Chichén Itzá is a legendary place that exists in spiritual discourses, cultural imaginaries, scientific visions, and political projects that reach beyond the four square miles that it occupies in the state of Yucatán, Mexico. Chichén, especially represented by iconic images of the main Pyramid of Kukulcan (a.k.a. El Castillo) and unique statuary, is a pervasive symbol of identity for Yucatec society, the Mexican nation, contemporary Maya peoples, Maya civilization, New Age spiritualisms, and even competing newspapers.
As a pre-Columbian Maya city that rose to power in the Late Classic (c. 800–1250 ce), Chichén was the capital of a province that held hegemony over a constellation of sixteen or eighteen other Maya lineage state-kingdoms in northern Yucatán Peninsula. They formed a geopolitical-cultural unity known as Mayab or U Kal Peten (Yukalpeten). These names became widely recognized in the twentieth century as the authentic and true indigenous names of the Maya world that was labeled Yucatán by the Spaniards in an over-interpreted and highly debated origin. Chichén Itzá translates as "The Mouth of the Well of the Magicians of Water"—chi (mouth, edge), ch'en (well), itz (magic, witchery), and há' (water). According to interpretations of the Books of the Chilam Balams, Uuc Habnal (Seven Year Flintstone) or Uuc Yabnal (Seven Much Corn) is either a mythic personage associated with the Itzá founding of Chichén or is the previous name of Chichén prior to the Itzá takeover.
Chichén and the Itzá are privileged protagonists in the Books of the Chilam Balams and play a special role in the history of Spanish colonization of Yucatán. Archaeological research in Yucatán has primarily sought to substantiate understandings of the pre-Columbian Maya provided by the Chilam Balams and Spanish colonial documents. Key debates center on the ethnic identity of the Itzá as Maya, Toltecs, or Mexicanized Gulf Coast peoples. The predominant interpretation asserts that the Itzá were Toltecs (ancient Mexicans) who conquered Chichén and thereby brought war, moral decadence, and human sacrifice-as well as new gods (Quetzalcoatl), art, and architecture-to the otherwise peaceful Maya who worshipped the rain god Chac. Contrary arguments observe that the Toltec elements of Chichén are historically earlier at Chichén than at Tula (Toltec capital), or that the two cultural periods are, instead, either totally or partially contemporaneous styles. Historical periodization for Chichén and other Yucatec cities is notoriously difficult given the lack of inscriptions in Yucatán of dates written in the Long Count calendar system typical of the southern Classic Maya cities (e.g., Palenque).
Archaeological study of Chichén began in the nineteenth century by foreign travelers such as John Lloyd Stephens, Désiré Charnay, Augustus Le Plongeon, and Edward H. Thompson. Reconstruction (1923–1941) by U.S. and Mexican archaeologists sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the federal Monumentos Prehispanicos had the explicit goal of creating a tourist attraction. Today, Chichén is the third most important (visited) tourism site in Mexico behind only Tulum and Teotihuacan. Ethical and political controversies surround the U.S. archaeologists E. H. Thompson, who looted or illegally exported valuable artifacts from Chichén, and Sylvanus G. Morley, who used archaeology as a "cloak" under which he conducted U.S. Naval intelligence in Mexico during World War I. The 1920s to 1930s archaeological reconstruction of Chichén generated a brief neo-Mayan revivalism in architecture, inspired innovations in art deco building facades, and fueled the development of a Yucatec movement of regionalist modernism in art, literature, and architecture, as occurred throughout Latin America.
Chichén, the best-known pre-Columbian Maya city, was placed on Mexico's list of UNESCO-sanctioned World Heritage sites in 1988 and was designated fifth among the New Seven Wonders of the World by the N7W Foundation on July 7, 2007. Although archaeological materials are legally defined as national patrimony owned by the nation (under stewardship of the National Institute of Anthropology and History), the land in which the material artifacts and monuments of Chichén exist are actually owned as private property by an established oligarchic family of Yucatán, the Barbachanos. While the Barbachano family has sought to privatize Chichén and monopolize its tourism market, Maya communities (e.g., Pisté) have contested the legality of Barbachano privatization, asserted rights of cultural ownership of Chichén as Maya heritage, and demanded the expropriation of the archaeological ruins. Further, Neo-Aztecs, U.S.-based New Age spiritualists, and Gnostics claim Chichén to be a religious-spiritual site of initiation into cosmic growth, healing, and transformation. These groups appropriate Chichén to perform hybrid rituals during the spring equinox descent of Kukulcan; they invented additional ceremonies on other dates that are derived from ad hoc New Age interpretations of Maya calendars fundamentally at odds with both archaeological orthodoxy and commonsense knowledge. Maya from nearby communities, such as Pisté, have also re-appropriated Chichén as intangible heritage by having created a new and aesthetically innovative form of art, a wood sculpture called arte pisteño, that is inspired by the statuary, iconography, paintings, and murals of Chichén Itzá and other Classic Maya cities.
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Quetzil E. CastaÑeda