Towering over the historical site of Chichen Itzá, El Castillo has quickly become the modern-day symbol of this ancient Mayan metropolis that today is one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Although it certainly isn’t the only must-see sight in Chichen Itzá, it’s for sure the most photographed. Why does this old building continue to fascinate visitors over a thousand years after it was built? What makes El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Kukulkán, so special? Here are some facts that will help you understand the true magic of this ancient pyramid.
Photo: Seeing the Pyramid of Kukulkán for the first time will leave you feeling small and in awe.
1.It has several names
Today, the pyramid has several names. Why? El Castillo, is Spanish and means “The Castle”. This was the name the Spanish conquistadors gave the pyramid when they arrived in the ancient civilisation. However, the building was never really a castle, nor a fortress, as the Spaniards assumed. Instead, it’s believed to have been constructed in honour of the serpent deity Kukulkán. That’s why it’s also known as the Pyramid of Kukulkán or the Temple of Kukulkán. The names are all used in parallel manner when referring to the pyramid.
2.It’s 25 metres high
At 25 metres high, the Pyramid of Kukulkán is by no means the tallest pyramid the ancient Mayans built. Even in the Yucatán peninsula, El Castillo can’t claim to be the highest pyramid (the title goes to the 42-metre high Nohoch Mul in Cobá). It’s still pretty impressive, standing in the middle of a grassy plaza. It’s also high enough. A woman tragically fell to her death in 2006. This is why it’s no longer possible to climb up to the top.
3.It’s actually several pyramids
From the outside you’d never know, but underneath the pyramid is actually another pyramid. Discovered as recently as in 2016, the larger, newer pyramid was built on top of an older, smaller one (check out this article on CNN about this). There are at least two pyramids, but there might even be more! It is still unclear how many pyramids there actually are, but some are even likening El Castillo to a Russian nestling doll (according to an expert interviewed in this article by The Guardian). Who knows what we’ll discover in the future?
Photo: At 25 metres, El Castillo is high enough to tower over the other buildings at Chichen Itzá. Here the beautiful pyramid stands seen from the giant Ball Court.
4.It’s over 1300 years old
The Pyramid of Kukulkán was built around 700-1300 AD during the Classic and Post-Classic Mayan eras. The newest parts, the visible and largest of the pyramids, dates back to around 1050-1300 AD. The oldest parts might even date back as far as 550 AD! This however, remains disputed.
Photo: The Temple of Kukulkán has become the symbol of Chichen Itzá and is certainly the most photographed of the buildings in this ancient Mayan city.
5.It’s like a gigantic Mayan Calendar
El Castillo is a great example of the unbelievably precise mathematic, astronomic and architectural knowledge the ancient Mayans had. For example, the pyramid has four sides, each with its own set of stairways. The sides all have a total of 91 steps. Together with a final step at the top of the pyramid, leading to a small temple, you get a grand total of 365. The exact amount of days in one year of the Mayan calendar (and yes, it’s pretty close to our modern day calendar!).
6.It might be proof the Mayans were masters in acoustic engineering
Visit Chichen Itzá and you’ll without a doubt hear someone demonstrating this effect. Clap once at the foot of the stairs on the North side and the pyramid will answer you with the sound of a bird’s chirp! Although experts are debating whether or not this was done intentionally – if done intentionally it’s definitely proof the ancient Mayans knew a thing or two about acoustic engineering. Check out this Belgian study about the bird chirp effect here.
Photo: Clapping at the bottom of the pyramid produces a sound that’s surprisingly similar to that of a bird’s chirp. This picture is just to demonstrate, the sound can only be heard clapping at the pyramid’s North side, not this side (which is the East side).
7.There’s a serpent show every autumn and spring equinox
Twice a year, during autumn and spring equinox, the pyramid hosts a show that still today attracts thousands of spectators. Kukulkán, the God that El Castillo is believed to be dedicated to, had the form of a feathered serpent. At the bottom of the staircase on the North side of the pyramid are two snakeheads, carved out of stone. The stairs are constructed so that each year, during autumn and spring equinox, the shadow falls at an angle that makes it look like a serpent body connecting to the stone heads at the bottom. This gives the illusion of a serpent crawling down the stairs. Watch this Youtube video to see what this amazing effect looks like!
8.It might be sitting on top of a cenote
In 2015, archaeologists discovered that the older pyramid might be sitting on top of a cenote. The cenote under the pyramid is estimated to be 20 metres deep. Here’s an article published in the Daily Mail about this finding.
9.Treasures have been found inside
Inside the older pyramid archaeologists have made some significant discoveries. In the smaller pyramid’s temple there’s a red jaguar throne with inlaid spots and eyes of jade. There’s also a Chac-mool; a Mayan stone sculpture of a reclining figure used in sacrificial rituals.
Photo: Even on a rainy day Chichen Itzá is beautiful, with the Pyramid of Kukulkán as the undisputed symbol of this ancient Mayan city.