Why are the Ancient Cities of Tula and Chichen Itza so Alike?

Located in north-central Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula respectively, the Toltec city of Tula and the Maya city of Chichen Itza are separated by roughly 800 miles (or 1300 km). The Toltecs were descended from warlike Chichimecs from northern Mexico, whereas the lords of Chichen Itza were the heirs of the glory of the ancient Yucatan Maya.

Nevertheless, there are striking architectural, artistic and thematic similarities between the two cities; there are far too many of these to be explained by mere coincidence. What was the connection between Tula and Chichen Itza?


The Toltecs and the Maya

By 900 A.D., the mighty Toltec civilization had coalesced from a combination of warlike Chichimecs and Nonoalcas: they laid claim to the cultural heritage of the fallen Teotihuacan. The Toltecs were mighty warriors who organized themselves into warrior clans named for coyotes, eagles and other animals: these clans also fought for the glory of their gods such as Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl. Tula would grow into a powerful metropolis and come to dominate central Mexico.Meanwhile, far to the south, the classic Maya civilization had recently collapsed, with great cities like Tikal, Palenque and Calakmul being abandoned one by one. The Maya were not gone, however, and their renaissance culminated in the glorious city of Chichen Itza. Like the Toltecs, these late Maya were warlike, but their trade rout and astronomy were more advanced. At some point, and under some circumstances still incompletely understood, these two great cultures had contact with one another.

Similarities between Tula and Chichen Itza
The first to notice the striking similarities between Tula and Chichen Itza was French explorer and archaeologist Desiré Charnay, who noticed it in the 1880’s. Since then, further investigations and archaeology work have only served to increase the number of connections…and deepen the mystery. There are many similarities between the two cities. Here are some:


Massive pillar-statues on the summits of temples which once held roofs
Feathered serpent imagery, including on columns
Chac Mool Statues
Tzompantli skull racks
Colonnaded halls
Benches decorated with reliefs depicting processions of warriors or elites
Reliefs including man-bird-serpent creatures, profiles of eagles or vultures, dogs and felines
Orientation of buildings several degrees east of north
Some warriors in the frescoes of Chichen Itza use Toltec weapons such as the atlatl and curved cutting/bludgeoning weapon seen at Tula

The ball courts of both cities deserve special mention. The Great Court of Chichen is a remarkable, striking structure which shares many similarities with Ballcourt Two of Tula. Both are very large: The one at Chichen Itza is the largest Mesoamerican ball court, and the one at Tula is the second-largest. Both are on the west side of the main plaza and orientated north-south. The low walls at the end of the “arms” on each end are very similar, and each has a large stairway to the west and a tzompantli or skull rack to the east.

The Cult of Quetzalcoatl

One of the greatest elements that both cities have in common is the worship of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent God. In both cities, imagery associated with Quetzalcoatl – Kukulcan to the Maya – is ubiquitous. The Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, also known as El Castillo or The Castle, is probably the most famous building at the ancient city because of the undulating serpentine shadows cast upon it when the sun is just right. At Tula, there are still several images of Quetzalcoatl in spite of extensive looting of artifacts and art since the days of the Aztecs. One such image is a carving on one of the famous pillars which grace the top of Pyramid B.


Tula to Chichen Itza or the Other Way Around?

These similarities – which are never questioned by important archaeologists and historians – beg the question: Did Tula influence Chichen Itza, or was it the other way around? Historians mostly agree on the answer to this question, too: it is believed that these characteristics originated at Tula and somehow found their way to Chichen Itza.There are several reasons for this belief, including the written and oral record of the Yucatan and the archaeological record of north-central Mexico. The cult of Quetzalcoatl was unknown among the classic Maya, but widespread in Central Mexico. It may even be as old as the ancient Olmec: the famous Monument 19 from La Venta clearly shows a feathered serpent. The Toltecs inherited the worship of Quetzalcoatl from Teotihuacán and it seems likely that it proceeded to the distant south from there, and not in the reverse direction. In addition, Tula and Chichen Itza share architectural features, such as the tzompantli skull racks and colonnaded halls, which originated with the ancient cultures of northwestern Mexico: it is extremely unlikely that these innovations first went to the Yucatan and then to Tula from there.

The Historical Record

The historical record, incomplete as it is, may hold some answers. No original Toltec codices survive, so the information we have on ancient Tollan (Tula) comes from the Aztecs, who revered the Toltecs. The Aztecs relate that Ce Atl Topiltzin, lord of Tula and a follower of Quetzalcoatl, had a falling-out with the warlike followers of Tezcatlipoca, who were in favor of increased human sacrifice. Versions of the tale are told in the Codex Chimalpopoca and Bernardino de Sahagun’s General History of New Spain. Ce Atl Topiltzin was driven from Tula along with his followers and went east. Meanwhile, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel of the Maya mentions foreigners arriving from the west at about the same time. These ancient accounts are not always reliable, for they feature a mixture of history and legend, but it seems there was some connection.

Conquest, Trade, Exile or Missionaries?

chichen-itza-temples_480x360Assuming there was some sort of cultural contact between Tula and Chichen Itza, what was its nature? There are several possibilities, but none of them are particularly convincing. It was once thought that the mighty Toltec military conquered Chichen Itza and imposed a Toltec dynasty, but modern historians discount that idea. There is much distance over unfavorable terrain to move a large enough army, and there is little evidence of Toltec military activities in the area between the two cities. The Toltecs, pressed from the north and west by the warlike Chichimecs, did not lack for enemies, and if they wanted conquest, there were tempting targets along the much closer Gulf Coast. Other possibilities for the similarities may be trade, exiled Toltec nobles or artisans settling in Chichen Itza, or missionaries of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl making their way that far south.

Why are Tula and Chichen Itza so Alike?

George Kubler, the noted scholar and art historian, believed that Toltec nobles had arrived somehow to Chichen Itza, bringing their ideas with them. These Toltec nobles were not artisans, which resulted in works of art and architecture having Toltec themes but Maya aspects as well. Nigel Davies suggested that after the fall of Teotihuacan, remnants of that mighty culture survived among the peoples of Veracruz and Tabasco, including the Nonoalcas and the Putun, who were neighbors. Some Nonoalcas went north and, joining the Chichimecs, founded Tula, while some Putun (the Itza of Maya legend) went south to Chichen Itza. Later, cultural ties would develop from Tula, through these Gulf Coast cultures and down to Chichen Itza.The Tula – Chichen Itza is still the subject of much debate and investigation, and experts do not agree on its exact history and nature. Perhaps new discoveries and investigations will help shed some more light on this ancient mystery.


Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Schmidt, Peter J. “Los ‘Toltecas’ de Chichén Itzá, Yucatán.” Arqueologia Mexicana XV-85 (May-June 2007). 64-68

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