a wonder to look at, for it is clean cut rock down to the water, and the water appears to have a green color, and I think this is caused by the trees which surround it—and it is very deep.

`There is on the top, near the opening, a small building where I found idols made in honor of each of the principal buildings Of the land, almost like the Pantheon of -Rome. I do not know if this was a contrivance of the ancients or one of the people of to-day, so that they might meet with their idols when they went to the pool with their offerings.

`I found lions worked in high relief, and jars and such other things, that I do not know whether any one will say that these people had no iron tools.

`I also found two men of great. she carved in stone, each in one piece, naked except for the small covering which the Indians wear. Their heads were by themselves, with earrings in their ears as the Indians wear them, and there was a spike in the back part of the neck, which fitted into a. deep hole made for it in the neck itself, so that when it was fitted in the whole shape became complete.'” [Biologia Centrali Americana. Archaeology. By A. P. Maudslay, Vol. III, p. 6 ff.]

Fig. 12.—Detail of painted wall sculpture in the Temple of the Tigers. See Fig. 11. From a cast in the Museum.
Fig. 13.—Entrance to the Temple of the Tigers, showing broken column in form of serpent which supported the facade.
Image Number: 14511

In the summer of 1910 it was my good fortune to make a short journey into Yucatan in the southern part of Mexico. The one week that I was able to spend in that country of many unique and interesting features, derives a special charm and consequence from a visit to ancient Chichen Itza, one of the most famous of the ruined cities of America.

The journey from New York to Vera Cruz on a steamer of the Ward Line is one that affords the comforts and conveniences that are associated with modern sea travel, and not only provides the pleasantest way of reaching Mexico but, by touching at Progreso, enables the traveller to reach Yucatan by sea, and thus brings within easy reach a country that cannot be described as accessible by land in any ordinary sense of modern travel.

From the beginning the voyage was propitious. At the dock in New York I encountered Dr. Tozzer and Professor Dixon, both of Harvard University, and the little excursion into Yucatan was agreeably performed by the three of us together. Dr. Tozzer had the advantage of knowing the country and its people; Professor Dixon, when he stepped on the Ward Line steamer that day in New York, had just left the dock where a transatlantic liner had landed him with part of his luggage on his return from Australia and New Zealand.

I had never yet set foot in Yucatan or in its ruined cities, but years before, when 1 was on a steamer sailing through the Yucatan channel there was pointed out to me from the deck a square building standing on a promontory of Mugeres, an island on the northeastern coast. This solitary building, standing on the last detached fragment of the great peninsula like a ruined watch-tower looking toward the Lost Atlantis, is well seen from ships at sea. If Columbus, on his fourth voyage, had steered a little farther west; if on the day when he met the Maya bark, his perverse fate had permitted him to turn his prow straight toward the setting sun, he might on the same day have raised this monument out of the western ocean, and steering by the loom of it, he might have entertained a brighter New World vision than any he had known.

Even then the cities of Yucatan were in ruins. Whatever may have been their end, they escaped by their earlier doom the fate reserved for the city of Montezuma and its contemporaries in Mexico and Peru. These fell a prey to the rapacity of the Spanish conquerors, but apart from the most meagre traditions of the Mayas, the fall of their ancient cities in Yucatan remains, like their rise, an unrecorded episode.

It was in August, 1910, that the small party of travellers who found themselves on the deck of the Ward Line steamer, disembarked at Progreso on the lighter that conveys passengers and freight from the steamer in the open roadstead. From the moment of landing we were attended by unobtrusive cargadores or porters, whose number always seemed to be in proportion to our needs, whose manners were courteous and whose movements were distinguished by remarkable decorum. Their light brown bodies were so aesthetically modelled and so soft in outline, their bare limbs so well rounded and their hands and feet so small that we were at first disposed to look upon them as rather effeminate. We abandoned this first impression as premature on discovering that these good looking Yucatecan men were not only willing to carry our umbrellas on their smooth shoulders, but were equally prepared, without damage to their composure, to walk away in the same manner with a grand piano or an automobile. Our admiration was not diminished when we learned that it was their daily habit thus to dispose of even less negotiable burdens and such was the habit of their ancestors from time immemorial. As I watched them from day to day, it seemed to me that in the manners of the present inhabitants there is to be seen a close connection between their present life and the ancient traditions of Yucatan. Long continued usage and carefully conserved customs are strongly suggested in their cool, white walled homes with high-pitched thatch, where an artless providence unceremoniously effects a feeling of perfect comfort with bare mud walls, and floors unencumbered by any visible article of furniture.

The air of cleanliness which has often been remarked about their persons proceeds, as we found, from equally innate tendencies. Even our porters bathed their bodies and put on regularly every morning of the year clean white garments. This was at first something of a mystery, considering that Yucatan has no streams or lakes and the water that falls during the rains has to be stored and husbanded with great care for drinking and cooking. The sense of mystery was not wholly removed by the discovery that they bathe sumptuously in a cupful of water.

Such are the modern Mayas, the natives of Yucatan, a gentle and sturdy American folk of whom history has little to say and whose place in contemporary annals is almost as inconspicuous. Living among the ruined palaces of their ancestors, they retain in their humble way many marked attributes of a cultivated people.

Some of the more important ruins in Yucatan are readily accessible from the railroad that runs from Progreso to Merida, the capital, and thence toward the interior of the peninsula. Our time was so short that we had to be content with a visit to one of these more accessible ruins and we selected Chichen Itza. Leaving Merida early in the morning, we reached the little station of Citas about midday and after being served in a native house with a breakfast that would have done credit to a metropolitan cafe, we set out to travel the fifteen miles that still lay between us and the ruins. The accommodations of the country afford three ways of accomplishing this. First, for people of luxurious habits of travel, there is the volan, in which the traveller is suspended by a pair of straps between two wheels and driven impartially over the irregularities of Yucatan which, though never as high as Pike’s Peak or as deep as the Grand Canyon, are still for a level country, when regarded from a volan, very remarkable indeed. The name of this conveyance is derived from the verb volar, which means “to fly as with wings, to pass through the air, to vanish, to disappear on a sudden, to rise in the air. to move with violence, to project or hang over, to blow up, to exasperate, to ascend high.” I desire to make my acknowledgments, to the dictionary. The inventor of the volan was undoubtedly a linguist and likewise familiar with the qualities of his invention. There is, to be sure, an implied relationship between it and the flying machine. How substantial this relationship is can best be decided by those who have had experience of both, but even if it furnished me with a novel experience I venture the opinion that the volan was invented before the flying machine.

The second method of travelling is on horseback, and this was the method decided upon by our host at Citas. He procured three horses and, after. some delay, the remains of an equal number of saddles. As each mount was worse than the others we thought it only fair to draw lots. I drew the worst and while I was contemplating the situation, Dr. Toyer and Professor Dixon rode gaily away. A few minutes later, before T bad cleared the village, partly as a concession to the too obvious feelings of the boys and girls who were playing in the doorways and partly from considerations of general comfort, I dismounted, gave the bridle to the nearest urchin and, resorting to the third method of travel that the country affords, resumed the journey on foot. My injured feelings were much soothed when I overtook my mounted companions and passed them, one after the other, in the road.

Mr. Thompson, formerly American Consul at Merida, has a hacienda near Chichen with a house close by the ruins and though he was absent, the native major domo made our two days’ visit very comfortable, Dr. Tozzer was familiar with the ruins, having, on a former visit, spent months on the site, and consequently we lost no time locating the various places of interest. Although Chichen has been accurately mapped several times, especially by Maudslay and by Holmes, to locate a structure, even with the map in hand, would, without previous knowledge of the ground, require considerable time. The higher buildings, such as the Castillo and the House of the Nuns, can be seen from a distance, rising high above the trees, but others of less elevation or more ruinous condition do not betray their presence until you have .searched them out through the tangled undergrowth.

The most striking building is the one known as El Castillo, a great square pyramidal pile rising in successive terraces, supporting a building with vaulted roof. This type of architecture is characteristic of a certain class of edifice found in Yucatan and throughout the region of Maya civilization generally. Various writers have pointed out that this style was in all probability devoted to religious uses. El Castillo is, therefore, more properly called the temple.

Fig. 14.—Detail of painted wall sculpture in the Temple of the Tigers.

As we sat at the top of the ruined stairway that ascends the slope of the pyramid, just at the entrance to the temple itself,’ we looked out on a perfectly level horizon. In every direction the tree tops seemed as even as a prairie corn-field. Below us lay the buildings that had become so familiar to me through the eloquent description of Stephens, the faithful drawings of Catherwood, the splendid photographic plates and careful measurements of Maudslay and the instructive sketches of Holmes. There lay the Ball Court with the Temple of the Tigers, the painted colors on the stone still glowing softly from the dense green foliage around; there was the Nunnery with its lattice-work of stone; there the Red House; there the Court of Columns and there the Round Tower or Caracol. One feature of the place alone was wanting. Where were the cenotes, those great wells of the Itzas, from which the place got its name? We did not wait long for an answer. As the rim drew near the horizon and the shadows of the trees began to climb the temple stairs and throw the base of the pyramid below us into shadow, a dark patch became visible on the face of the forest fifteen hundred feet away to the right, and another to the left. These shadows showed where the hundred foot mouths of the wells of the Itazs, forest fringed and open to the sky, swallowed the daylight and even now reflected the evening star from the still waters far below. The one to the left was the cenote that supplied the water to the ancient inhabitants of Chichen Itza ; the one to the right was the Sacred Cenote, the Cenote of Sacrifice. From the great stairway of the pyramid a raised causeway ran straight to the brink, which, seen from our distant elevation, showed so darkly savage, that it might have been the entrance to the Underworld of ancient American mythology. We could not sec the deep, dark, still water down below, but somehow it made itself felt and, as we looked down upon that point where we had seen the daylight devoured, the words of Landa came back to us with peculiar force and significance.

“In this pool they have had . . . the custom to throw into it live men as a sacrifice to the Gods in time of drought, and they hold that these men do not die although they are never more seen. They threw in also many things of precious stones and other things which they prized, so that if this land has had gold in it, it would be in this pool that most of it would be, so greatly did the Indians revere it.”

Fig. 15.—El Castillo at Chichen Itza. After Maudslay.
Image Number: 14523

The broad base of the pyramid below us was already immersed in night when the level rays of the sun invaded the temple door that opened on the platform where we stood. For a moment, as the great orb hung on the horizon, the strangely sculptured walls and columns caught the parting radiance and flung it forth again in one bright gesture of farewell. The sun had set and the shadows closed around us as we descended into the eager tropical night.

On the day following we visited all the buildings, but even in the bright glare of noon, nothing impressed us more than the wells of the Itzas. As we stood on the brink of that “pool” flint Landa speaks of, it seemed a fitting place for the performance of such rites as he describes. Tied it been known to the ancient Romans it surely would have figured in classic legend as Lake Avernus rather than the gentle and domesticated pond that is shown to the tourist in the vicinity of Naples. The Cenote of Sacrifice keeps its secret well, and though we raised many an echo from below we could call no spirit from that vasty deep to tell us what lay at the bottom of the well or what scenes were witnessed there in the old days of priestly rites when the causeway rang to the tread of approaching processions.

Chichen Itza has been described so often and so well that I can add nothing as a result of my two days’ visit. It awaits excavation to bring it into line with the other cities of the ancient world which in other lands have one by one restored our knowledge of the past. Wherever the debris has been cleared away that encumbers the ruins beneath the encroaching forest, fine sculptures and paintings, adorning walls and pillars and foundations indicate the great archaeological interest of the site. One of these days Chichen Itza will claim the attention of investigators. The Mexican government, the natural guardian of the ruined cities of Yucatan, will direct attention to their proper care. Travel will be made easier and Yucatan will share with Egypt the homage which the monuments of antiquity never fail to claim from the people of our modern world.

Already many architectural features of Chichen and the other ruined cities of Yucatan have been made familiar through the splendid photographic plates of Maud-slay and the drawings of Holmes, each of whom has in turn followed up in recent years the pioneer work that Stephens and Catherwood did in the thirties. Other writers as well have given accurate descriptions which have helped to promote the general knowledge of the country and its ruins. With the aid of the published photographs and plans any one can locate and identify each building and each point of interest.

The details of decoration in these buildings have, however, been incompletely copied. To get a faithful impression of the frescoes and painted wall sculptures, the student of Yucatecan art can have recourse only to the unpublished water color copies by Miss Adela Breton, whose devotion to Central American Archaeology has led her to spend many seasons at Chichen, in the laborious work of tracing the frequently faint and mutilated paintings of the old decorators. Living in the empty chambers of the Temple of the Tigers and the House of the Nuns, this gifted woman has caught more accurately than ally one else the spirit of the native artist; and industriously seeking a true interpretation of his art, she has succeeded in transferring with sympathetic touch. the lines and colors of the originals, which live again in her beautiful copies.

I made no photographs of Chichen, lint I had the good fortune to meet at Merida, Mr. Teobert Mader, who has spent the greater part of his life in Yucatan and who, during his extensive travels in that region, has assembled the splendid collection of photographs that has done so much to make the ruins of the Maya cities known throughout the world. All of the illustrations in this article are made from Mr. Maler’s photographs, with the exception of the view of El Castillo, which is after Main-Islay, and Fig. 12, which was made in the Museum, and shows a portion of a cast of the painted wall sculpture in the lower chamber of the Temple of the Tigers at Chichen. This cast, made from Maudslay’s moulds and set up in the University Museum and colored by Miss Breton, after her copies of the original, is in style and composition and in the faithful rendering of color, the best example of the decorative art of Chichen Itza that can be seen without a visit to the ruins.

G. B. G.

  • *Landa’s plan is omitted here for consideration of space.

Cite This Article

G.B.G.,. "A Trip to Chichen Itza." The Museum Journal II, no. 1 (March, 1911): 10-21. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/125/

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