Travel Stories

The World of the Incas

At the height of their power in 1532 AD, the Incas ruled an empire that extended over 22 degrees of latitude, stretching between the Colombian-Ecuadorian border and central Chile.

The Incas’ oral histories suggested the empire was created in around 100 years, starting as a small kingdom located around Cuzco, their capital. According to these histories, the Incas were attacked by a group to the north, who laid siege to Cuzco. The king and his family fled, leaving the defense of the city to a son and other nobles. At a critical point in the battle, the stones in the field turned into soldiers and the Inca were victorious. This son, who took the name Pachacuti, or Earth Shaker, then claimed the kingship and began the expansion of the empire.

One of the first regions that the Incas conquered was the area around Lake Titicaca. This lake was a special place of reverence for the Incas as their origin myth held that Viracocha, the Creator god, formed the moon and the sun there. Garcilaso de la Vega, a descendant of an Inca king, mentioned in his history of the empire that Manco Capac and his sister, the first Inca king and queen, came from there before moving to Cuzco as well. As such, many of the islands in the lake have Inca temples on them, including Taquile.

But it wasn’t just religion that motivated the Incas to conquer the Lake Titicaca cultures. They were also interested in the wealth of the region, measured in the herds of up to 50,000 llamas and alpacas that were owned by the powerful chiefs of that zone. These chiefs and their families were buried in chulpas, tall burial chambers made of cut stone. As was the Inca policy, these chiefs were incorporated into the Inca bureaucracy after their conquest, and were rewarded by the Incas with gifts of fine clothing, pottery and even wives. These Inca objects also show up in the chulpas, reflecting the subservience of the local leaders. The fine stonework of the chulpas at places like Sillustani has led to a debate about whether they were actually made by Inca stonemasons or if they predate the Inca conquest.

One of the keys to the Incas’ success in expanding their empire was their treatment of conquered people. Upon conquest, a group was allowed to keep their fields, but would have to build new agricultural terraces and irrigation systems to provide food for the empire. The Incas also required a member of each conquered household to work a certain amount of time each year for them, work that was called m’ita. They used this labor to construct the temples and terraced fields, to fight their wars, and to make crafts for them. Quechua, the Inca language, was taught to leaders, and through time it became the lingua franca of the Andes.

For this reason, the Uros people of Lake Titicaca are a curiosity, in that their former language (most now speak Spanish or Aymara) is quite distinct from Quechua and Aymara. Their simple lifestyle and marginal location led them to be all but ignored by more powerful groups, from the Incas to the present government of Peru. Their lifestyle on the floating islands is also distinctive, making reed boats and fishing for a living. Their skill at making reed boats was put to use by Thor Heyerdahl who used their techniques to build the Ra II, a replica of an ancient Egyptian sailing vessel that he used to successfully show Africans could have sailed to the New World using such technologies.

Inca religion was highly polytheistic, with Inti the sun god as the most important. While Pachamama, the earth goddess, was significant to Inca agriculture, Mamacocha, the sea goddess, was equally important, as the ocean was seen as the source of all water, including streams and irrigation water. The ocean off the Peruvian coast is teeming with resources, from anchovies to sea mammals, and all were used by coastal people. Guano, the droppings from sea birds, was mined from islands like the Ballestas and used for fertilizer from prehispanic times to the present. It is said that runners on the Inca highway would bring fresh ocean fish to the king in Cuzco when he desired it. The importance of the sea to earlier cultures like the Nasca can be seen in the figures of sea birds and animals that are part of the mysterious Nazca Lines. The large figures may have been totemic figures to local groups of the region.

Cuzco, the Navel of the Universe, was founded where Manco Capac is said to have sunk a golden staff into the ground. As the empire expanded, the city was rebuilt and reorganized by Pachacuti. The Huatanay River was straightened where it flowed through the city. There were two main plazas, one of which is the current Plaza de Armas, and which was covered in sand from the Pacific Ocean to a depth of several inches. The residences of the king and former kings and their families were all located in the center of Cuzco. The city was meant to be a model of the Andean world. Many scholars argue that the central part of the city was laid out in the form of a puma, with Sacsahuaman as the head. Sacsahuaman stands on the hill above Cuzco, and was a storehouse and a temple and probably a refuge in case of attack (ironically, its only use for this purpose was by the Spaniards in 1536!).

The Coricancha, or Temple of the Sun, was the most sacred building in the empire, and was the temple not just of Inti, but of other major gods as well. It was also the origin point for the ceque system, an imaginary set of lines radiating out from the Coricancha in Cuzco to a series of sacred shrines outside the city. Pilgrimages to these shrines formed an important part of Inca religious life in the capital. The Nazca Lines, long thought to be astronomical markers, are now understood to have functioned like the Inca ceque system, serving as ritual pathways linking local villages to their sacred center at Cahuachi.

Beyond the city center there were fields and then the villages of conquered people who were moved near the capital in approximate relationship to their location in the empire. The finest craftspeople were relocated to Cuzco to make the finest objects for the Inca elites.

Everywhere the Incas went they used m’ita labor to build roads, government buildings, temples and storehouses. Important buildings are identified by the use of the fine masonry of fitted stones, but many Inca structures are of simple fieldstones and mortar, and even adobe brick. Many examples of each exist in the vicinity of Cuzco. K’enko is a unique shrine on one of the ceque lines emanating from the Coricancha. Its actual use is unknown, but the exceptional amount of modification of the top and the interior of the rock indicates a special high status use. The curving lines carved into the top served for libations of chicha. Farther on, Tambomachay shows beautiful polygonal stonework. The small reservoir at the bottom might have been a ritual bath, giving the site its other name, the Baths of the Princess. Puca Pucara, situated across from Tambomachay, was likely a tambo, or way station, for the king or royalty to spend the night on the way to or from Cuzco.

The temple above the town of Pisac has some of the finest coursed masonry (the kind where the stones were cut into regular forms that can be laid in even rows) anywhere, indicating its special significance. From there, it can be seen how the Incas straightened the Urubamba River to maximize the amount of land for agriculture. The agricultural terraces above the town show the skill required to build such terracing in an earthquake-prone region. The walls slope inward, the stones are larger at the bottom, and there are steps built into the walls to allow access to the terrace above. Between Pisac and Ollantaytambo, the Sacred Valley of the Incas has a host of special sites, such as Yucay, where Pachacuti’s grandson Huayna Capac built a palace and private estate. The Inca kings were the only members of society to own land, and many built private estates away from Cuzco for their relaxation. Ollantaytambo is the best place to see Inca construction techniques, because the site was never finished. Large stones lie along the road up to the fortress where they were abandoned. The ruins across from the fortress include some of the best examples of canchas, the Inca household plan of 2-4 rectangular single-roomed houses around a courtyard.

Machu Picchu is often described as a refuge for Inca women from the Spaniards. Hiram Bingham, who discovered the site in 1911, thought it might be Vilcabamba, where the Incas held out against the Spaniards for 40 years after the conquest. We now know that it was one of Pachacuti’s estates, and one can appreciate his decision to build one here. It has been suggested that the views to several sacred mountains near the site were an important consideration in its location, as mountains were the homes of powerful deities. There are also astronomical sightings from at least two of the structures at the site, the Torreón and the Intimachay Cave. The site has been described as the king’s Camp David, a place where he could get away from the capital, but had all the facilities needed to run the empire. Temples, meeting places, housing for visiting dignitaries and of course housing for the king and his extended family are all present.

What one cannot appreciate is the fact that 60 percent of the labor involved in building Machu Picchu was simply in leveling the main platform where the site exists with a deep layer of gravel. Because the region gets almost 80 inches of rain a year, drainage was a major consideration. The Incas cut 130 drainage holes in building walls and directed runoff down stairways into a main drain near the terraces. The Inca obsession with flowing water is best illustrated in the series of sixteen fountains running down between the terraces and the housing. These fountains are supplied from a spring that feeds the site by a 730 meter long canal. Care was given to keeping drainage water away from the drinking water: The king’s residence, located next to the first fountain, has a private toilet that drains away from the fountains.

The Inca Empire began to crumble even before the Spaniards arrived in 1532 AD. A civil war between two rival brothers for the kingship destroyed the political unity, and European diseases moving down from Mexico began to decimate the populations. Francisco Pizarro captured the triumphant brother, Atahuallpa, in a surprise attack, and held him ransom for a treasure. Despite fulfilling the terms of the ransom, the Spaniards killed him and installed their own puppet ruler, Manco Inca.

Manco Inca realized the mistake he made, and escaped to the jungles where he raised a large army that laid siege to Cuzco in 1536. Another army attacked the city of Lima, which the Spaniards made their capital because of its location on the coast as well as its more benign climate. While the attack on Lima was quickly suppressed, the siege of Cuzco went on for months, with attacks and counterattacks. Much of the city was destroyed during the fierce battle, but the foundations of many of the major buildings survived and form the bases of structures seen today, such as the Santo Domingo Church (formerly the Coricancha) and the Archbishop’s Palace (probably a royal residence). The main Cathedral of Cuzco sits on one side of the main plaza that once played host to the rrituals and activities of the Inca royalty. The time of the Incas was at an end.