The history of culture of Mexico makes an amazing page in the book of the history of mankind. On the territory on modern Mexico there were civilizations being the most developed on Western Hemisphere. Among them mysterious Mayan culture is recognized in the world as one contributed significantly to progress of humanity. Mayans invented hieroglyphic writing and imagery, achieved substantial advances in construction, developed applied mathematics and astronomy (Henderson 262).
Mayan cities strike imagination even in our days. Of all their cities, the most imposing is Chichen Itza located in the upper part of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (Silverberg 122). Robert Sharer reflecting opinions of other scholars has called it “the dominant political, economic, and religious center of central Yucatan” (qtd. in Jones 9). The purpose of this paper is to explore what influence Chichen Itza exerted upon the history of culture of Mexico.
Toward this end we will scrutinize the history of Chichen Itza prosperity and decline, analyze the factors and forces forming its development and influence on other cities, define the place of this city in the history of culture of Mexico, and make the conclusion. Undoubtedly the pre-Columbian past needs to be appreciated when attempting to explain both colonial and contemporary culture of Mexico. We need to examine the way a distinct Mexican civilization has expressed itself through time. Before conquering by the Spanish the city of Chichen Itza was one of the most important cultural centres of the Mayan state.
Its majestic temples built in the form of truncated pyramids strike people with their splendid architecture until now. Its restored observatory is functioning to present day along with the state-of-the-art astronomic installations. One of a few books escaped destruction during inquisition – so-called ‘Dresden Codex’ – contains numerous data on planets of solar system and distant stars (Silverberg 138). The Mayas also knew exact time of Venus’ revolution around the Sun, duration of Mars year; they had some knowledge of Jupiter, Saturn and the North Star.
They were so good in mathematics to understand the concept of zero as a number, and they could perform vast complicated computations with large numbers (Henderson 261). The Mayan city Chichen Itza was founded in the fifth-sixth centuries, as scholars suppose (Jones 10). By the end of the tenth century life here almost ceased until the Toltecs occupied the city and recovered it mighty. Having established a foothold in Chichen Itza the Toltecs and their allied tribes soon extend their influence on the most part of Yucatan peninsula.
It is important to point out that other big centers of this zone – Uxmal and Mayapan – also bear the stamp of domination of Toltec and mixed Maya-Toltec traits in religion, architecture and sculpture. The conquerors brought with them new customs and rites, new features in arts as well (Prem 24). Consulting a map of the Yucatan peninsula, one can see why the Toltecs chose to locate their chief administrative center at Chichen. It was roughly in the center of the northern plain and near the coast, but not so near as to be subject to raids from the sea or to hurricanes.
Further, it was a long-standing center of religious pilgrimage and huge sinkholes (which were called ‘cenotes’) were the focus of a rain god cult (Prem 25). Thus the sacred, political, military, and economic factors combined to make the center a well-located colonial capital. The predominance of Chichen Itza, which was clearly not simply a city-state like those of the Classic period but the core of an imperial system, rested on a structure of alliances, which anticipated the Aztec style of expansion during the fifteenth century.
The so-called Toltec-Maya phase at Chichen Itza followed the collapse of the Classic cultures of the cities Uxmal, Palenque, Bonampak, Tikal, and Copan and led to a period of Yucatecan predominance in Mesoamerica during the eleventh century (Hamnett 43). As a result soon in Yucatan the peculiar syncretic culture formed with the cultural center in Chichen Itza which combined in whimsical manner Mayan and Toltec traits. Emergence of this culture launched the period in the history of culture of Mexico which was called in scholarly literature ‘Mexican’ one (Henderson 268).
Cultural and political leadership on the peninsula at that time, beyond question, belonged to Chichen Itza which for many years became the capital of the Toltecs-conquerors on the Mayan lands. Further development of Toltec civilization was ceased by the new wave of martial barbarian tribes which invaded into the Valley of Mexico from the north. Survived farmers with ancient cultural traditions mingled with semi-barbarian Chichimecs-hunters (Prem 142). As in the rest of Mesoamerica, people of contrasting cultural identity and linguistic affiliation mingled in complex mosaic arrangements.
This whimsical alloy of cultural traditions and ethic groups served the basis where later the mighty Aztec state emerged. The art of the Aztecs is undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the art of the Toltecs (Henderson 266). The reflections of this art we can observe even nowadays. For instance, we can see from Maya carvings and paintings that they were of the same design as those built by Indian peasants of Central America today (Hewett 257). This clearly demonstrates that in pre-Columbian America Chichen Itza played the same role as in their times Knossos in Crete or Ur in Mesopotamia (Silverberg 137).
Undoubtedly, it can be called Mexican Paris and Louvre. Beside cultural development the rulers of Chichen Itza were developing alternate forms of government. Instead of naming single rulers in lineal descent, the rulers referred to several important contemporaneous individuals, suggesting some form of joint rule. This system, known as multepal or “govern together” in Chichen Itza, was in operation in some parts of Yucatan at the time of the conquest by the Toltecs (Kowalski & Dunning 294).
Thus, Chichen Itza appears to have embraced some form of shared governance. This helps us to understand the urban landscape at Chichen Itza, which, as no other pre-Hispanic Maya city, exhibits pervasive architectural and iconographic innovations. Clearly, the decentralization of Chichen Itza’s political institutions motivated the development of its innovative architectural style (Jones 11). Chichen Itza shows both Classic and Post-Classic architectural styles. The Classic style is massive, with heavy, decorative sculpture and cramped interiors.
The later buildings have plainer, more austere lines, with the sculpture based on the Mexican feathered-serpent motif and columns (“Chichen Itza” 9942). This style is apparent even in modern arts of Mexico (Hewett 345). But not only art reflections are present now. Modern life in the more remote hinterlands of eastern and central Yucatan has a very definite Maya character (Henderson 37). Thus, historical changes in Chichen Itza help to explain economic, political and cultural developments in Mexico through the historical perspective.
This city’s favorable geographic position combined with dynamism of development, openness to external influences, and the cultural and ethnic mixtures have contributed significantly to shaping of Mexican society and have defined its distinctive culture. The great florescence of architectural innovation, urbanism, and social planning evidenced at Chichen Itza reflected a synthesis of several sources of influence that have included local traditions mixed with those of the Toltecs and other tribes invaded it.
Further research on the ancient city of Chichen Itza as the prominent example of Maya culture history makes possible a better assessment of continuities in the Mexican cultural tradition. Improved understanding of these continuities permits a more informed use of analogy based on ethnographic, historical, and archaeological information. No culture is static and no group is a fossilized image of its ancestors, but societies are products of their histories. This in fact is true for the history of culture of Mexico. Chichen Itza is something more than archeological and cultural center.
It is the city-symbol where philosophy, architecture and history are a single whole. Today it is a symbiosis of Indian and Spanish cultures reflecting zigzags of its cultural history. It is the cradle of one of the most mysterious ancient cultures in the world – Mexican culture which formed its shape and defined its line of development.
“Chichen Itza”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Hamnett, Brian. A Concise History of Mexico. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.