Name and orthography
The Maya name "Chichen Itza" means "At the mouth of the well of the Itza." This derives from chi', meaning "mouth" or "edge," and ch'en or ch'e'en, meaning "well." Itzá is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that gained political and economic dominance of the northern peninsula. One possible translation for Itza is "enchanter (or enchantment) of the water,"from its, "sorcerer," and ha, "water."
The name is spelled Chichén Itzá in Spanish, and the accents are sometimes maintained in other languages to show that both parts of the name are stressed on their final syllable. Other references prefer the Maya orthography, Chichen Itza' (pronounced [tʃitʃʼen itsáʔ]). This form preserves the phonemic distinction between ch' and ch, since the base word ch'e'en (which, however, is not stressed in Maya) begins with a postalveolar ejective affricate consonant. The word "Itza'" has a high tone on the "a" followed by a glottal stop(indicated by the apostrophe).
Evidence in the Chilam Balam books indicates another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest. This earlier name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal ("Seven Great House"),
Uuc Hab Nal ("Seven Bushy Places"),
Uucyabnal ("Seven Great Rulers") or Uc Abnal ("Seven Lines of Abnal").[nb 3] This name, dating to the Late Classic Period, is recorded both in the book of Chilam Balam de Chumayel and in hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.
The layout of Chichen Itza site core developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula.The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza is equivalent to 832 AD, while the last known date was recorded in the Osario temple in 998.
The Late Classic city was centered upon the area to the southwest of the Xtoloc cenote, with the main architecture represented by the substructures now underlying the Las Monjas and Observatorio and the basal platform upon which they were built.
Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands.
As Chichen Itza rose to prominence, the cities of Yaxuna (to the south) and Coba (to the east) were suffering decline. These two cities had been mutual allies, with Yaxuna dependent upon Coba. At some point in the 10th century Coba lost a significant portion of its territory, isolating Yaxuna, and Chichen Itza may have directly contributed to the collapse of both cities.
According to some colonial Mayan sources (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophesied his own rise to power. According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophesied his own ascension.
While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250, before the rise of Mayapan.[nb 4][not in citation given (See discussion.)] Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.
After Chichén Itzá elite activities ceased, the city may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if these Maya were living in Chichen Itza proper, or a nearby settlement. The relatively high population density in the region was a factor in the conquistadors' decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.
See also: Spanish conquest of Yucatán
In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán Peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha', south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and established his main base at Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.
Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of the ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.
Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and, by recruiting Maya from Campeche and Champoton, built a large Indio-Spanish army and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.
Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood). The book recounted Stephens' visit to Yucatán and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá. The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Désiré Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruines américaines (1863).
In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén, and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach. Augustus Le Plongeon called it "Chaacmol" (later renamed "Chac Mool", which has been the term to describe all types of this statuary found in Mesoamerica). Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichen Itza in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.
In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson, purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Osario (High Priest's Temple). Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
In 1913, the Carnegie Institution accepted the proposal of archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley and committed to conduct long-term archaeological research at Chichen Itza. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability, as well as World War I, delayed the project by a decade.
In 1923, the Mexican government awarded the Carnegie Institution a 10-year permit (later extended another 10 years) to allow U.S. archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza.Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, among other major buildings. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan) and the Great Ball Court.
In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén. Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatán. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in New Jersey in 1935. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.
There have been two later expeditions to recover artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado, in 1961 and 1967. The first was sponsored by the National Geographic, and the second by private interests. Both projects were supervised by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH has conducted an ongoing effort to excavate and restore other monuments in the archaeological zone, including the Osario, Akab D'zib, and several buildings in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen).
In 2009, to investigate construction that predated El Castillo, Yucatec archaeologists began excavations adjacent to El Castillo under the direction of Rafael (Rach) Cobos.