Twice a year, thousands of visitors congregate at the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in anticipation of the descent of Kukulcan. They gather around the pyramid of the site, which the Spanish conquistadors called el castillo (“the castle”), where, according to legend, Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god, descends from heaven, blesses his worshipers on earth, and then makes his way to the underworld or Cibalpa. Indeed, the setting sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes casts shadows on the northern balustrade of El Castillo that resembles the figure of a snake slithering down stairs, an effect that is exacerbated by the monster heads carved into the base. While onlookers watch the phenomenon from the outside, archaeologists have been exploring inside the pyramid for nearly a hundred years. Archaeological excavations at El Castillo have unearthed not only the moraine or earth from which many Mesoamerican pyramids were built but also two earlier pyramids and possibly a gateway to hell, a cibalba.
With its exquisite radial symmetry, ordered stepped platforms, and crowned temple, El Castillo is one of the most well-known Mesoamerican pyramids. It was probably built by the Toltec Maya between 1050 and 1300 AD when the rest of the Maya population was dwindling. It is famous not only for its Kukulcan lineage but also for its connection to the Mayan calendar. Each of the four sides of the pyramid contains a staircase of 91 steps. The total number of steps, when combined with the temple at its summit, equals 365, which is the number of days in the Maya solar year. The temple at the top was used exclusively by priests who would perform sacred rites at a height bringing them closer to the gods in the sky.
The priests climbed one of the four stairs to reach the temple, and were never supposed to enter the pyramid. However, in the 1930s, a group of excavators began exploration and discovered that another pyramidal temple was located within the Great Pyramid. Further excavations revealed nine platforms, one staircase, a temple containing human remains, a jade-encrusted jaguar throne, and a so-called chak mole. Chak mol is a type of Maya sculpture of an abstract male figure reclining and holding a bowl used as a vessel for sacrifices. Researchers hypothesize that this pyramid was built sometime between 800 and 1000 AD. In mid-2010, archaeologists using non-invasive imaging techniques discovered another pyramid buried within the other two. They assume that it may have been built between 550 and 800 AD and may have had one staircase and an altar.
El Castillo is not unusual in that it has not one but two temple pyramids within it – archaeologists have found earlier structures within several Mesoamerican pyramids. For example, excavations of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which was built by an unnamed ancient culture near Mexico City around AD 100, found that the pyramid may have been built on top of three earlier structures. Scholars speculate that rulers often built on top of existing buildings as a way to outpace their predecessors. Interestingly, archaeologists working in the 1970s also found a system of caves and tunnels below the Pyramid of the Sun, which was connected to the city’s various subterranean rivers. This discovery indicates a purposeful decision to build on that very spot.
Archaeologists made a similar discovery at Chichen Itza in the first decade of the 21st century. Again, using non-invasive imaging techniques, they found what they believed to be a large indentation, just below El Castillo’s base. The depression is similar to the cenote sagrado (“sacred cenote”) at Chichen Itza, which is located in the northernmost part of the city. This area was associated with the cult of the rain goddess, called Chax, and was the site of regular sacrifices that included precious items such as jade, gold and copper as well as human beings. This cenote connects to several subterranean rivers and caverns beneath Chichen Itza’s limestone bedrock, a geological formation called karst. These underground cavities were not only sources of fresh water for the Maya, but also, according to their beliefs, the entrances to Xibalpa, or the “place of terror”.
In 2018, a team of archaeologists began exploring the underground water system below Chichen Itza in an attempt to find a connection to the supposed cenote below El Castillo. If archaeologists succeed in proving the existence of cenotes, El Castillo will not only serve as a staircase bringing priests closer to the gods of heaven, but also as a gateway to the demons of the underworld. It will essentially be the axis of the world, the center of the world, uniting the earth with heaven and the underworld. Thus, El Castillo may have had a more important role in Maya religion than previously believed by archaeologists and tourists, but such a claim requires further exploration.