Coricancha: Inca Temple of the Sun in Cusco

The Heart of the City of the Jaguar

Qoricancha Temple and the Church of Santa Domingo in Cusco Peru
Qoricancha Temple and the Church of Santa Domingo in Cusco Peru. Ed Nellis

The Coricancha (spelled Qoricancha or Koricancha, depending on which scholar you read and meaning something like "Golden Enclosure") was an important Inca temple complex located in the capital city of Cusco, Peru and dedicated to Inti, the sun god of the Incas.

The complex was built on a natural hill in the sacred city of Cusco, between the Shapy-Huatanay and Tullumayo Rivers. It was said to have been constructed under the direction of the Inka ruler Viracocha about 1200 AD (although the dates of Viracocha's rule are under debate), and later embellished by the Inka Pachacuti [ruled 1438-1471].

Coricancha Complex

The Coricancha was the physical and spiritual heart of Cusco--indeed, it represented the heart of the sacred panther outline map of Cusco's elite sector. As such, it was the focal point of major religious activities within the city. It was also, and perhaps primarily, the vortex of the Inca ceque system. The sacred pathways of shrines called ceques radiated out from Cusco, into the far flung "four quarters" of the Inca empire. Most of the ceque pilgrimage lines started at or near the Coricancha, extending out from its corners or nearby structures to more than 300 huacas or places of ritual importance.

The Coricancha complex was said by Spanish chroniclers to have been laid out according to the sky. Four temples surrounded a central plaza: one dedicated to Inti (the sun), Killa (the moon), Chasca (the stars) and Illapa (the thunder or rainbow). Another plaza extended westward from the complex where a small shrine was dedicated to Viracocha.

All were surrounded by a high, superbly constructed enclosing wall. Outside of the wall was the exterior garden or Sacred Garden of the Sun.

Modular Construction: the Cancha

The term "cancha" or "kancha" refers to a type of building group, like the Coricancha, that consists of four rectangular structures placed symmetrically around a central plaza.

While sites named with "cancha" (such as Amarucancha and Patacancha, also known as Patallaqta) are typically orthogonally similar, there is a variation, when insufficient space or topographic restrictions limit the complete setup. (see Mackay and Silva for an interesting discussion)

The complex layout has been compared to the Temples of the Sun at Llactapata and Pachacamac: in particular, although this is difficult to pin down given the lack of integrity of Coricancha's walls, Gullberg and Malville have argued that the Coricancha had a built-in solstice ritual, in which water (or chicha beer) was poured into a channel representing the feeding of the sun in the dry season.

The interior walls of the temple are trapezoidal, and they have a vertical inclination built to withstand the severest of earthquakes. Stones for the Coricancha were quarried from the Waqoto and Rumiqolqa quarries. According to the chronicles, the walls of the temples were covered with gold plate, looted shortly after the Spanish arrived in 1533.

Exterior Wall

The largest extant portion of the exterior wall at the Coricancha lies on what would have been the southwestern side of the temple. The wall was constructed of finely cut parallel-piped stones, taken from a specific section of the Rumiqolqa quarry where a sufficient number of flow-banded blue-grey stones could be mined.

Ogburn (2013) suggests that this part of the Rumiqolqa quarry was chosen for Coricancha and other important structures in Cusco because the stone approximated the color and type of the gray andesite from the Capia quarry used to create gateways and monolithic sculptures at Tiwanaku, thought to be the homeland of the original Inca emperors.

After the Spanish

Looted in the 16th century soon after the Spanish conquistadors arrived (and before the Inca conquest was complete), the Coricancha complex was largely dismantled in the 17th century to build the Catholic Church of Santo Domingo atop the Inca foundations. What is left is the foundation, part of the enclosing wall, almost all of the Chasca (stars) temple and portions of a handful of others.

Sources

Bauer BS. 1998. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cuadra C, Sato Y, Tokeshi J, Kanno H, Ogawa J, Karkee MB, and Rojas J. 2005. Preliminary evaluation of the seismic vulnerability of the Inca’s Coricancha temple complex in Cusco. Transactions on the Built Environment 83:245-253.

Gullberg S, and Malville JM. 2011. The astronomy of Peruvian Huacas. In: Orchiston W, Nakamura T, and Strom RG, editors. Highlighting the History of Astronomy in the Asia-Pacific Region: Proceedings of the ICOA-6 Conference: Springer. p 85-118.

Mackay WI, and Silva NF. 2013. Archaeology, Incas, Shape Grammars and Virtual Reconstruction. In: Sobh T, and Elleithy K, editors. Emerging Trends in Computing, Informatics, Systems Sciences, and Engineering: Springer New York. p 1121-1131.

Ogburn DE. 2013. Variation in Inca Building Stone Quarry Operations in Peru and Ecuador. In: Tripcevich N, and Vaughn KJ, editors. Mining and Quarrying in the Ancient Andes: Springer New York. p 45-64.

Pigeon G. 2011. Inca architecture : the function of a building in relation to its form. La Crosse, WI: University of Wisconsin La Crosse.