Aztec and Mayan Ruins

A tour of the key sites from the ancient Aztec and Maya kingdoms.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

On this expedition, you will visit Chichen Itza, Teotenango, the Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaccoben and Teotihuacan.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is in the eastern region of Yucatan State, Mexico. The name Chichen Itza is Mayan for “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The area’s geography supplies clues to what that means. Many local rivers flow underground.

Itza tribe members got most of their fresh water from two large cenotes, or sink holes. These life-supporting cenotes also saw plenty of death: the Mayas sacrificed humans to please the rain god Chaac by dropping them into cenotes.

El Osario

This pyramid is called El Osario for the communal graveyard beneath its foundations. Approximately 9 meters high, it’s decorated with several stone tablets show Toltec images of dancing men wearing feathered costumes and beaked masks.

The sanctuary

At the pyramid’s top, you’ll see a stone sanctuary and portico-fronted gallery. Between two stone pillars is a shaft leading down inside to a short stone staircase. The staircase provides access to an underground, 12m-deep cavern with several tombs.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities of its time. It was also the location of the sacred cenotes (water-filled sinkholes), making it a pilgrimage center for over 1,000 years. 

In 987 A.D., a Toltec leader joined forces with the Mayan people and together they made Chichen Itza the most powerful city in the Yucatan. This is why you’ll see both Mayan and Toltec styles featured on many of the stone buildings that remain today.

El Castillo

El Castillo (the Castle) has 91 steps on each of its four sides. If you add the top platform as one step, it totals 365, the number of days in one year. The Mayans had an advanced astronomical calendar.

Templo de los Guerreros

Across the lawn from el Castillo is Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors). Its many carved stone columns each show a warrior. On top is a typical chacmool sculpture, a reclining man possibly representing a slain warrior.

Teotenango

Teotenango (“The Place of the Divine Walls”) is on Tetepetl Hill, approximately 64 kilometers southwest of Mexico City. This city was built in the final years of the Teotihuacan civilization, around 750 A.D. Later, in approximately 1162 A.D, the Matlatzincas invaded. 

They built strong defensive walls and expanded the city. Then, in approximately 1474, the Aztecs took over. The city thrived and grew until the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Teotenango

As you stroll through Teotenango’s remains, you’ll see many signs of the city’s former glory. There’s a stone step pyramid, stone staircases, a ball court, and a complex water system, complete with ritual steam bath and a drainage system.

Tetepetl Hill

Teotenango stands on a mesa called Tetepetl Hill. The original landscape, uneven lava rock, had to be flattened and filled in before any structures could be built, the result of hundreds of years of human habitation and hard work.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

The Aztec Ruins National Monument is in northwestern New Mexico in the United States. Once completely covered by desert sands, the ruins were rediscovered in 1859. Scientists believe construction of the site began around 1100 A.D. Building the city was an enormous undertaking.

The land was flattened and filled, thousands of sandstone blocks were cut, and heavy logs were cut and transported from mountains miles away. For unknown reasons, the inhabitants abandoned the area in approximately 1300 A.D.

The Great Kiva

Walk around the almost 50-foot-wide Great Kiva. What you’re looking at is a reconstruction. Archaeologist Earl H. Morris rebuilt the collapsed original in 1934. While Morris did his best, some details, like the roof height, were educated guesses.

The Kiva

A kiva is an enclosed, partially underground room. In the Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument, a round bench lines the kiva’s inner wall. This is where boys and men sat during the religious ceremonies held inside.

The West Ruin

As you stroll through the West Ruin, imagine the amount of work it took to build such a place. Archaeologists have uncovered over 400 rooms and 12 kivas, all built with sandstone bricks and with tree trunks for structural reinforcement.

Chacchoben Mayan Ruins

Chacchoben is Mayan for “Place of the Red Corn.” It’s the site’s modern name—the original’s unknown. A Mayan family discovered the ruins in the 1940s and built a home on the site. The Cohuo family lived happily in the midst of the ruins for approximately 30 years. 

When an American archeologist reported the ruins’ existence to the Mexican government, the family agreed to move. Today, many original structures have been restored by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Temple Pyramid

This step pyramid is believed to have been built around 700 A.D. Notice that its design is similar to El Osario and El Castillo. It’s made of stones and stone bricks, with stone staircases leading to its flat top.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is a pre-Columbian city believed to have been founded circa 100 B.C. At its height around 450 A.D., the city was home to an estimated 125,000 people. Oddly, Teotihuacan (meaning “Birthplace of the Gods”) was named hundreds of years after its fall by Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs.

While many questions remain unanswered, one thing is clear: these were master builders. Teotihuacan features a grid-like design, pyramids and temples, multi-family compounds, intricate carvings and thousands of murals.

Piramide del Sol

The Piramide del Sol was completed circa 200 A.D. At 224 meters (738 feet) across and 75 meters (246 feet) high, it’s Earth’s third largest pyramid. Originally, bright murals covered it. Experts aren’t sure how it was used.

The Avenue of the Dead

Turn left 90 degrees so you’re looking up a road lined with stone ruins. It’s known as the Avenue of the Dead, (Calzada de los Muertos). Only a portion has been uncovered. It’s believed to extend for several additional kilometers.

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