029 Piramide dell’Indovino, Uxmal, Yucatan (Mexico) by tango- on Flickr.
El Castillo (Spanish for “The Castle”) is the nickname of a spectacular Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the center of the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
Built by the Maya civilization sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries AD, “El Castillo” served as a temple to the god Kukulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl).
It is a step pyramid with a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Great sculptures of plumed serpents run down the sides of the northern staircase, and are set off by shadows from the corner tiers on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The pyramid has 91 steps on three of the sides and 92 on the north staircase, which adds up to 365 steps, or days of the year.
The Mexican government restored the pyramid in the 1920s and 1930s, concurrent with the Carnegie Institution’s restoration of the Temple of Warriors. Archaeologists were able to reconstruct two sides of the pyramid in their entirety.
Mesoamerican cultures periodically built larger pyramids atop older ones, and this is one such example. In the mid 1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation into El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. Inside the temple chamber is a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of jaguar, painted red with spots made of inlaid jade. The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple, and opened it to tourists.
In recent years, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which manages the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, has been closing monuments to public access. While visitors can walk around them, they can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers. Climbing El Castillo was halted in 2006 after a woman fell to her death. At the same time INAH closed the public access to the throne room.
When counting the top platform as another step, in total El Castillo has 365 steps, one step for each day of the approximated tropical year recorded by the portion of the Maya calendar known as the Haab’. The structure is 24 m high, plus an additional 6 m for the temple. The square base measures 55.3 m across.
The overall structure has nine levels, which may be a parallel to the Maya cosmological view of there being nine levels in the Maya ‘Underworlds’. We are led to believe this because of the staircase in the center of the pyramid having 13 levels, the number of levels in the “upper worlds”.
Today “El Castillo” is one of the most popular and recognized pre-Columbian structures in present-day Mexico.