What Cusco was really like.
Cusco is an amazing city. It reads in the same chapter of centers of cultural influence as Rome, Alexandra, Athens, the Kyoto, Mecca, and Xia to name a few, but unlike these other locations, most of its history is lost and the little that remains is hidden in centries old texts, scholarly papers, architecture, and the Quechua and Ayamaran oral histories. In this post, I will attempt to consolidate some of this information and make it understandable. Don’t expect it to be readily available in Cusco, as it is not. There aren’t any plaques like you’ll find in historic European cities and hardly a museum about it.
“The City of Cusco is the principal one of all those where the lords of this land have their residence; it is so large and so beautiful that it would be worthy of admiration even in Spain; and it is full of the palaces of the lords, because no poor people live there, and each lord builds there house, and all the caciques do likewise, although the latter do not dwell there continuously. The greater part of these houses are of stone, and others have half the facade of stone. There are many houses of adobe, and they area arranged in very good order. The streets are laid out at right angles, they are very straight, and are paved, and down the middle runs a gutter for water lined with stone. The chief defect which the streets have is of being narrow so that only one horse and rider can go on one side of the gutter and another upon the opposite side.” Sancho. Translated by the author.
To do this post, I draw primarily from Brian Bauer’s book, Ancient Cusco, Father Cobo’s book “History of the Inca Empire,” and Garcilaso de la Vega’s writing. I highly encourage you to carry Brian Bauer’s book with you on your trip to Cusco.
I shall focus this post on that which isn’t readily available online and focus what was Cusco like for the Inkas: What was it like to live there 10 years, 20 years, 100 years, before the three Spaniards came in and stripped the Coricancha of its gold?
Quick facts about Cusco
– Cusco was the capital city of the Inkan Empire
– Cusco is nestled in the near middle of the Cusco Valley which has upwards of 850 identified archeology sites attributed to the Inkas including palaces, estates, temples, storage facilities, and halls.
– Cusco Valley is approx 40km long and 15 km wide. It is usually divided into the Cusco Basin, Oropesa Basin and the Lucre Basin with the basins laying in that order from West to East.
– Cusco rests at about 3,400m (drink that Coca Tea).
– Cusco was home to more than 20,000 people with thousands in several villages spread across the Cusco valley, many of which still exist today.
– Cusco is now a tourist mecca and a must-see for the millions on their way to Machu Picchu
– Cusco, the navel, in Quechua was the center of Tahuantinsuyu figuratively and literally.
-There, the four roads of the Qhapaq Ñan that transected the empire joined together at the Coricancha, the highest and most holy temple. It is at 11,000 ft elevation.
The first impression of one entering the Cusco Valley would be the sacredness of the Valley. Not only was it the geographical capital, but it was believed to be the “Naval” of the world. All cardinal directions stemmed from Cusco, all roads led to Cusco, and the epicenter of anything that was holy or sacred was laid upon a graph that was centered in Cusco. The visitor to Cusco, once having overcome the awe of where they were, would have noticed the heavily forested valley. The forests were thickest on the north side of the valley. The hills that formed the valley, where they weren’t forested, were terraced to grow tubors, quinoa and maize giving the hillsides the colors purple, red, green, and yellow, and brown depending on what was growing on them. Pasture land capped the hills.
The valley floor, as one would have been looking down from the passes that led into the valley, would have been dotted with hundreds of villages constructed of stone. They were made of rectangle stone structures that had steep thatched roofs made of reeds. These structures were clustered together and a wall was built around them and a courtyard was in middle. At the lowest point in the valley was a perennial lake that formed from in the wet season, Jan-March.
As Pedro Sancho put it when they arrived in the valley with Pizarro in 1534, looking onto the valley from the Northwestern end.
“Looking around, one sees the house of the city extending a quarter, a half and a league away. In the valley that is surrounded by hills, there are more than five thousand houses. Many of these are houses of pleasure and recreation of past rulers. Others are those foreign caciques [rulers] who reside permanently in the city. There are also some that are houses or storehouses full of mantles, wool, arms, metals, clothes, and everything else that is grown or made in this land.”
“He said that the city of Cusco is as large as has been described and that it is located on a hillside near a plan. The streets are very well organized and paved, and in the eight days that they were there they could not see everything.” Juan de Zarate of Cusco.
As the observer looked down from the heights upon which they stood, they would see Cusco, a large stone city stand near the middle of the valley. Cusco sat between two rivers that traveled the length of the valley. One small river split city which divided the upper and a lower “moiety” or sub-kin groups of the city. Next to Cusco was the gigantic fort Sacsayhuaman. Made up of stones that made up the fort which weighs upwards of 100 tons.
The visitor, who was most likely of Inkan blood or a foreign ruler that was invited by the ruling class as a guest or honored prisoner, wouldn’t have seen the geography as those do nowadays. They would have seen it steeped in the history and mythology that created it: the hills were moved and created by the original Inka rulers and many of them were reincarnations of people; each building and settlement was placed in an exact location to meet particular objectives, usually a holy location, or to meet a specific need of the capital. But most importantly, each geographical feature, from the large stones and the hills to the distant snow-capped mountains, was seen as living and an object to be worshipped in its own due respect.
A Brief History of the Cusco Valley as it is understood by nowadays.
Cusco Valley was not always the heartland of the Inka, no, the Inkas arrived around 1,000AD (Forgive using European methods to measure their time). Manco Inka the first, arrived with his brothers from presumably Lake Titicaca about 200 miles away. There is no mention of a forced settlement and all surviving histories make it sound like they arrived in vacant land. For several generations, the Inkas lived in concert with their neighbors and only slowly expanded. The Inkas early expansion in the Cusco Valley was peaceful for the first few generations. The Inka’s lived a more fruitful life than the others who lived in the valley and many of their neighbors requested to be incorporated into their system of government because they saw it was more efficient than their own, another cause of expansion was a marriage between leadership and trade. There were constant flare-ups between powers as would be expected when scores of groups shared a limited amount of geographical space. These flare-ups, as well as the developing alliances, resulted in only a few powers with consolidated powers in the Cusco Valley, among which were the Inkas, the Chankas, and those in the Lucre Basin. Only at this point was conquest the forefront aim of each of the powers. It was an all-out war over several generations and ultimately the Inkas won when the Chankas fled the Valley. The rivals wouldn’t again meet for about 100 years. Those in the Lucre basin were subjected meanwhile.
This slow and humble beginning of the Inka Empire created the complex social structure that enabled the Inkas to scale to be the largest empire in Pre-Colombia America.
Up until this point, Cusco wasn’t the capital of a sprawling empire but a mere place where they lived. After the conquest of the Cusco Valley, Cusco slowly changed into what it was when the Spaniards arrived in 1533.