Chichen Itza, located at the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula of modern Mexico, was a Maya city which was later significantly influenced by the Toltec civilization. Flourishing between c. 750 and 1200 CE, the site is rich in monumental architecture and sculpture which promote themes of militarism and displays imagery of jaguars, eagles, and feathered-serpents. Probably a capital city ruling over a confederacy of neighbouring states, Chichen Itza was one of the great Mesoamerican cities and remains today one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico.
The name Chichen Itza probably derives from a large sinkhole known as the Sacred Cenote or ‘mouth of the well of the Itza’ into which the Maya threw offerings of jade and gold, and as the presence of bones testifies, human sacrifices. The early history of the site is still not clear, but settlement was certain by the Classic period (c. 250-900 CE). With the collapse of Teotihuacan, migrants may have come to the site from varying parts of Mesoamerica, and it seems likely there was contact with the Itza, a Maya group. A second period of construction seems to coincide with influence from the Toltec civilization. That Chichen Itza was a thriving trade centre with a port at Isla Cerritos is evidenced by finds of goods from elsewhere in Central America, for example, turquoise from the north, gold disks from the south, and obsidian from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The cultivation of cacao is known, and the city may have controlled the lucrative salt beds on the nearby northern coast.
The city has been traditionally divided into two distinct parts and periods, even if there is some overlap both in time and design, and together they cover some 16 square kilometres. The earliest, in the south, is native Maya dating to the Epiclassic period (c. 800-1000 CE) with buildings displaying the distinct ‘Puuc’ architectural style and Maya hieroglyphs. The plan is more spread out than other parts of the city and, constructed on a roughly north-south axis, may reflect the course of the Xtoloc Cenote water source.
The second part of the city has been traditionally dated to 1000-1200 CE and is more mysterious, creating one of the most contentious debates in Mesoamerican archaeology. Built in the Florescent style and along a more ordered plan, it displays many hallmarks of the Toltec civilization, leading scholars to believe that they either conquered Chichen Itza as they expanded their empire from their capital Tula over 1,000 km away, or there was some sort of cultural and trade sharing between the two centres. Common features between the two cities found in architecture and relief sculpture include warrior columns, quetzal-feathered rattlesnakes, the clothing of subjects, chacmools (sacrificial basins in the form of a reclining person), atlantides (support columns in the form of standing males), the representation of certain animals, a tzompantli (sacrificial skull rack), Tlaloc (the rain god) incense burners, and personal names represented by glyphs which are present at both sites but which are not Maya.
Alternative to the two-period view, the Americas historian George Kubler divides the buildings of Chichen Itza into three distinct phases: prior to 800 CE, from 800 to 1050 CE, and 1050-1200 CE. Kubler adds that the latter stage saw the addition of ornate narrative reliefs to many of the buildings at the site. It has also been suggested that due to various styles of architecture pre-dating those found at the Toltec capital Tula, it may actually have been Chichen Itza which influenced the Toltec rather than the reverse. The exact relationship between the two cultures has yet to be ascertained for certain, and there are certainly other Mesoamerican (but non-Toltec) architectural and artistic features at Chichen Itza which are evidence of an influence from other sites such as Xochicalco and El Tajin.
Chichen Itza fell into a rapid decline from 1200 CE, and Mayapán became the new capital. However, unlike many other sites, Chichen Itza never disappeared from memory, and the city continued to be revered and esteemed as a place of ancestry and pilgrimage into the Postclassic period and up to the Spanish conquest, and even beyond.