El Tajín, the most important ceremonial centre of the Gulf region, has never had a culturally homogeneous population, even though the site is generally regarded as the capital of the Totonaks. However, these did not appear in the region until around 1000 AD. “Totonaco” is a Nahuatl term and means “people from the hot country”.
In the context of Mesoamerican cultures, El Tajín occupies a special position, especially in architectural terms. The long-standing head of archaeological excavation work, Jürgen Brüggemann of German origin, formulated it as follows: “El Tajín’s architecture is of particular interest not only because of its formal elements such as the niche structure, but also because of its play with the proportions of platforms and superstructures of the temple foundations with buildings built using various techniques.
In cultural terms, El Tajín was not a city in the strict sense of the word, as it lacked a corresponding internal structure. It wasn’t until after a while that buildings were erected in the northern complex of the site to accommodate the persons entrusted with the administration. Politically, there was probably a teocratic system comparable to that of other Mesoamerican cities, but there is no evidence that the Totonaks formed state structures or even an empire geared towards conquest. Even though they settled in different places in the Gulf, they never founded a city whose influence and power would have been comparable to that of Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, Tula or Tenochtitlán.
The decline of El Tajín began in 1000 A.D. and two hundred years later the city was completely abandoned.
The famous niche pyramid El Tajíns is architecturally unique. It stands on a square platform of 35 m side length. The uppermost of the seven levels once served as an edge for a tip, which is destroyed, however, so that nothing is known about its shape. The 365 niches correspond to the days of the calendar year.
At the centre of El Tajín’s ritual culture was the game of ball and the related human sacrifice. All 20 (!) pelota courts, three of which were only discovered in 2013, have the classic T-shape as well as rising side slopes, from which the ball could bounce back into the playing field after the impact. Some of the courts also had spectator terraces. Some are oriented from north to south, others from east to west. None of the courts has rings through which the ball has been struck. The most famous of El Tajíns ball courts is the southern “Juego de Pelota Sur”. At the two central points of its walls are sculptures with cosmological elements and presumably related to the ball markers in the middle of the playing field. At the four corners of the square there are also sculptures, one of which symbolizes the God of the Dead in the form of a figure rising from a vessel filled with water elements. At one point, the decapitation of a pelota player is shown, which supports the thesis that human sacrifice was celebrated in the game.
Elsewhere you see the representation of two opponents whose tongues are intertwined, a symbol of mutual challenge through language, as well as the graphic symbol “ollin”, which stands for movement. Both represent the concept of a unity based on duality of opposing forces (e.g. day and night, light and shadow).