Cuzco, Peru



VCLS Cuzco Peru

If one aims to understand South America, they should go to Peru. Its immense territorial expanse, its sharply defined geographical zones that replicate and contain the geographical diversity of the continent as a whole, its vibrant history that has unfolded in concentric circles within the local, regional, and transoceanic contact zones, qualify this Pacific/Andean/Amazonian republic and former empire to stand in for South America as a whole. And yet, within the dizzying labyrinth of locations and experiences encountered in Peru, one place defies all stereotypes and cliché expectations, presenting the ultimate challenge to tourist and scholar alike. As that real New World, Cuzco has been the theater of alternative cosmovisions and utopias ever since it was established as the Inca imperial seat.


Cuzco is the essential Peruvian city, Lima having been founded by Francisco Pizarro as the new capital of the Spanish viceroy. With its bewitching history, tantalizing location, and abiding grip on travelers’ and explorers’ fantasies, Cuzco has aptly been named the “Rome of South America” (Wiener 327). Whereas the post-Hiram Bingham 20th/21st-century imagination has construed Cuzco as a crossroads and waystation on the march towards the legendary Machu Picchu, the heart of the empire and the mystery of the complex Peruvian soul, the gateway to universal godhead, and the fountain of the purest post-Conquest Castilian and Quechua should all be sought in and around Cuzco. Like Rome or Jerusalem, Cuzco is multiple cities and worlds in one: a “cyclopean” city, the city of Purhnas, Amantas, Incas, Spanish colonial and then Peruvian city – each stage and layer distinct and self-contained, but the palimpsestic whole holds the characteristic features of an “eternal city”. As it has been materialized in not only the imposing gigantic granite blocks seamlessly mounted together like Lego pieces, but also in  the rarefied air and crystalline, shimmering light of the Andean peaks surrounding the Cuzco valley.


As most good stories of core beginnings, this one also starts in legend. Sometime after the turn of the 11th century, Manco Capac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo Huaco brought civilization and enlightenment to the pre-Inca populations settled on the banks of Lake Titicaca. Around 1050 C.E. they established a kingdom around what would become the metropolis of Cuzco, as determined by the spot where Manco Capac’s golden wand sank into the ground to its head. The ancient city was built between the rivers Huatanay and Rodadero, in the foothills of the mountain Saksaywaman. Out of this center, over the next five hundred years, spread and grew the indomitable, hyper-efficient Inca empire founded on the ideas of harmony and equilibrium. It was the realm of Tawantinsuyu, “the four provinces,” whose messenger-run and quipus-crisscrossed roads all led back to Cuzco. The Inca emperor was considered Son of God, Child of the Sun/Inti, the Father of his people, and huaccha cuyac – “friend of the poor”. Bearing comparison to earlier enchantments with the Hebrew Republic, many a British and French historian and sociologist in the 19th century looked up to the reconstructed accounts of the Inca political organization and Cuzco’s architecture and administration as the golden mirrors for the liberal progressive century of reformed European empires. Cuzco was apostrophized as the place “where a virtuous race of monarchs ruled an empire, equal in size to that of Adrian, exceeding that of Charlemagne” (Markham 95). What this translated as meant the latest version of the politico-economical model for imperial administration, as well as the utopian horizon of global world order: “The city of the Incas…as one of the only places in the world, where the patriarchal form of government, combined with civilization, was brought to a high state of perfection” (Markham 96).


As other cities whose lore and sites have become world heritage, Cuzco has its own epic accounts of founders, defenders, and consolidators, traitors and martyrs. The genealogy of Cuzco rulers starts with Manco Capac and ends with the fall of the empire. Skipping a few generations of the first Inca’s strictly imported offspring, the most significant in the line of local, Andean offshoots of Inca lords include:  Inca Rocca “the founder of schools”, Viracocha “the Inca with florid complexion and flaxen locks” who built the Saksaywaman fortress, Pachacutic “the Solomon of the New World”, Tupac Inca Yupanqui “[whose] march across the Chilian Andes [outperformed] the achievements of Hannibal, Napoleon, and MacDonald”, Huayna Capac whose empire reached from the equator to southern Chile, from the Pacific to the River Paraguay; and Manco Inca who put up heroic resistance and was treacherously defeated by the Spaniards. Within contemporary Cuzco, some of the most impressive landmarks central to the operations of the Inca capital have been wholly or partially preserved: the Inca Walls (the remains of extensive fortifications and ramparts fending off attacks in ingenious combination of sloping terraces and zig zag alignment), the Temple of the Sun Qorikancha (which became the foundation for the Cathedral of Santo Domingo), and the House of the Virgins of the Sun (repurposed and rebuilt as the Santa Catalina Convent).


Long before Tawantinsuyu became the continental empire incorporating the lands of present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, and parts of Argentina and Paraguay, the most historically vital period in the development of the Inca state and society was linked to the personality and reign of Pachacutic the “Reformer” 1340-1400. Pachacutic instituted epoch-making changes in the calendar, schools founded by Inca Rocca, and religious worship. The New Year now started with the summer solstice on December 22, in the month of Raymi, when the biggest festival to Inti took place in the streets of Cuzco. He built a temple to the Supreme Being, Pachacamac the Creator of the World, considered master of Inti/Sun. The Inca emperor’s theological and ritual intervention was comparable to the revolution initiated by Akhenaten’s proto-monotheism in ancient Egypt. The “Peruvian Solomon” Pachacutic was also patron of scholars and poets, Amautas and Haravecs, whose descendants would centuries later play a cardinal role in preserving the Quechua heritage and integrating it into Spanish-based culture and arts.


It bears reiterating how early Cuzco, and with it the whole country of Peru, was estimated part of world history and global humanity’s legacy.  In the clash and click of civilizations that made inroads into Peru’s historical course, Cuzco was never of merely local patriotic or parochial significance. Consequently, any presumptive world citizen or polyglot loses claim to the cherished title without having made close acquaintance with Cuzco’s cultures and languages. Stonehenge, Agamemnon’s tomb at Argos, and cyclopean walls at Volterra and Agrigentum all “fall immeasurably short, in beauty of execution, to the fortress of Cuzco, where the huge blocks are fitted into each other, though of unequal sizes, and various shapes, with as minute accuracy as is to be seen in the mosaics of ancient Rome ” (Markham 114).


During the reign of Huayna Capac (1475-1525) Cuzco reached the height of its power and glory. To pursue the analogy with the rise and fall of the Roman empire, while also sustaining a native historical trajectory complexly interwoven with the (never simply unidirectional) impact from the European conquerors, Peru and Cuzco did not just suddenly and absent-mindedly fall into the bloody hands of Pizarro and his thuggish henchmen. According to local legends and Cuzco-centered collective memory, devotion of Huayna Capac to Zulma the princess of Quito was the main cause of the eventual downfall of the Inca empire (Markham 136). Huayna Capac had Huáscar  and Prince Manco with the Inca Coya Rava Ocllo; with Zulma (daughter of the last Scyri or King of Quito) he had Atahualpa (aucca the “traitor”). The civil war between the Inca royal brothers not only set up competition between Cuzco and Quito, but also disrupted the imperial unity and set the stage for Spanish machinations. Paullu, Huayna Capac’s younger son, got baptized and lived in the Inca founder’s palace on the Collcampata. Manco Inca, Huáscar ’s brother, was the last defender of Cuzco, and retreated to the forests of Vilcabamba in 1532 to found there the last sovereign Inca state which remained independent until his son Inca Sayri Tupac was tricked into capitulation by the Marquis of Cañete in 1555. Tupac Amaru, Manco Inca’s younger son and the very last scion of the Inca dynasty, persisted in the Vilcabamba until 1571 when he was captured and executed by the Spaniards Toledo and Loyola.


The story does not end there, however. Over the subsequent centuries, Cuzco would remain the kernel and core of successive movements of resistance against colonial tyranny and for liberation from political and economic exploitation. The Tupac Amaru rebellion (1781) and the Mateo Garcia Pumacahua uprising (1814), both started in and around Cuzco. The wider heartland and the source of that unconquerable pachacuti spirit of renewal and redistribution has remained firmly planted in the Sierra highlands. Thus, the region of Ayacucho (which can roughly be translated as “the heap of dead men”) was not only critical in the early period of Inca consolidation as the site of Viracocha’s ultimate battle against rebel tribes, but also the cradle and cauldron of the victorious struggle for independence from Spain in 1824.


Contemporary Cuzco looks beyond its epic past into the vibrant future that the 21st-century Peru is busily embracing. But its streets, edifices, and melodies and accents encoded in Cuzceño Spanish bear a constant reminder of its distinguishing historical blend of triumph and melancholy. An early colonial lyric genre of the traditional elegy yaravi, combined interlocked Spanish and Quechua verses to express simultaneously the grief of tragic love, and the irretrievable loss of beloved land. It was the form of choice in which the mestizo children of Spanish colonists and Inca nobility continued the nation- and culture-sustaining work of Pachacutic’s bards and poets amautas and haravecs. Stones and language, as always, have proven more resilient than emperors and high priests, carrying the Inca Cuzco into the Peruvian future:


Manchay puytu hampuy ñihuay,

A tus cavernas voraces.

Accoyniqui caypin cani,

Paraque sebes tu hambre. (qtd. in Markham 198).




Covey, R. Alan. How the Incas Built Their Heartland: State Formation and the Innovation of Imperial Strategies in the Sacred Valley, Peru. University of Michican Press, 2006.


Flores Galindo, Alberto. In Search of an Inca: Identity and Utopia in the Andes. Edited and translated by Carlos Aguirre, Charles F. Walker, and Willie Hiatt. Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Markham, Clements R. Cuzco: A Journey to the Ancient Capital of Peru; with an Account of the History, Language, Literature, and Antiquities of the Incas. London: Chapman & Hall, 1856.


Wiener, Charles. La ville morte du Gran-Chimu et la ville de Cuzco. Lima, 1889.




Cuzco, Peru
Cuzco, Peru




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