Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature.
The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site. 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.
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.
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 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.
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. Throughout its nearly 1,000 year’s history, different peoples have left their mark on this city.
The Maya and Toltec vision of the world and the universe is revealed in their artistic works and stone monuments. Several buildings have survived. In the northern region of the Yucatan peninsula, on a limestone plateau lie the relics of Chichen Itza, once one of the most powerful cities of the Maya. Ruins of the temples of this ancient civilization spread from the Guatemala jungles to the Yucatan.
In times when Chichen Itza flourished as a city, the Mayas formed a highly sophisticated society. Their elite did remarkable work in astronomy, mathematics, engineering and architecture, while the rest provided manpower to execute the plans.