The Astronomical Centre of Chichen Itza, Mexico

Why Did The Ancient Maya Track The Cosmos?

Belize 129On a limestone plateau in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is Chichen Itza – named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. The relics are the best preserved Mayan site in Mesoamerica and is an impressive sight in its own right, but the ancient city earns its plaudits for the astounding astronomical alignments.

Chichen Itza is mostly famed for the El Castillo pyramid, also known as the Kuk’ulkan Temple. Each year, thousands gather at the ancient site on the spring and autumn equinoxes to witness a natural phenomenon.

“On the March 21st equinox, triangles of light and shadows come down the stairs representing Kuk´ulkan´s descent to the Earth,” our guide Luigi tells us. “Sept 21st – the shadows move upwards with the sun´s rising representing Kuk’ulkan’s ascent to heaven. At noon a bright light shines into the temple at the top of the pyramid.”

The Maya originated around 3,000 years ago and were excellent mathematicians, astronomers and engineers among other things. Their knowledge of the stars, planets and the Universe in general was extraordinary, and modern day scholars are unable to explain how this ancient civilisation could have such advanced expertise. Yet nobody can deny they had this knowledge because it is evident in their buildings, monuments and calendars.

The temple of k’uk’ulkan

Chichen Itza is a prime example. The entire settlement was built to track the movements of the Sun, Moon and Venus. The temple of K’uk’ulkan, dedicated to the Maya Sun God, embodies the legend of the creator God with natural astronomical cycles.

K’uk’ulkan is often seen represented as a serpent in Mesoamerican cultures and the appearance of a serpent like shadow running along the staircase of El Castillo and meeting the carved serpents head at the bottom is the workmanship of master builders.

Each of the temples four walls have 91 steps, the number of days that separate the four phases of the solar cycle and ultimately the change of seasons. Furthermore, 91×4=364 + the top platform and you have the number of days it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. The height of the temple is 23 metres, the angle at which the planet tilts on its axis. How did the Maya know this? The west plane of the pyramid aligns with the zenith passage of the sun as it sets in the evening.

Luigi doesn’t mention any of this.

Chichen Itza observatory

Belize 144Another celestial observation the Mayas had a passion for was the cycle of Venus, and the observatory at Chichen Itza was designed specifically for this purpose. Luigi explains that the observatory is named El Caracol, the Spanish word for snail, so called because of the spiral staircase inside. Unfortunately visitors are no longer permitted to go inside.

Today, the roof of the observatory is partly demolished, but in its day sported eight windows which are strategically placed and do not take any kind of geometrical form usually associated with design. Luigi tells us the windows represent the 8-mid points found on a compass, but it’s more likely they were specifically positioned for tracking the movements of Venus on the horizon.

Venus has a peculiar cycle whereby it can be seen from Earth as a morning star and an evening star. Known as the synodic period of Venus, the planet appears in the morning for 263 days of the year before disappearing for 50 days. When it re-appears, it can only be seen in the evening and remains for another 263 days before disappearing below the horizon again. It is absent for eight days before reappearing as the morning star and the cycle begins again.

It is thought the Maya recorded the course of the synodic period of Venus when it appeared in eight specific positions in the sky – as detected through the observation windows of El Caracol. Scholars believe the planet held some divine inspiration for the Maya and they planned their wars and coronations with its position.

The positioning of the building is also aligned with celestial movements. The grand staircase at the entrance face 27.5 degrees north of west which is when Venus is at its highest northerly point. A diagonal running northeast to southwest corners of the building align with the sunrise of the summer solstice and the sunset of the winter solstice.

You can learn more about the Maya, Venus and Chichen Itza in my book, Journeys To Ancient World’s: What Modern Man Can Learn From Ancient Civilisations. It will be available on Amazon soon.

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