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Humanities LibreTexts

7.14: Mayan Classic Period Kukulkan Temple (900 CE)

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  • The pyramid of Kukulkan (7.59) is the main building in Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. The area surrounding the pyramid is a limestone plain pockmarked with natural pools of water surrounded by dense jungle. The pyramid was constructed between 800 to 900 CE over the remains of a previous temple. The architect used the art of stereotomy, using geometrical knowledge and techniques to accurately map out and cut the big blocks of stone and assemble the stones without any form of mortar. The wall and vaults decorated in carved battle scenes and other detailed images are the most elaborate images of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent which appears multiple on columns and substructures.

    Kukulkan Temple
    7.59 Kukulkan Temple

    The base of the pyramid is 53.3 meters wide on each side and 24 meters high with a 6 meters high temple on the top. Each side has 91 steps to the top, a total of 364 steps, the additional step into the pyramid makes 365 steps, each step representing a day of their calendar. The pyramid (7.60) has nine large flat stages, the staircase bisecting the sides of the stages representing the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. The pyramid is facing northeast and is a physical representation of the Mayan calendar.

    North stairs
    7.60 North stairs

    In the fall and spring equinoxes, the sun projects a light pattern of seven triangles on the northern stairs that slowly moves down the steps as the sun traverses the sky. The triangles of light start at the top of the pyramid and finally connect at the stone carvings of the snakeheads (7.61) at the bottom, making it look like a massive serpent going down the stairs. This shadow stays for forty-five minutes before disappearing. In the winter solstice, the sun climbs up the edge of the pyramid stairs and stops at the temple before descending down the stairs.

    Climbing the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá from Mark Bowles on Vimeo.

    Serpent head
    7.61 Serpent head