El Tajin: the Pyramid of the Niches

Pyramid of the Niches
Pyramid of the Niches. Photo by Christopher Minster

The archaeological site of El Tajin, located in the present-day Mexican State of Veracruz, is remarkable for many reasons. The site boasts many buildings, temples, palaces and ball courts, but the most impressive of all is the stunning Pyramid of the Niches. This temple was obviously of great symbolic importance to the people of El Tajin: it once contained exactly 365 niches, marking its connection to the solar year.

Even after the fall of El Tajin, sometime around 1200 A.D., locals kept the temple clear and it was the first part of the city discovered by Europeans.

Dimensions and Appearance of the Pyramid of the Niches

The Pyramid of the Niches has a square base, 36 meters (118 feet) on each side. It features six tiers (there was once a seventh, but it was destroyed over the centuries), each of which is three meters (ten feet) high: total height of the Pyramid of the Niches in its present state is eighteen meters (about 60 feet). Each level features evenly-spaced niches: there are 365 of them in total. On one side of the temple is a great stairway which leads to the top: along this stairway are five platform altars (there were once six), each of which has three small niches in it. The structure at the top of the temple, now lost, featured several intricate relief carvings (eleven of which have been found) depicting high-ranking members of the community, such as priests, governors and ball players.

Construction of the Pyramid

Unlike many other great Mesoamerican temples, which were completed in stages, the Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajin seems to have been built all at once. Archaeologists speculate that the temple was built sometime between 1100 and 1150 A.D., when El Tajin was at the height of its power.

It is made of a locally available sandstone: archaeologist José García Payón believed that the stone for the building was quarried from a site along the Cazones River some thirty-five or forty kilometers from El Tajín and then floated there on barges. Once completed, the temple itself was painted red and the niches were painted black to dramatize the contrast.

Symbolism at the Pyramid of the Niches

The Pyramid of the Niches is rich in symbolism. The 365 niches clearly represent the solar year. In addition, there were once seven levels. Seven times fifty-two is three hundred and sixty four. Fifty-two was an important number for Mesoamerican civilizations: the two Maya calendars would align every fifty-two years, and there are fifty-two visible panels on each face of the Temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza. On the monumental stairway, there were once six platform-altars (now there are five), each of which featured three small niches: this reaches a total of eighteen special niches, representing the eighteen months of the Mesoamerican solar calendar.

Discovery and Excavation of The Pyramid of the Niches

Even after the fall of El Tajin, locals respected the beauty of the Pyramid of the Niches and generally kept it clear of jungle overgrowth.

Somehow, the local Totonacs managed to keep the site a secret from the Spanish conquistadors and later colonial officials. This lasted until 1785, when a local bureaucrat named Diego Ruiz discovered it while searching for clandestine tobacco fields. It wasn't until 1924 that the Mexican government dedicated some funds to explore and excavate el Tajin. In 1939, José García Payón took over the project and oversaw excavations at El Tajin for almost forty years. García Payón tunneled into the west side of the temple to get a closer look at the interior and construction methods. Between the 1960's and the early 1980's, authorities only maintained the site for tourists, but starting in 1984, the Proyecto Tajin ("Tajin Project"), has continued with ongoing projects at the site, including the Pyramid of the Niches.

In the 1980's and 1990's, under archaeologist Jürgen Brüggemann, many new buildings were unearthed and studied.

Sources:

Coe, Andrew. . Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2001.

Ladrón de Guevara, Sara. El Tajin: La Urbe que Representa al Orbe. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2010.

Solís, Felipe. El Tajín. México: Editorial México Desconocido, 2003.

Wilkerson, Jeffrey K. "Eighty Centuries of Veracruz." National Geographic 158, No. 2 (August 1980), 203-232.

Zaleta, Leonardo. Tajín: Misterio y Belleza. Pozo Rico: Leonardo Zaleta 1979 (2011).