Kukulcan Pyramid

Kukulcan Pyramid

The temple of Kukulcan, popularly called The Castle, rises majestically on the Yucatán peninsula, within the state of the same name.

In this article we will delve into the Kukulcan Pyramid, if you want to know more about the deity Kukulcan, then you can visit the following link: Kukulcan: The Radiance of the Mayan Deity and His Legacy

Aerial view of the Kukulcan Pyramid in Chichen Itza

This historical monument, erected in the 12th century by the Itzae Mayan people, is the heart of Chichen Itza, a metropolis founded in the 6th century AD. C. Its design, pyramidal in shape, is made up of nine terraces, four main faces with stairs and culminates with a small temple at the top.

This imposing temple was a sacred place dedicated to the god Kukulcan, also called in Yucatec Mayan as Kꞌuꞌukꞌul Kaan or ‘feather serpent’. Therefore, it is possible to distinguish serpentine elements in its decoration.

Furthermore, it integrates symbols that evoke essential figures in the solar calendar, the Tzolkin (ritual calendar) and the calendar cycle. Its meticulous orientation allows the observation of light shows, which are manifested in its annual equinoxes and solstices.

In 1988, UNESCO honored Chichen Itza, designating it a World Heritage Site. Moving forward in time, in 2007, thanks to a digital vote promoted by Swiss filmmaker Bernard Weber and the New Open World Corporation, the Kukulcan temple was proclaimed one of the “New Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”

It is essential to specify that it was only the Kukulcan pyramid, and not the entire archaeological complex, that received recognition, thus reaffirming its importance and prominence within the site.


Dimensions: Photo: wikipedia.org

When put in perspective with the pyramid of Cheops in Egypt or with the pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, the size of the pyramid of Kukulcan seems modest: While Cheops stands at about 147 m and that of the Sun reaches 65 m (not counting a possible temple of additional 10 meters), the pyramid of Kukulcan reaches 30 m from the base of its faces.

Thus, in terms of height, the Kukulcan temple does not compete with other global majesties; In fact, the pyramid of the Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal, at 47 m, surpasses it. However, what really distinguishes this structure are its architectural details and its connotations linked to the calendar and astronomy of the Mayan Culture.

Inside of the Temple, Castle or Kukulcan Pyramid

Chac Mool. Kukulcan Pyramid inside. Photo: wikipedia.org

In 1566, Fray Diego de Landa narrated the characteristics of the temple in the document titled Chronicle of the Findings of Yucatán. Centuries later, in 1843, John Lloyd Stephens precisely detailed the shape of the pyramid in his work titled Journey through Yucatán.

During that period, the archaeological site of Chichen Itza was part of a farm of the same name, under the ownership of Juan Sosa. Illustrations by Frederick Catherwood in the book reveal a pyramid overrun by thick vegetation.

Photographs from the beginning of the 20th century corroborate this image of nature intertwined with construction.

In 1924, the Carnegie Institute of Washington requested authorization from the Government of Mexico to undertake research and restoration in Chichen Itza. Efforts began in 1927 with the collaboration of local experts.

In 1931, given the assumption of a pre-existing pyramid under the visible structure of Kukulcan, deep excavations began, despite the doubts of the time. Archaeologist José Erosa Peniche was instrumental in giving the green light to such studies.

Jaguar (balam) inside the Kukulcan temple. Photo: wikipedia.org

On June 7, 1932, a box containing coral, obsidian, and turquoise artifacts was discovered alongside human remains; These objects are currently displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in the Mexican capital.

After intense work, in April 1935 a figure of Chac Mool adorned with shell inlays on its limbs, eyes and teeth was found in a space nicknamed the tribute room or north bedroom.

Not far away, in 1936, a second space was revealed, called the ritual chamber, inside which were placed rows of human bones and a statue of a red jaguar decorated with 74 pieces of jade and crescent eyes of the same stone.

Above the feline there was a circle of turquoise, perhaps used for incense, both representations face north-northeast. The presence of an interior pyramid of about 33 meters wide and 17 meters high, dated around the 11th century AD, was deduced. c.

Once the studies were completed, an entrance was established outside so that visitors could access. This pre-existing pyramid is called the “substructure.”

Symbols and Calendars

Mayan Pyramid The Castle at the Chichen Itza Archaeological Site

The Kukulcan temple at Chichen Itza is a testament to the vast Mayan understanding in areas such as mathematics, geometry, acoustics and astronomy.

Originating from a culture with roots in agriculture, the Mayans meticulously studied seasonal patterns, as well as the movements of the Sun and stars. This meticulous observation culminated in the construction of this monument, a tribute to their deity, Kukulcan.

Following the tradition of Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans adopted an agricultural solar calendar, called Haab. This is divided into 18 months or “uinales”, and each uinal consists of 20 days or “kines”, totaling 360 days. To these are added five additional days, perceived as inauspicious, called “uayeb”.

The castle, temple or Kukulcan pyramid has four sets of stairs, and each set has 91 steps. If we add these together, we get 364, and by adding the top platform of the building, we get to 365, representing each day of the Haab.

The second temporal system, the Tzolkin or sacred calendar, has 13 months, with 20 days in each month, giving a total of 260 days. The interaction between the Tzolkin and the Haab creates a cycle that repeats every 18,980 days (equivalent to 52 years). This means that after 52 Haab rotations, the synchronization of both calendars starts again.

Kukulcan Temple

These numbers (18 uinales, 20 kines, 5 uayeb, and 52 cycles) are intricately encoded in the Kukulcan pyramid. If we position ourselves in front of any side of the monument, and focus our eyes on the stairs, we can see nine platforms.

Multiplying by 2, we obtain 18, coinciding with the Haab uinals. At the top of the castle, there were five ornamentations per side, totaling 20, symbolizing the 20 days per uinal.

On each level, there are raised panels; Adding all the panels of a façade, we obtain 52, evoking the 52 cycles of the Haab. Additionally, the building features 260 geometric shapes, which resonate with the days of the Tzolkin.

Therefore, The Castle at Chichen Itza is not only a tribute to Kukulcan, but also acts as a clock, underscoring the importance of time cycles for the Mayan civilization.

Sound phenomenon: Acoustics on stairs

In the last decades of the 20th century, with the tourism boom in Chichen Itza, tour guides fortuitously found a sound phenomenon on the northern staircase of the pyramid. When clapping directly in front of this staircase, the echo returns transformed, not as the original sound, but emulating the trill of a quetzal.

In technical terms, what happens is that the applause disperses and finds the lower steps first, and milliseconds later, the higher ones. That minimal time difference generates interference in the reflected sound waves, resulting in that distinctive echo.

Curiously, this phenomenon only manifests itself with low-frequency sounds, such as clapping.

Kukulcan Pyramid: Listen to the acoustics on the stairs emulating the song of a quetzal.

The equinoxal mystery in Chichen Itza: Descent of Kukulcan

Visual effect of the descent of Kukulcan. Photo: wikipedia.org

Over the course of a year, if we observe the sunrise from a specific place, we will notice that the Sun rises at different points on the horizon, altering its celestial path. This variation is attributed to the Earth’s dynamics: its rotation, its orbit around the Sun, the oscillation of its ecliptic and the angle of axial inclination.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun appears to position itself furthest south during the December solstice, crosses a midpoint at the March equinox, reaches its northernmost point at the June solstice, returns to the midpoint in September, and finally resets. this annual cycle. Furthermore, this perception of the Sun changes when changing latitude.

The Mayans, meticulous celestial observers, took these fluctuations into account and designed the Kukulcan pyramid according to them. Not only from an architectural perspective, but they also aligned its northeast façade with a bias of around 20° to pure north.

During the equinox sunsets of March and September, on the northeast staircase of the pyramid, a serpent-shaped solar pattern appears: seven inverted luminous triangles, the result of the interaction of light with the nine terraces of the monument.

In Chichen Itza, this luminescence in the Kukulcan Pyramid takes on a majestic character. The alignment of light and shadow appears to recreate the descent of a snake, culminating in the feathered serpent head at the base.

This spectacle occurs for about five days around the equinoxes. The sequence begins about three hours before nightfall. First, a serpentine luminous line emerges, which gradually consolidates into seven triangles, visible for only ten minutes, before beginning its gradual fading.

Within academia, there is an argument that suggests the lack of concrete evidence that the lighting phenomenon was intentionally created by Mayan design. They are based on studies that indicate that such a spectacle can be witnessed, with minimal variations, over an extended period of weeks.

Other analyzes propose a different view, arguing that, although not strictly limited to a couple of dates, the phenomenon is part of a cycle that extends from mid-February to the end of October.

These suggest that it is linked to the observation of Venus and the agricultural phases of northern Yucatan, coinciding with similar traditions in Mayan areas of the northern peninsula, inherited from pre-Columbian times.

In Mayapán, an archaeological site, there is a smaller, but proportionally similar pyramid, also dedicated to Kukulcan. During the solstices, you can witness a light representation similar to the snake, but its visibility is limited due to the state of conservation of the monument.

In 1566, Diego de Landa reported that the Mayans commemorated, on the 16th day of the month Xul, the figure of Kukulcan, whom they venerated as a divinity.

This tradition spread throughout the Mayan civilization until the fall of Mayapán; Later, only the Tutul Xiues continued it in Maní, their main city. After periods of fasting and purification, the clerics gathered at the Kukulcan temple, spending five days and nights in meditation and performing ritual dances.

The southwest and east facades of the Kukulcan Pyramid are in poor condition, which prevents the observation of any light phenomenon during equinoctial sunrises. However, it is possible that, if the damaged parts were rehabilitated, a similar effect could be perceived, with the illusion of the serpentine ascent towards the pyramid, through the southwest staircase.

Kukulcan Solstices

Illuminated facade (NNE) and shadow facade (ONO)

Since the end of the 20th century, archaeological specialists began to pay attention to the light events produced during the summer and winter solstices. However, it was not until June 2007 that a detailed analysis of these events was carried out.

Experts from the Mérida Technological Institute, together with professionals from INAH, confirmed that during the dawn of the June solstice (summer season in the northern hemisphere) and for a period of 15 minutes, the NNE and ESE faces of the Kukulcan pyramid receive light solar directly, while the WNW and SSW faces are submerged in darkness.

This means that half of the structure is bathed in light, and the other half in shadows, precisely symbolizing the moment of the solstice.

Solar trajectories on solstices and equinoxes. Photo: wikipedia.org

Similarly, this play of light and shadow takes place on the December solstice (winter season in the northern hemisphere). However, as evening falls, the WNW and SSW faces brighten, while the NNE and ESE faces are eclipsed.

This light show at the Kukulcan Pyramid is the result of an orientation of approximately 20° in relation to true north and the geographical position in which the pyramid sits.

Effect of the zenith passage through the Kukulcan Pyramid

The crossing or zenith passage refers to the instant in which the sun is positioned directly over a specific point on the earth, resulting in the absence of shadows. This phenomenon is exclusive to the geographic region delimited by the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Outside these limits, the sun never reaches a completely vertical position, as its location is tilted to the north or south. In the tropics themselves, the zenith crossing occurs only once a year: it is synchronized with the summer solstice (June 20 or 21) in the Tropic of Cancer and with the winter solstice (December 21 or 22) in the Tropics. of Capricorn.

Overhead passage through the Kukulcan Pyramid: Photo: wikipedia.org

For the other locations between these two tropics, the phenomenon occurs twice a year, with variable dates depending on latitude.

For example, in Xochicalco, this astronomical event happens on May 15 and July 29, while in Monte Albán it is on May 8 and August 5.

In the case of the Kukulcan Pyramid, given its geographical position of 20° 40′ 58″ north latitude, the days of zenith crossing are May 23 or 24 and July 19.

Experts in the discipline of archaeoastronomy have investigated and recorded what happens at these archaeological sites during these specific dates. Pioneers in research at Chichen Itza include Franz Tichy, Johanna Broda, and Susan Milbrath.

Broda argued that the civilizations of Mesoamerica intentionally selected the location of their sacred enclosures, based on the solar path and taking into account these zenith crossings.

You might also be interested: Kukulcan: The Radiance of the Mayan Deity and His Legacy

Kukulcan Pyramid FAQs

What does the Kukulcan Pyramid mean?

Its impeccable balance of the Kukulcan Pyramid reflects the Mayan calendar: 18 segments (equivalent to months of 20 days each) and 365 steps (annual days).

Who built the Temple or Kukulcan Pyramid?

The temple was built in the 12th century AD. by the residents of this ancient Mayan metropolis, known as itzáes.

Where is the Kukulcan Pyramid located?

The Kukulcan Pyramid is located on the Yucatán Peninsula, in Mexico, specifically in the municipality of Tinum, Yucatán, within the archaeological site of Chichen Itza.

What culture built the Kukulcan Pyramid?

The Mayan Culture was responsible for building the Kukulcan Pyramid; the Itzá people stood out for their vast knowledge of astronomy.

R. Kukulcan Pyramid or The Castle Temple in Chichen Itza

If you are staying in Cancun or the Riviera Maya and want to know the Kukulcan Pyramid, you can book a tour in any of the following options:

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