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El Castillo (Spanish for "the castle"), also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the center of the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Mexican state of Yucatán. The building is more formally designated by archaeologists as Chichen Itza Structure 5B18.
Built by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity closely related to the god Quetzalcoatl known to the Aztecs and other central Mexican cultures of the Postclassic period.
The pyramid consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Sculptures of plumed serpents run down the sides of the northern balustrade. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, creating the illusion of a feathered serpent "crawling" down the pyramid. Each of the pyramid's four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top as the final "step", produces a total of 365 steps (which is equal to the number of days of the Haab' year).
The structure is 24 m high, plus an additional 6 m for the temple. The square base measures 55.3 m across.
In 1566, the pyramid was described by Friar Diego de Landa in the manuscript know as Yucatán at the Time of the Spanish Encounter (Relación de las cosas de Yucatán). Almost three centuries later, John Lloyd Stephens described with even more detail the architecture of the pyramid in his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (Incidentes del viaje Yucatán), published in 1843. At that time, the archeological site of Chichén Itzá was located on an estate, also called Chichén Itzá, owned by Juan Sosa. Frederick Catherwood illustrated the book with lithographs depicting the pyramid covered in abundant vegetation on all sides. There are some photographs taken in the beginning of the 20th century that also show the pyramid partially covered by said vegetation.
In 1924, The Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. requested permission from the Mexican government to carry out explorations and restoration efforts in and around the area of Chichen Itza. In 1927, with the assistance of Mexican archaeologists they started the task. In April of 1931, looking to confirm the hypothesis that the structure of the pyramid of Kukulkan was built on top of a much older pyramid, the work of excavation and exploration began in spite of generalized beliefs contrary to that hypothesis. On June 7, 1932, a box with coral, obsidian, and turquoise encrusted objects was found beside of human remains, which are exhibited in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
After extensive work, in April of 1935, a statue of Chac Mool with its nails, teeth, and eyes inlaid with mother of pearl was found inside the pyramid. The room where the discovery was made was nicknamed the hall of offerings or the north chamber. After more than a year of excavation, in August of 1936, a second room was found, only meters away from the first. Inside this room, nicknamed the chamber of sacrifices, archaeologists found two parallel rows of human bone set into the back wall, as well as a red jaguar statue with 74 jade inlays for spots, jade crescents for eyes, and white painted flint for teeth and fangs. On its back was found a turquoise disc apparently used for burning incense. Both figures were found facing north-northeast. Researchers concluded that there must be an inner pyramid approximately 33 m (108 ft) wide, shaped similarly to the outer pyramid, with 9 steps and a height of 17 m (56 ft) up to the platform of the temple where the Chac Mool and the jaguar were found. It is estimated that this construction dates to the eleventh century AD. After all of the work was completed, an entryway was cut into the balustrade of the north-northeastern exterior staircase to provide access to tourists. The older, inner pyramid is referred to as the "substructure".
In recent years, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which manages the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, has been closing monuments to public. While visitors can walk around them, they can no longer climb them or go inside their chambers. Climbing El Castillo was stopped in 2006. At the same time INAH closed the public access to the interior throne room.
Today "El Castillo" is one of the most recognized and widely visited pre-Columbian structures in present-day Mexico.