The reason I came to Peru was to experience the Inca empire. From what I have written so far, you might get the impression that I consider the Inca to be a mere footnote in the history of Peru. After all, the empire existed less than a hundred years.
But, it was its rapid rise to greatness that makes it so impressive. Growing from an inconsequential clan in Cuzco, in that brief century, the Inca created the world's greatest empire of the late 1400s and early 1500s. When the Spanish arrived, it had recently reached the height of its power.
You already know the history of its creation (setting the stage). It is now time to put some meat on those bones. History is one thing. Actually seeing what the Inca wrought is another.
As I mentioned earlier, the Inca left no written language. At least, we do not think they did. There is the possibility the the knotted cord quipos are a three-dimensional writing system. If that code is ever broken, we may learn a lot about the daily life of the Inca.
What we do know about the Inca is in stone. Literally. When The Inka who founded the empire, Pachakuti, envisioned what his new world would look like, he saw cities built of monumental stone. From that point on, a new architectural style was born. Cities. Temples. Palaces. Dressed stone for temples. Rustic stones for walls and citadels. But always stone.
Had he not made that decision, we would not now know much about these industrious people. But they did, and we do.
The Inca were not the first people of the Andes to build with stone. High on a hill on the edge of Cuzco stands what looks like a stone fortress. Saqsayhuaman. Its zigzag structure looks as if it has been part of the hill forever.
It has. Well, not forever. But before the Inca arrived in Cuzco. An earlier civilization, the Killke, built a stone structure on the site. We do not know its purpose. Whether it was a fortress or a temple or a residence. There is no way to tell.
What we do know is that Saqsayhuaman was part of the area of Cuzco where the small clan of Inca settled. At some point, they began improving it.
Improving is an understatement. The Inca somehow transported, without the aid of the wheel or draft animals, immense stones to the site. Stones weighing 60 to 80 tons. And then laid them in a pattern creating a zig-zag wall. Three walls. One upon the other.
The Inca did not decorate their buildings with paintings. Other than gold (which we will discuss later, and which was not used here, as far as we know), the only decorations were the manner in which the stones were laid or when abstract designs were chiseled into the stone. The type of austere beauty that has inspired modern artists.
Saqsayhuaman was not a fortress. Even though it looks like one with its bastion walls high on a hill. The fact that the Inca chose the place as their last defense of Cuzco against the Spanish led the Spanish to believe it was a fort. That misinterpretation became part of the Spanish narrative.
The most accepted theory is that the site was ceremonial. Behind the walls, there are foundations for two buildings. Most likely, temples.
There is a large, flat area in front of the walls. It would be perfect for public ceremonies that did not require entering the sanctuary area.
If a visitor stands facing the walls on the open plain and then turns around, there is a rocky hill. A number of Inca sacred sites are near similar formations. Some anthropologists believe the temples were simply the tools of worship. It is the hill that is sacred. Of course, without a history we can read, it is all speculation.
What we do know is that the temple structure affords a panoramic view of the Cuzco valley. If it was not a fortress, it certainly could have been used as one.
Saqsayhuaman predates the rise of the empire. But much of the stonework was undoubtedly added after Pachakuti became The first great Inka. The use of monumental stone reflects his taste.
There is another pre-Pachakuti site on a hill near Saqsayhuaman -- Q'engo. It has the feel of ancient paganism. Supple stone on a grand scale. Secretive cracks. And a carved cave.
And we know a lot about this ancient place. Before there was an empire, the Inca carved out the cave as a place for sacrifice. But, more importantly, it was the place where they mummified the remains of their leaders. On this carved stone table.
Pachakuti declared he and his descendants were descended from the sun. Putting him on the same divine footing as the emperor of Japan.
But, even before that self-declared divinity, the Inca mummified their leaders. And, because they had a divine spark, on special occasions, the mummified Inkas were taken out of ceremonial storage, dressed in their Inka finery, and paraded through the streets of Cuzco, where they would then be assembled on thrones to be consulted through women mediums.
This is the spot where the process began. The bodies of the Inkas and their wives had their organs removed. They were then embalmed. And freeze-dried -- a natural process on anything left out in the frigid air of the Andes. Several of my fellow travelers felt as if they had been through the process on our nightly walks.
We know that process because the Inka mummies were still in residence when the Spanish dropped in for their rather intrusive visit. Because it all looked like idolatry to the Spanish Catholics, the bodies were removed to Lima where they rotted in the humidity.
Let me tell you about one more pre-Pachakuti site. Raqchi combines two of the Inca's central cultural tenets. Trade and religion.
Archaeologists are not certain, but it appears the site was initially for religious ceremonies. Visitors are struck by one edifice when they arrive. A long stone wall that looks very Inca topped by a two-story adobe wall that looks oddly Spanish. It was simply the building method in vogue at the time of construction.
It is the remains of the temple of Wiracocha -- the creator god. The Spanish destroyed the majority of the temple and used the stones to build a humble church in the town plaza.
But reconstruction gives us an idea how massive the temple was. It is one of the few religious sites where the rituals are apparent. Visitors enter from one side and progress to the other. To do so, they need to zig zag to avoid building obstructions to continue their journey. (The drawing is held by our well-informed and energetic guide, Darwin Huanca.)
That zigzag pattern recurs in Inca architecture. We saw it in the walls of Saqsayhuaman. To the Inca, it represents the path we must take to find God.
But the site is also where it is because it facilitated trade. There are rows of warehouses that remind visitors of self-storage units. They are not. The warehouses are an integral part of the imperial system.
They served two purposes. The first is logistical. The empire was vast enough to produce a variety of foodstuffs and necessities. But fish from the coast needed to be distributed to the highlands. Corn from the plains and alpaca meat from the Andes required the reverse treatment.
At various points in the empire, these warehouses were built as central distribution points. Think of it as an imperial Amazon (if that is not redundant).
They also served as sites to store necessities for lean times. The Inca were the first civilization to free its population from famine. These warehouses were instrumental in that.
Warehouses mean traders. Along with the soldiers assigned to the site, traders stayed for short periods on their journey.
Even though Raqchi technically was not a city, it was a functioning cultural center. With a religious heart guarded by warriors and served by the commercial interests of their time.
So, there you have it. What the empire looked before Pachakuti the Great came on the scene. And when he did, things changed.