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The Sunshine Road to Human Sacrifice

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief

Few cities live up to our preconceptions. Chichen Itza does. I was struck by how broad it is, how sophisticated it must have been, how hefty. You measure the Mayan city in footfalls along its prescribed pathways, from pyramid to cenote to ball field. Step after step, the high jungle gives way to crumbling walls, which turn and open with a slam to a clearing. There, in an improbably dense Yucatan field, looms a thousand-year-old solid structure—a mute voice, a testament to human willpower and skill. But whose voice, in what timbre? In what register? To what purpose?

You reach Chichen Itza, the legendary Mayan city, from the coast on a toll road. You drive and drive for more than 200 kilometers, humming along, solo, passing armed guards at the toll plazas and a couple of lonely convenience shops. As you drive further, the land ascends to an upland that is less overtly jungly, drier than you expected. Smoke filled clearings occasionally reveal huts thatched with palm branches.


After passing through the ticket booth, past hawkers and guides, you walk down a broad avenue, following the bobbing crowds. You can sense immensity ahead, a silence that overwhelms the nervous chatter of turistas. And there, defying your imagination, soars the castillo, 24 meters high.

Immensity of form, sacred iconography, myth, spiritual presence, and power all rest there, a stone temple as broad as the human imagination. 365 steps (91 on each side). 9 stories, representing passage through the levels of the underworld. Oriented with exactitude to the equinoxes. Inside, another, older pyramid, with a jaguar throne; above, a temple animated by the wind—the voice of God.

Random impressions from my day: The extreme sophistication and erudition of this culture, which devised an accurate calendar, a written language, and buildings that resonate in our imagination today. Limestone columns. Stone lintels. Carved serpents. The heat of the open plaza, and the cool of the shade. The contrast of public places from what is hidden and private, (the stair to the interior temple within a temple). The circular great pool of sacrifice, where the earth sinks 65 feet, and virgins and soldiers and Richard Halliburton leapt to their meetings with the gods.

Some say that the complex belies an Egyptian connection. Having just finished reading a number of Indian books, I could make an equal claim for the spirit of the subcontinent or Southeast Asia—from the stupa-like form of the round observatory to the word Maya itself.

Driving back to Cancun, the present seemed equally surreal, a strand of white hotels, glowing, animated, an array of stepped forms standing above the beach, worshipping the sun.