Cuzco: the centre and head of all the land

Cuzco was the heart of the vast Inca empire, but all changed in the 16th century when the capital was conquered by Spanish invaders. Michael J Schreffler investigates the Inca city, and how it went from the centre of one empire to the periphery of another.


By the early 16th century, the Inca empire was the largest power in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its territory spanned more than 5,000km, stretching from the environs of Quito in Ecuador to Santiago in Chile. In Quechua, the language of the Inca, it was known as Tahuantinsuyu, the Realm of Four Parts. An extensive system of roads connected this expansive realm, facilitating communication throughout the empire and providing links among its imperial administrative centres. One of its main arteries led travellers through the Andes, crossing mountain passes at heights of up to 6,000m, and transverse routes connected it to a parallel track running along the Pacific coast.

Detail of a 15th- or early 16th-century Inca uncu (tunic), perhaps worn by the Sapa Inca. It is woven from camelid fibre and cotton, and decorated with tocapu patterns with four-part motifs that reflect the Inca worldview of four parts in one. PHOTO: Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC.

The place where the four realms converged, and the conceptual origin point for all of these roads, was Cuzco in Peru: the sacred centre and capital of the empire. Its densely built core was bounded by two streams – the Saphi and Tullumayo – that descended from springs to the north-west of the city. It is often claimed that Cuzco was designed in the shape of a feline, with the hilltop known as Sacsahuamán constituting its head and the area between the Saphi and Tullumayo forming its body, but it is more likely that the city came to be regarded that way only later, in the era of Spanish colonial rule. Inca Cuzco consisted of a number of large stone compounds, some of them surrounded with perimeter walls, and some of them serving as expansive palaces for Inca rulers and their kin. Estimates vary, but the scale of its infrastructure and available resources suggest Cuzco may have housed a population of 15,000 to 20,000 in the time of the Inca, with perhaps 100,000 or more in surrounding areas.

OPPOSITE Detail of a 15th- or early 16th-century Inca uncu (tunic), perhaps worn by the Sapa Inca. It is woven from camelid fibre and cotton, and decorated with tocapu patterns with four-part motifs that reflect the Inca worldview of four parts in one. BELOW Inca masonry is clearly visible in the streets of Cuzco, like here on Calle Loreto. The wall on the right was part of the Inca compound Amarucancha, which later became the residence of the first lieutenant-governor of Spanish Cuzco.
Inca masonry is clearly visible in the streets of Cuzco, like here on Calle Loreto. The wall on the right was part of the Inca compound Amarucancha, which later became the residence of the first lieutenant-governor of Spanish Cuzco. PHOTO: Andy Krakovski.

Centuries of political, cultural, and seismic upheaval have wrought significant changes on the Inca capital, but remnants of its temples, palaces, and plazas remain visible today. Flanking the narrow street of Loreto are walls built with the signature mortarless stonework of Inca royal architecture, its andesite blocks carved and set in courses like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. At the church of Santo Domingo, a massive curving stone wall constructed by Inca masons in the 15th century stands beneath the external wall of the sanctuary. Its dark polished stones set in horizontal courses and its bulky curvature contrast with the rougher masonry of the church, whose Solomonic (twisting) columns and arches spring from their pedestals to support latticework screens in dark wood. In the adjacent Dominican monastery, Inca walls in the main cloister allow visitors to examine the stonework as well as the canted walls and trapezoidal doorways, windows, and niches that characterise Inca royal architecture throughout the empire.

BELOW The foundations of rectangular rooms, probably storehouses, at Sacsahuamán, a fortified hilltop site overlooking the modern
The foundations of rectangular rooms, probably storehouses, at Sacsahuamán, a fortified hilltop site overlooking the modern city of Cuzco. PHOTO: Scott DuPre Mill.

The remains of Inca buildings in Cuzco together with the findings of archaeological investigation provide valuable information about the plan of the city and the design of its buildings. Augmenting this data are accounts recorded in the 16th century by Spaniards like Juan de Betanzos, who had become fluent in Quechua and collected information on Inca history from the indigenous elders of Cuzco. They told him that the city had its origins in ancient times when the founders of the Inca royal dynasty – Manco Cápac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo – chose Cuzco as the place where they would live. They arrived bearing vessels made of gold in many shapes and sizes and wearing garments of the finest cloth, and they built a house near the place where the Saphi and Tullumayo converged. Many generations later, the elders said, the Inca ruler named Pachacuti (d. 1471 or 1472) built the House of the Sun, a temple dedicated to a solar deity on the site of the house the primordial couple had built.

A pair of gold and copper alloy drinking vessels called aquillas, 15th-16th century.

Pachacuti’s name, Betanzos notes, means ‘change in time’, and indeed the physical changes he is said to have made to Cuzco in the 15th century signalled the beginning of a new era. Its stony built-environment would accommodate the Inca king, the mummies of his predecessors, members of the royal families and provincial administrators, and a host of servants. The House of the Sun stood as the most important shrine in Cuzco, and it also marked the nexus of the two sectors of the city, one of them called hanan (upper), and the other hurin (lower). Inhabiting these sectors were two branches of the Inca royal lineage, with those residing in hanan Cuzco being of higher status than their counterparts in hurin Cuzco. This conceptualisation of space and its inhabitants in terms of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ extended into the surrounding villages and throughout the entire empire. It enabled imperial administration, providing a basis for the reciprocal acts that structured trade, labour, and ritual practice.Cuzco’s built environment, the rituals that took place there, and an ensemble of finely crafted objects gave shape to the history of the Inca and their worldview. The gold and silver vessels known as aquillas were always made in pairs and were central to ritual practice and everyday life. Filled with the fermented corn beverage called chicha, they were used in ritual toasting and drinking to solidify relationships between individuals and social groups. Like the division of Cuzco into the sectors of hanan and hurin, the aquillas and their associated rituals affirmed the interdependence and mutual esteem that were essential to survival and prosperity in an empire of diverse ecosystems, each of them the source of distinctive raw materials and resources.

A 16th-century uncu of a standard design worn by Inca men, consisting of a black-and-white chequerboard and a red yoke. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0].
Gold figurines, like this 6cm-high one, have been found as offerings right across the Inca Empire. Similar examples of human figurines, and figurines of camelids, in gold and silver have been found at Sacsahuamán.

The exquisite textiles produced in Cuzco and elsewhere in the empire, too, embody ideas and values central to Inca and their world. Standardised patterns for men’s garments, such as the black-and-white chequerboard tunic, articulate concepts like complementary relationships between and integration of different parts in visual and formal terms. At the same time, the stepped pattern forming the tunic’s yoke calls to mind the verticality of the natural landscape of the Andes and its transformation into stepped terraces suitable for growing foodstuffs such as corn, potatoes, and coca, whose leaves were highly valued, and which grew only in limited ecological settings. The tunic’s materials and the technology of weaving itself are similarly meaningful. Made of camelid fibres, often in combination with cotton ones, garments like these integrated materials from the highlands and the coast. Through intensive and specialised labour, the interwoven weft (horizontal) and warp (vertical) threads create a unified field, even as one of those directions takes precedence, an effect visible on close inspection.

A remarkable tunic in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, expresses the principles of Inca cosmography with technical virtuosity and visual splendour. Many of its repeating geometric patterns, known as tocapu, are forms with four parts, encapsulating the idea of Tahuantinsuyu with great force and simplicity. Others evoke the concepts of complementarity and reciprocity, an effect exemplified by the ‘Inka key’ motif, which features a diagonal line dividing the rectilinear space into two halves, each of which features a small square. Miniature versions of the standardised black-and-white chequerboard tunic are also scattered throughout the composition, emphasising the sets of similar patterns that make up the whole.

The huge zigzag terrace walls made of massive blocks of stone at Sacsahuamán impressed early Spanish chroniclers, who described the complex as a fortress.

Embodying Inca conceptions of space, distinction, and integration, the all-over tocapu tunic may have been worn by the Inca king, the Sapa Inca, the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the empire. It is tempting to think that Atahualpa, who ruled for slightly more than a year, wore such a garment when he entered the plaza in the administrative centre of Cajamarca to meet Francisco Pizarro, a Spaniard from Trujillo, Extremadura, in November 1532.

By the time of that meeting, Pizarro (c.1478-1541) and his band of fortune-seekers had been in the Andes for about six months, travelling along the Inca roads, stopping at administrative centres and way-stations, and establishing strategic alliances with native communities. In Cajamarca, Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xerez wrote a report on the encounter with Atahualpa, noting that some of the Inca king’s attendants were dressed ‘in a livery of different colours, like squares on a chess board’. The meeting quickly devolved into a skirmish, in which the Spaniards captured and imprisoned Atahualpa. After collecting an enormous ransom in gold and silver, some of it in the form of aquillas, they killed him in July 1533.

Four months later, Pizarro, his company of Spaniards, and their native allies, servants, and slaves entered Cuzco. In March 1534, Pizarro performed the civic ritual known as the Act of Foundation, the ceremony that brought Spanish colonial Cuzco into being, even as the appearance of the Inca capital was altered, only slightly. Standing in the plaza, he set up a wooden picota, a pillar of justice that would serve as a site of criminal punishment. He designated an adjacent Inca festival hall as the city’s church and stipulated that the new Spanish settlers would be assigned lots on which they would build their houses.

The construction of houses, however, would not occur for at least another decade. Instead, the Spaniards adapted existing structures to new uses. Indeed, they quickly came to understand the esteem in which the indigenous people of Cuzco held its buildings. The compounds surrounding the plaza, for example, had housed the Inca kings, their mummies, and their kin groups. The House of the Sun, now on the periphery of the Spanish colonial city, was the most important shrine in the Inca capital and the conceptual centre of a sacred landscape that extended throughout the entire empire. The Spaniards’ occupation of these and other buildings led to a siege of the city by indigenous forces headed by Manco Inca (d. 1544), a descendant of the Inca kings. In April 1536, he and his followers brought a series of relentless and destructive attacks on Cuzco and its environs. They weaponised the city’s infrastructure, redirecting water channels to cause flooding, erecting barricades, and digging ditches in the streets to impede passage on horseback.

Much of the armed combat, however, took place at Sacsahuamán, the enormous hilltop complex overlooking the city that the Spanish regarded as a fortress. Some sectors of Sacsahuamán are no longer intact, but a trio of gargantuan stepped walls remain standing, tracing a zigzag path across the site some 400m (1,300ft) in length. The Spaniards admired the stonework of those walls and wrote about them, comparing them to works of Roman architecture like the aqueduct of Segovia and the city walls of Tarragona. They were similarly impressed by a tower with three concentric circular walls that – like the monumental zigzag walls – rose in steps. At its base was a vast complex of storehouses, some of them filled with textiles, and others with stone weapons. The footings of the tower and storehouses are still visible at Sacsahuamán, and excavations there have uncovered metal tools, animal bones and teeth, human and llama figurines in silver, gold, and Spondylus shell, and pottery. Some of these objects were found in association with the 80 human burials found scattered throughout the site, many of them in the zigzag terraces. The buried assemblages, archaeologists suggest, may have been offerings made as part of the dedication of these structures, a practice noted elsewhere in Cuzco as well as at other Inca sites.

BELOW The south-west façade and balcony of the church of Santo Domingo, which combines Inca stonework (the curved wall) and European styles of architecture prevalent in the 16th-18th
The south-west façade and balcony of the church of Santo Domingo, which combines Inca stonework (the curved wall) and European styles of architecture prevalent in the 16th-18th centuries. PHOTO: Scott DuPre Mills.

As the conflict continued, Manco Inca established his base at Ollantaytambo, a mountainside complex some 60km (37 miles) north-west of Cuzco. Built with seemingly endless terraces in the signature stonework of royal Inca architecture, Ollantaytambo – like the more famous Machu Picchu – is believed to have been a royal estate established in the 15th century for Pachacuti, and additional construction there may have taken place in the early 16th century. When the Spanish attempted to attack Manco and his warriors there, they were forced to retreat. Soon afterwards, the victorious Manco Inca set out for the forests of Vilcabamba, eventually settling at a place called Vitcos.

The year-long siege of Cuzco devastated the town’s buildings and streets and ushered in a decade of political instability. Rival factions of Spaniards in the late 1530s and 1540s brought shifting alliances and a string of men vying for the right to govern. This period saw the emergence of a new spatial order and civic hierarchy in Peru as Lima, the coastal City of Kings, supplanted Cuzco as the seat of governance. By the mid-1540s, however, relative stability in Cuzco and a large indigenous labour force made changes to its infrastructure possible. A row of shops with porticos was constructed in the main plaza where the canalised Saphi ran through it, reducing the size of the plaza by about half. The town council insisted that the arcade fronting the shops be uniform in its materials and size, a practice whose consequences remain visible on the plaza of Cuzco today. The tower and storehouses at Sacsahuamán were dismantled, their stones used in construction projects in the city; portals were adorned with classicising ornament and heraldic symbols; and the House of the Sun was adapted for use as a church and monastery for the Dominican Order.

The main cloister at the monastery of Santo Domingo was built with arcades and galleries framing what was once a patio within the House of the Sun. PHOTO: Jesús Escobar.

By 1551, when Juan de Betanzos was recording oral histories recounted by the indigenous elders of Cuzco, the city was a very different place than it had been just 20 years earlier. Now part of the kingdoms of the Spanish Crown, it was on the periphery of an empire rather than the centre of one, an effect illustrated by world maps from this era. But coexisting with this colonial view of the world was another one, documented most vividly in the account of Titu Cusi Yupanqui (1529–1571), the son of Manco Inca. Writing from the forests of Vilcabamba around 1570, he referred to Cuzco as the ‘centre and head of all the land’. ‘Since it is in the middle,’ he wrote, ‘my ancestors who were there called their lineage “lords of Tahuantinsuyu”, which means lords of the four parts of the world, for they thought it certain that there was no more world than this.’

Cuzco: Incas, Spaniards, and the making of a colonial city by Michael J Schreffler has recently been published in hardback by Yale University Press (price: £45/$70, ISBN: 978-0300218114).