The Architecture of El Tajin

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

The once-magnificent city of El Tajin, which flourished not far inland from Mexico's Gulf Coast from roughly 800-1200 A.D., features some truly spectacular architecture. The palaces, temples and ballcourts of the excavated city show impressive architectural details like cornices, inset glyphs and niches.

The City of Storms

After the fall of Teotihuacan around 650 A.D., El Tajin was one of several powerful city-states that arose in the ensuing vacuum of power.

The city flourished from about 800 to 1200 A.D. At one time, the city covered 500 hectares and may have had as many as 30,000 inhabitants; its influence spread throughout Mexico's Gulf Coast region. Their chief God was Quetzalcoatl, whose worship was common in Mesoamerican lands at the time. After 1200 A.D., the city was abandoned and left to return to the jungle: only locals knew about it until a Spanish colonial official stumbled across it in 1785. For the past century, a series of excavation and preservation programs have taken place there, and it is an important site for tourists and historians alike.

The City of El Tajin and its Architecture

The word "Tajín" refers to a spirit with great powers over the weather, especially in terms of rain, lightning, thunder and storms. El Tajín was built in the lush, hilly lowlands not far from the Gulf Coast. It is spread out over a relatively spacious area, but hills and arroyos defined the city limits.

Much of it may once have been built of wood or other perishable materials: these have been long since lost to the jungle. There are a number of temples and buildings in the Arroyo Group and old ceremonial center and palaces and administrative-type buildings in Tajín Chico, located on a hill to the north of the rest of the city.

To the northeast is the impressive Great Xicalcoliuhqui wall. None of the buildings is known to be hollow or to house a tomb of any sort. Most of the buildings and structures are made of a locally available sandstone. Some of the temples and pyramids are built over earlier structures. Many of the pyramids and temples are made of finely carved stone and filled with packed earth.

Architectural Influence and Innovations

El Tajin is unique enough architecturally that it has its own style, often referred to as "Classic Central Veracruz." Nevertheless, there are some obvious external influences on the architectural style at the site. The overall style of the pyramids at the site is referred to in Spanish as the talúd-tablero style (it basically translates as slope/walls). In other words, the overall slope of the pyramid is created by piling progressively smaller square or rectangular levels on top of another. These levels can be quite tall, and there is always a stairway to grant access to the top.

This style came to El Tajín from Teotihuacan, but the builders of El Tajin took it further. On many of the pyramids in the ceremonial center, the tiers of the pyramids are adorned with cornices which jut out into space on the sides and corners.

This gives the buildings a striking, majestic silhouette. The builders of El Tajín also added niches to the flat walls of the tiers, resulting in a richly textured, dramatic look not seen at Teotihuacan.

El Tajin also shows influence from Classic era Maya cities. One notable similarity is the association of altitude with power: in El Tajín, the ruling class built a palace complexes on hills adjacent to the ceremonial center. From this section of the city, known as Tajin Chico, the ruling class gazed down upon the homes of their subjects and the pyramids of the ceremonial district and the Arroyo Group. In addition, building 19 is a pyramid which features four stairways to the top, on in each cardinal direction. This is similar to "el Castillo" or the Temple of Kukulcan in Chichén Itzá, which likewise has four stairways.

 

Another innovation at El Tajín was the idea of plaster ceilings. Most of the structures at the top of pyramids or on finely built bases were constructed of perishable materials such as wood, but there is some evidence in the Tajín Chico area of the site that some of the ceilings may have been made of a heavy plaster. Even the ceiling at the Building of the Columns may have had an arched plaster ceiling, as archaeologists discovered large blocks of convex, polished blocks of plaster there.

Ballcourts of El Tajín

The ballgame was of paramount importance to the people of El Tajín. No fewer than seventeen ballcourts have been found so far at El Tajín, including several in and around the ceremonial center. The usual shape of a ball court was that of a double T: a long narrow area in the middle with an open space at either end. At El Tajín, buildings and pyramids were often constructed in such a way that they would naturally create courts between them.

For example, one of the ballcourts in the ceremonial center is defined on either side by Buildings 13 and 14, which were designed for spectators. The south end of the ballcourt, however, is defined by Building 16, an early version of the Pyramid of the Niches.

One of the most striking structures at El Tajin is the South Ballcourt. This was obviously the most important one, as it is decorated with six marvelous panels carved in bas-relief. These show scenes from the ceremonious ballgames including human sacrifice, which often was the result of one of the games.

The Niches of El Tajin

The most remarkable innovation of El Tajín's architects was the niches so common at the site. From the rudimentary ones at Building 16 to the magnificence of the Pyramid of the Niches, the site's best-known structure, niches are everywhere at El Tajín.

The niches of El Tajín are small recesses set into the exterior walls of the tiers of several pyramids on the site.

Some of the niches in Tajín Chico have a spiral-like design in them: this was one of the symbols of Quetzalcoatl.

The best example of the importance of the Niches at El Tajin is the impressive Pyramid of the Niches. The pyramid, which sits on a square base, has exactly 365 deep-set, well-designed niches, suggesting that it was a place where the sun was worshiped.

It was once dramatically painted to heighten the contrast between the shady, recessed niches and the faces of the tiers; the interior of the niches was painted black, and the surrounding walls red. On the stairway, there were once six platform-altars (only five remain). Each of these altars features three small niches: this adds up to eighteen niches, possibly representing the Mesoamerican solar calendar, which had eighteen months.

Importance of Architecture at El Tajin

The architects of El Tajin were very skilled, using advances such as cornices, niches, cement and plaster to make their buildings, which were brightly, dramatically painted to great effect. Their skill is also evident in the simple fact that so many of their buildings have survived to the present day, although the archaeologists who restored the magnificent palaces and temples surely helped.

Unfortunately for those who study the City of Storms, relatively few records remain of the people who lived there. There are no books and no direct accounts by anyone who ever had direct contact with them. Unlike the Maya, who were fond of carving glyphs with names, dates and information into their stone artwork, the artists of El Tajin rarely did so.

This lack of information makes the architecture that much more important: it is the best source of information about this lost culture.

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).

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Minster, Christopher. "The Architecture of El Tajin." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-architecture-of-el-tajin-3963694. Minster, Christopher. (2016, March 2). The Architecture of El Tajin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-architecture-of-el-tajin-3963694 Minster, Christopher. "The Architecture of El Tajin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-architecture-of-el-tajin-3963694 (accessed December 14, 2017).