Skip to content
(+51) 84 232514 (+51) 984 964 532
Login Sign Up

Cusco is the historic capital of Peru

Cusco is the historic capital of Peru

Description of Cusco:

The chronicles offered successive descriptions from the 16th century of Cusco, its temples and palaces, in which they continually underlined the importance the city held. All the descriptions of the chronicles are important, although they do not always offer us correct information regarding the historic evolution of the city. Archaeology has taken us many steps along this path, although it should be made clear that, attributing 100 years of existence to the Tawantinsuyu of the Incas, it is not always possible to arrive at an adequate chronology of the construction of the sacred city of the Incas.

Yet there are different problems regarding the urban design of Cusco, which are not uniquely derived from the modern modifications of the city. In first place, the Inca city was destroyed shortly after the Spanish invasion, during the rebellion headed by Manco Inca in 1536. On that occasion the roofs of the city were set alight and we do not know exactly the extent of the damage. In second place, from the very moment of the Spanish occupation of the city, the urban terrain was distributed among the Spaniards who took up residence there. In this way, parts of the urban area were given to Spaniards who modified them to meet their own needs. A third consideration is that from the first moments of the Spanish occupation activities were undertaken that drastically modified the urban layout of the city; for example, the great central square (comprised of Aucaypata and Cusipata, both separated from the Huatanay River) was altered, with a block of houses erected between the Aucaypata and Cusipata sectors. Finally, and in fourth place, the urban design was clearly changed as the streets were widened and buildings were demolished to adapt the spaces to a new urban use.

A distinct problem is the absence of city maps from the 16th century that would have made it possible to develop a better knowledge of Inca Cusco. Various modern authors have sought to reconstruct the original urban layout of Cusco using as a basis the surviving Inca walls, but it is obvious that the widening of the streets could have involved the displacing of these walls, which could have been reconstructed using the same techniques, as Dr. John H. Rowe has personally communicated to me. In fact, contemporary authors have noted that the views of the city, printed in different works since the 16th century, correspond to imaginary visions where the urban layouts have been elaborated, at least in part, in line with the accounts of the chroniclers, but giving the constructions clear characteristics of the European architecture of those times.

The vagueness of the chronicles gives rise to other problems. I previously mentioned that the Incas built “other Cuscos”, specifically identified with the administrative centers of the Incas, and placed in distinct locations within the Andean area. Archaeologists have shown that the plans of some of these, perhaps all, do not correspond to those of Inca Cusco. This is due to the fact that the Incas based the similarity of the administrative centers with Cusco on the gathering of certain basic elements symbolically grouped together: ushnu, aqllawasi, (“palace of the Inca”, Valcárcel would say), and, we should add, the storehouses or qollqa. These elements configured a symbolic whole that identified the Incas and their administrative centers, which were, therefore, “the same as” Cusco.

Some chronicles of the Cusco cycle, among which the works of Cieza de León, Betanzos, Sarmiento de Gamboa y Molina stand out, called attention to the way the foundation of Cusco by the first Inca, Manco Capac, had been associated with the organization of a system to drain the “wetlands” that occupied the site. They likewise stated that the early city was built between the Tulumayo and Huatanay Rivers. It has been frequently said that the Inca city had the shape of a puma whose head was comprised of the fort of Sacsaywaman, body lay between the two rivers, and whose tail was likewise located in a place called Pumaq Chupan. An engraving in which these figure can be found appears in the book of Ephraim George Squier, Incidents of Travel and Explorations in the Land of the Incas (1877), although the subject has been studied by subsequent authors (see Rowe, Chávez, Ballón, Gasparini-Margolies). The definitive structure of the city is attributed by the chronicles to two moments in the time of the Incas, the first being that of Pachacuti, who rebuilt the city after the war with the Chancas, according to the chronicles, and the second, it is said, the important modifications that occurred during the time of the government of Huayna Cápac.

The chroniclers also highlighted the symbolic meaning of Cusco as the center and origin of the world of the Incas. The city itself was revered and became a symbol of the Tawantinsuyu itself. This explains the symbolic repetition of the structure of the city in the Inca administrative centers. One chronicler even stated that whoever was coming from Cusco should be the subject of reverence by whoever was going there, given that he had been in contact with the sacred city. Even in the 18th century Ignacio de Castro was able to write, along the lines of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega:

Those Indians who inhabit it, as well as those who came there [the city of Cusco] from elsewhere held it in such esteem and veneration that it even bordered on being a religious cult the estimation that they had for it. Their inhabitants, products, habits and customs, their manners were considered with I do not know what kind of divine glaze, in other words because in their reduced intelligence [that of Andean men] their sovereigns were not different from Gods whom they adored as descendants of the same divinities, so that they saw the city as Temple of these Semi-Gods. Or for this general ailment of the dominant courts and cities that did not exalt but that which is fruit of the vicinity; looking at the provinces, its men and works with this concern that is caused by proximity to the Sovereign.

One of those who accompanied Francisco Pizarro on his voyage from Cajamarca to Cusco was Pedro Sancho, Pizarro’s secretary and author of a Relation of the Conquest of Peru, unknown in Spanish until the last century, even though there were prior editions in Italian and English. Sancho gave a first description of the city:

The city of Cusco, for being the first of all those where the lords had their residence, is so great and lovely that it would be worthy of being seen even in Spain, and all of it full of lords’ palaces, because in it poor people do not live, and each lord constructs in it his house and likewise all the caciques even those that do not live there continuously. The greater part of these houses is of stone. There are many houses of adobe and they are very well ordered, with streets made in the form of a cross, very straight, all paved, and down the middle of each one runs a water pipe made of stone. The problem they have is that of being narrow, because on one side of the pipe can pass just one man on a horse, and another on the other side. This city is placed on the low-point of a mountain and there are many houses on its side and others in the plain below. The square is square and in the main flat, and paved with pebbles. Around it there are four houses of the lords who are the principal ones of the city, painted and worked in stone, and the best of them is the house of the old Guaynacava cacique, and the door is of soft marble and raised and of other colors, and it has other buildings with terraced roofs, very worthy of being seen. There are in this city many lodgings and grandees. They pass along both sides of the rivers that are born a league above Cusco and from there until two leagues below the city, all is paved so that the water runs clean and clear and even though it grows it does not break its banks. They have their bridges for those who enter the city. On the hill, which at the location of the city is round and very rough, there is a fort of earth and very beautiful stone. Within it there are many lodgings and a principal tower in the middle made in the style of a cube, with four or five parts, one on top of another. The lodgings and rooms within are tiny, and the stones of which it is made are very well worked, and so well adjusted to each other that there appears to be no merging, and the stones are so smooth that they appear planed planks, with the join ordered, in the custom of Spain, one against the other. There are so many rooms and towers that a person cannot see everything in one day, and many Spaniards that have seen it and have been in Lombardy and in other strange kingdoms say that they have not seen another building as strong as this fort, nor castle. There could be five thousand Spaniards inside. They cannot be attacked with artillery nor can they be tunneled out because it is placed on a stone outcrop. Of the part of the city that is a very rough hill, there is not more than one nearby. Of the part that is less rough, there are three, one higher than the other, and the last one more inside, is the highest of all. The most beautiful thing that there can be among buildings of that land are those nearby, because they are of stones so large that nobody that sees them will not say that they were placed there by human hands, that they are so large like pieces of mountains or large crags, that there are ones 30 palms high and others as long and others of 20 and 25, and others of 15 but there is not one of them so small that it may be carried by three carts. These are not smooth stones, but very well fitted and worked one to the other […]

Pedro Sancho’s text is very eloquent. It does not just indicate the generic lines of the city but also highlights the strength of Sacsaywaman, in the description of which he lingers, noting certain characteristics that the subsequent chroniclers would repeat regarding the stonemasonry, its size and the form of its joints. The subsequent descriptions, including those of our days, testify to the gradual modification, not just of the urban layout of Cusco and its buildings, but also that of the fortress, many of whose stones were used for the urban constructions of Spanish Cusco.

Some of Sancho’s claims stand out: He states that the streets were “in the form of a cross”, something which was seen as important in the Spanish constructions of the era. However, Cusco does not have the shape of a “checkerboard” (divided into squares) even though its streets tend to be straight in certain sectors. Naturally, the chronicler criticizes the narrowness of the streets, intended for pedestrians, while the Spaniards conceived of them for riding horses. For that, it did not appear sufficient that the streets only allowed one horse to pass on each side of the sewer. The description of the square is important, surrounded as it was by “palaces” built by the Incas. These were Quishar Cancha, frequently referenced as the temple dedicated to the “maker” (Wiraqocha or Pachayachachi), the Cuyusmanco, where the present day cathedral of Cusco and Church of the Triumph are found, the place where the Spaniards were garrisoned during the siege of the city during the rebellion of Manco Inca (1536), and finally Cassana, frequently mentioned as the palace of Pachacuti. The chroniclers also indicated that not all the area referred to as Cusco was actually built up, but it is notable in the description of Pedro Sancho that part of the city had stone buildings and part adobe buildings. This chronicler indicated that in Cusco there were no “poor people”, by which he meant that the entire population of the city belonged to the elite.


Open chat
Can we help you?