The very word Mayaevokes images ofmystery - ancientpyramids soaring abovetrackless jungle, giantcarved stonesproclaiming artistic andintellectual prowess, asudden and enigmaticdemise
Sometime before A.D. 250 – during the period known toarchaeologists as the Preclassic – the first Mesoamericanculture that we can confidently call Maya borrowed ideasfrom neighbors, added its own ingredients, and created oneof the most brilliant civilizations of antiquity amid the rainforest in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula.
In the ensuring Classic period, Maya society endured fornearly six centuries as a dynamic population of nobles,priests, scribes, craftsmen, warriors, and farmers located incities ruled by hereditary dynasts who claimed divineancestry.
The still unexplainedcollapse of this world –perhaps hastened byagricultural failure due toclimate change and thepopulation pressure of asmany as 16 million people –was countered by theincreasing strength ofcultures to the west. ThePostclassic period (circa900-1500) saw the rise ofnew centers of power, alongwith expanded trade routesand a new elite.
Artifacts suggest a morecosmopolitan society but one stillfirmly grounded in traditionalways. The arrival of the Spaniardsin the first decades of the of the16th century violently closed thischapter of Maya civilization.
Yet the Maya live today. Atleast four million descendantsstill speak the Mayan languages.Though most are now RomanCatholic, they share the ancientmyths and practice ritualsbased on the ancestral view ofthe cosmos. Despite centuriesof often forced change, theMaya continue to leave anindelible mark of easternMesoamerica where the culturewas born so long ago.
Master builders, the lowlandMaya flourished after A.D.250 for at least a thousandyears. Ruins of their cities dotthe Yucatan Peninsula.While Europe endured theDark Ages, the Mayaestablished scores of city-states.
Governed by hereditary rules, city-states oftenshared power as political allies. The Mayadeveloped the most sophisticated system ofwriting in the Western Hemisphere, traced thepath of the planet Venus with great precision,and marked the passage of time with anelaborate calendar system.
Between A.D. 500 and 1200 theMaya built Chichen Itza.Encounters with otherMesoamerican cultures may haveinfluenced the blend ofarchitectural styles at thiscommercial and ceremonialcenter, where archaeologistshave revealed steam baths, ballcourts, temples, and what may bean observatory. The focal pointof Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a79-foot-high pyramid crowded bta temple.
El C i l l o i s t hought by m ast any t o be t he Mayacal endar const r uct ed i n st one. I t s f ourst ai r cases have 91 st eps each; i ncl ude t he t oppl at f or m and t he t ot al i s 365, t he number ofdays i n a sol ar year .I nsi de t he pyr am d i s yet anot her bui l di ng of isi m l ar const r uct i on t hat houses a j ade-i nl ai d it hr one i n t he i mage of a j aguar , a sym bol ofpow .er
Nearby a sculptedhuman figure, a ChacMool, may have servedas an altar for religiousofferings.