Cuzco, Peru

The History and Development of the Incan Empire Capital City

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 ( was the political and religious capital of the vast empire of the Incas of South America. Over five hundred years after the city was taken over by the Spanish conquistadors, Cuzco's Incan architecture is still gloriously intact and visible to visitors.

Cuzco is located at the confluence of two rivers 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 Incan rulers.

"Cuzco" is the most common spelling of the ancient city (various English and Spanish sources can use Cusco, Cozco, Qusqu, or Qosqo), but all of those are Spanish transliterations of what the Incan inhabitants called their city in their Quechua language. 

Cuzco's Role in the Empire

Cuzco represented the geographical and spiritual center of the Inca empire. At its heart was the Coricancha, an elaborate temple complex built with the finest stone masonry and covered in gold. This elaborate complex served as 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.

Cuzco holds many other shrines and temples (called huacas in Quechua), each of which had its own special meaning. The buildings you can see today include the astronomical observatory of Q'enko and the mighty fortress of Sacsaywaman. In fact, the entire city was considered sacred, composed of huacas which as a group defined and described the lives of the people who lived in the vast Incan empire.

Founding of Cuzco

According to legend, Cuzco was founded about 1200 CE 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. By 1400, much of the southern Andes had been consolidated under Cuzco. With a residential population then around 20,000, Cuzco presided over several other large villages with populations of several additional thousands scattered throughout the region.

The ninth Incan emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (r. 1438–1471) transformed Cuzco, recasting it in stone as the imperial capital. By the second half of the 15th century, Cuzco was the epitome of the empire known as Tawantinsuyu, the "land of four quarters." Radiating outward from Cuzco's central plazas was the Inca Road, a system of constructed royal conduits dotted with way stations (tambos) and storage facilities (qolqa) that reached the entire empire. The ceque system was a similar network of hypothetical ley lines, a set of pilgrimage routes radiating out from Cuzco to connect hundreds of shrines out in the provinces.

Cuzco remained the Inca capital city until it was conquered by the Spanish in 1532. By that time, Cuzco had become the largest city in South America, with an estimated population of 100,000 people.

Incan Masonry

The marvelous stonework still visible in the modern city today was primarily built when Pachacuti gained the throne. Pachacuti's stonemasons and their successors are credited with inventing the "Inca style of masonry", for which Cuzco is justly famous. That stonework relies on the careful shaping of large stone blocks to fit snugly into one another without the use of mortar, and with a precision that comes within fractions of millimeters.

The largest pack animals in Peru at the time of Cuzco's construction were llama and alpacas, which are delicately constructed camels rather than heavily built oxen. The stone for the constructions in Cuzco and elsewhere in the Inca empire were quarried, dragged to their locations up and down mountainsides, and painstakingly shaped, all by hand.

The stonemason technology was eventually spread to many different outposts of the empire, including Machu Picchu. The finest example is arguably a block carved with twelve edges to fit into the wall of the Inca Roca palace in Cuzco. The Inca masonry held up against several devastating earthquakes, including one in 1550 and another in 1950. The 1950 earthquake destroyed much of the Spanish colonial architecture built up in Cuzco but left the Inca architecture intact.

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 Manco Capac, but certainly, it was expanded in 1438 by Pachacuti. The Spanish called it "Templo del Sol", as they were 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.

Colors of the Inca

The stone blocks to make the palaces, shrines and temples in and around Cuzco were cut from several different quarries around the Andes mountains. Those quarries contained volcanic and sedimentary deposits of various stone types with distinctive colors and textures. The structures in and near Cuzco included stone from multiple quarries; some have predominant colorations.

  • Coricancha—the heart of Cuzco has a rich blue-gray andesite foundation from the Rumiqolqa quarry and walls which were once covered with a gleaming gold sheathing (looted by the Spanish) 
  • Sacsayhuaman (The Fortress)—the largest megalithic structure in Peru was built primarily of limestone but has distinctive blue-green stones laid into the palace/temple floors
  • Inca Roca's Palace (Hatunrumiyoc)—in downtown Cuzco, this palace is famous for the 12-sided stone and was made of green diorite
  • Machu Picchu—combined granite and white limestone and it is white and shining
  • Ollantaytambo—this palace outside of Cuzco proper was built with rose-colored rhyolite from the Kachiqhata quarry

We don't know what the particular colors meant to the Inca people: archaeologist Dennis Ogburn who has specialized in Inca quarries has been unable to find specific historical references. But the string collections known as quipus which acted as a written language for the Inca are also color-coded, so it is not impossible that there was a significant meaning intended.

Pachacuti's Puma City

According to the 16th-century Spanish historian Pedro Sarmiento Gamboa, Pachacuti laid out his city in the form of a puma, what Sarmiento called the "pumallactan," "puma city" in the Inca language Quechua. Most of the puma's body is made up by the Great Plaza, defined by the two rivers which converge to the southeast to form the tail. The heart of the puma was the Coricancha; the head and mouth were represented by the great fortress Sacsayhuaman.

According to historian Catherine Covey, the pumallactan represents a mytho-historical spatial metaphor for Cuzco, which beginning in the 21st century has been used to redefine and explain the city's urban form and heritage theme.

Spanish Cuzco

After the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro assumed control of Cuzco in 1534, the city was dismantled, intentionally desacralized through Christian re-ordering of the city. In early 1537, the Inca conducted a siege of the city, attacking the main plaza, setting fire to its buildings, and effectively ending the Inca capital. That allowed the Spanish to build on Cuzco's imperial ashes, architecturally and socially.

The governmental center of Spanish Peru was the newly constructed city of Lima, but to the 16th century Europeans, Cuzco became known as the Rome of the Andes. If imperial Cuzco was inhabited by Tawantisuyu's elite, colonial Cuzco became an idealized representation of the utopian Inca past. And in 1821, with Peruvian independence, Cuzco became the pre-hispanic roots of the new nation.

Earthquake and Rebirth

Archaeological discoveries such as Machu Picchu in the first half of the 20th century piqued international interest in the Inca. In 1950, a cataclysmic earthquake struck the city, catapulting the city into the global spotlight. Major portions of the colonial and modern infrastructure collapsed, yet much of the Inca grid and foundations survive, exhibiting only minor effects of the earthquake.

Because the majority of the Inca walls and doorways had survived intact, the city's old roots were now far more visible than they had been since the Spanish conquest. Since recovering from the effects of the earthquake, city and federal leaders have championed a rebirth of Cuzco as a cultural and heritage center.

Historical Records of Cuzco

At the time of the conquest in the 16th century, the Inca had no written language as we recognize it today: instead, they recorded information in knotted strings called quipu. Scholars have made recent inroads to cracking the quipu code, but are nowhere near complete translations. What we have for historical records of the rise and fall of Cuzco are dated after the Spanish conquest, some written by the conquistadors such as the Jesuit priest Bernabe Cobo, some by descendants of the Inca elite such as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

Garcilaso de la Vega, born in Cuzco to a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess, wrote "The Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru" between 1539 and 1560, based in part on his childhood recollections. Two other important sources include the Spanish historian Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who wrote "The History of the Incas" in 1572, and Pedro Sancho, Pizarro's secretary, who described the juridical act that created Spanish Cuzco in 1534.

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