The principal architecture at El Tajín dates from the Classic period (300–900 AD); the city declined in the early Post-Classic (900–1100 AD) and by the time of the Conquest it had been forgotten. Our knowledge comes entirely from archeological enquiries made since the accidental discovery of the site in 1785 – El Tajín remains one of the most enigmatic of all of Mexico’s ancient cities. No one even knows who built it: some claim it was the Huastecs, others the Totonacs. Most archeologists prefer not to speculate too wildly, instead calling the civilization Classic Veracruz. You’ll notice many of its hallmarks at El Tajín, including niches in temple walls and complex ornamental motifs known as “scrolls”. Classic Veracruz influence was widespread, and is strongly felt at Teotihuacán, to the extent that some believe that city may have been built by Veracruzanos.
From the site entrance, a track leads through a small group of buildings to the Plaza del Arroyo, the city marketplace, and into the heart of Tajín Viejo. Around the plaza are several ball-courts, the most prominent of which is the South Court, or Juego de Pelota Sur; it looks like a wide avenue between two small pyramids. Seventeen such courts are known here, and more possibly lie unexcavated; it’s thought that the game took on a greater importance here than at any other known site. The superb bas-relief sculptures that cover the walls of the South Court include portrayals of a decapitated player, and another about to be stabbed with a ritual knife by fellow players, with Death waiting to his left. Such bas-reliefs are a constant feature of the site, adorning many of the ball-courts and buildings, with more stacked in the museum.
The unique Pirámide de los Nichos, one of the last to be built here, is the most famous building at El Tajín, and indeed one of the most remarkable of all Mexican ruins. It rises to a height of about 20m in six receding tiers, each face punctuated with regularly spaced niches; up the front a steep stairway climbs to a platform on which the temple originally stood. If you tally up the niches, including those hidden by the stairs and those, partly destroyed, around the base of the temple, there are 365 in all. Their exact purpose is unknown, but clearly they were more than mere decoration: theories include each holding some offering or sacrifice, one for each day of the year, or that they symbolized caves – the dwellings of the earth god. Originally they were painted black, with the pyramid in red, to enhance the impression of depth. Niches are also present on other buildings at the site, some bearing the attributes of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, El Tajín’s most depicted god.
Around the plaza in front of the pyramid stand all the other important buildings of Tajín Viejo. Opposite is Monumento 3, a similar pyramid without niches, and behind it Monumento 23, a strange steep-sided bulk, one of the last structures to be built here. To the right of the Pirámide de los Nichos, Monumento 2, a low temple, squats at the base of Monumento 5, a beautiful truncated pyramid with a high decorative pediment broken by a broad staircase; on the left, Monumento 4 is one of the oldest at El Tajín, and only partly restored.
From the back of Monumento 4 the path continues past the Juego de Pelota Norte, with its worn relief sculptures, onto the levelled terrace of Tajín Chico, home of the city’s elite. From here, you get a great overview of Tajín Viejo. Only parts of the buildings survive, making a rather confusing whole. Estructura C and the adjoining Estructura B are the most impressive remains: Estructura C has stone friezes running around its three storeys, giving the illusion of niches. In this case, they were purely decorative, an effect that would have been heightened by a brightly coloured stucco finish. It also has the remains of a concrete roof – originally a huge single slab of poured cement, unique in ancient Mexico. Estructura A had a covered interior, and you can still see the entrance covered by a false arch of the type common in Maya buildings.
Estructura I (aka Edificio de las Pinturas) is distinguished by a palapa roof protecting its elaborate decoration, including relief carvings and delicately painted murals. Such luxurious decor suggests that this was probably the residence of some major political or religious figure. On the hill above Tajín Chico stood the Edificio de las Columnas, which must have dominated the entire city. El Tajín’s most famous ruler, 13 Rabbit, lived here; bas-reliefs on columns recorded his exploits, and some of these are now on show in the museum.
From the terrace of Tajín Chico you can walk down the stone path to the Gran Greca complex, also known as Xicalcoliuhqui, whose spiral walls contain two ball-courts and more pyramids. It has been only partially cleared of jungle, but you can stroll along the walled edges to get a sense of its vast size. Built towards the end of the city’s life, it is regarded as a sign of growing crisis, Tajín’s rulers becoming increasingly obsessed with monumental projects in order to maintain control over a disenchanted populace.