Cuzco, Peru: The Religious and Political Heart of the Inca Empire

What Was Cuzco's Role in the Ancient Inca Empire of South America?

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

Cuzco, Peru (and alternatively spelled Cozco, Cusco, Qusqu or Qosqo) was the political and religious capital of the vast empire of the Incas of South America. "Cuzco" is the most common spelling, and it is the Spanish transliteration of what the natives called their city: at the time of the conquest in the 16th century, the Inca had no written language as we'd recognize it today.

  • But! read about the Inca's string language Quipu

    Cuzco is located at the northern end of a large and agriculturally rich valley, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru at an elevation of 3,395 meters (11,100 feet) above sea level. It was the center of the Inca Empire and the dynastic seat of all 13 of the Incan rulers. The marvelous stonework still visible in the modern city today was primarily built when the 9th Inca, Pachacuti [ruled AD 1438-1471, gained the throne. Pachucuti ordered that the entire city be rebuilt: his stonemasons and their successors are credited with inventing the "Inca style of masonry", for which Cuzco is justly famous.

    Cuzco's Role in the Empire

    Cuzco represented the geographical and spiritual center of the Inca empire. At its heart was the Qoricancha, an elaborate temple complex built with the finest stone masonry and covered in gold. This elaborate complex was at the crossroads for the entire length and breadth of the Inca empire, its geographic location the focal point for the "four quarters", as Inca leaders referred to their empire, as well as a shrine and symbol for the major imperial religion.

    But Cuzco is filled with many other shrines and temples (called huacas in the Inca language Quechua), each of which held its own special place. Among the buildings you can see today there is was Q'enko, an astronomical shrine nearby, and the mighty fortress of Sacsaywaman. In fact, the entire city was considered sacred, surrounded by huacas, with sacred items and locations holding critical roles defining the lives of the people who lived along the vast Inca road, and central to the Inca pilgrimage network, the ceque system.

    Founding of Cuzco

    Cuzco was founded, according to legend, by Manco Capac, the founder of the Inca civilization. Unlike many ancient capitals, at its founding Cuzco was primarily a governmental and religious capital, with few residential structures. Cuzco remained the Inca capital city from the mid 15th century until it was conquered by the Spanish in 1532. By then, Cuzco had become the largest city in South America, with an estimated population of 100,000 people.

    The central sector of Inca Cuzco is made up of a large plaza divided into two parts by the Saphy River. Carefully dressed blocks of limestone, granite, porphyry and basalt were used to build Cuzco's palaces, temples and central fortresses. The stone was inset without cement or mortar, and with a precision that came within fractions of a millimeter. The stonemason technology was eventually spread to many different outposts of the empire, including Machu Picchu.

    The Coricancha

    The most important archaeological structure in Cuzco is probably the one called the Coricancha (or Qorikancha), also called Golden Enclosure or the Temple of the Sun. According to legend, the Coricancha was built by the first Inca emperor, but certainly it was expanded in 1438 by Pachacuti, who built also built Machu Picchu.

    The Spanish called it "Templo del Sol", as they peeling the gold off its walls to be sent back to Spain. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish built a church and convent on its massive foundations.

    The Inca part of Cusco is still visible, in its many plazas and temples as well as massive remnant earth-quake proof walls. For a closer look at Inca architecture, see the Walking Tour of Machu Picchu.

    Archaeologists and others associated with the past of Cuzco include Bernabe Cobo, John H. Rowe, Graziano Gasparini, Luise Margolies, R. Tom Zuideman, Susan A. Niles, and John Hyslop.

    Sources

    This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to the Inca Empire and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

    Bauer BS. 1998. The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System.

    Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Chepstow-Lusty AJ. 2011. Agro-pastoralism and social change in the Cuzco heartland of Peru: a brief history using environmental proxies. Antiquity 85(328):570-582.

    Kuznar LA. 1999. The Inca Empire: Detailing the complexities of core/periphery interactions. In: Kardulias PN, editor. World-Systems Theory in Practice: Leadership, production, and exchange. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p 224-240.

    Protzen J-P. 1985. Inca Quarrying and Stonecutting. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 44(2):161-182.

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