Friday, October 14, 2016

Cusco’s Double Legacy

                                                               by Jim Goodman

Cusco Valley, viewed from Sacsayhuaman
       When the Spanish conquistadores marched into Cusco in late 1533, they could not hide their astonishment.  They had never seen or expected anything quite so sophisticated and splendid as the Inca capital city.   Lying in a river valley at 3360 meters altitude, the city sprawled across the valley in the shape of a puma, the strongest animal in the Andes and a fitting symbol for the capital of a powerful empire. 
       The ‘head’ of the puma was the hill 260 meters above the city, the site of the elaborate Saqsayhuaman stone fortress.  The ‘body’ sloped down across the valley and constituted the residential quarters, with streets in a regular grid, narrow water channels running through them and square-based houses with steeply thatched roofs.  The ‘tail’ ended at the river junction.  The ’heart’ of the puma, and of the city even today, was an open square, the Warrior’s Square (now called Plaza de Armas), around which the Inca rulers built their palaces and ceremonial halls.  And the part corresponding to the puma’s genitals was the site of the magnificent Temple to the Sun.
Plaza de Armas, the heart' of the puma
       Called Koricancha in the local Quechua language, the exterior walls were gold-plated, but these had already been removed for the captive emperor Atahuallpa’s ransom earlier that year.  After receiving the ransom the Spanish murdered Atahuallpa anyway and now that they were in Cusco they discovered more treasure than they could imagine. 
       In the Koricancha alone they found a big, solid gold, jeweled disc representing the sun god Inti.  A Sacred Garden held plants made of gold and silver, gold corncobs and life-sized, solid gold statures of llamas and herders.  The Inca palaces (every emperor built his own) and other temples contained similar items.  The conquistadores’ attitude to all this Inca wealth was that it now belonged to them.
walls of the Sacsayhuaman fortress
       Their leader Francisco Pizarro installed 17 year-old Manco Inca as figurehead emperor and the following March officially established Cusco as a Spanish municipality.  He then oversaw the systematic looting of the city by his men.  All the treasures were collected, carefully recorded and melted down, weighed and distributed—one-fifth for the Spanish crown, the rest shared out among themselves.  The commanders moved into the palaces and others conscripted native laborers to dismantle public buildings and make them houses.  They also put up their first parish church—the Church and Convent of La Merced—in 1535.
Cusco Cathedral
       The gross exploitation soon sparked a rebellion.  Manco Inca escaped Spanish custody, amassed a huge army and laid siege to Cusco from May 1536.  At one point the Spanish held only the area around the main square.  Eventually, after a bold assault and capture of Sacsayhuaman, and the arrival of Spanish reinforcements from Lima, Manco Inca was forced to call off the siege in March 1537.  He retreated to Ollantaytambo, defeated a Spanish assault there, but then moved further north to the jungle outpost of Vilcabamba.
       Spanish defenders claimed that St. James, the patron saint of Spain, had intervened on their behalf to insure victory.  In gratitude, they built the Church of the Triumph in 1539 on the main square, with St. James the dominant image inside.  Over the next several years, though, Pizarro and his younger brother, Diego de Amalgro and his son, who had broken Manco Inca’s siege of Cusco, all died from internecine power struggles. 
the Jesuit Church, Plaza de Armas
       Another casualty of the colonial civil war was Manco Inca.  Renegades from the losing side in one of the Cusco battles in 1544 fled to Vitcos to the north and sought refuge with Manco Inca.  But it was a trick.  They were actually plotting to assassinate the Inca emperor to ingratiate themselves with the winning side in Cusco.  They surrendered their arms in return for asylum, but a few days later, in a relaxed meeting with Manco Inca, one soldier pulled out a dagger and killed their host.  The renegades escaped, but were caught on the road to Cusco by Inca warriors and killed.
       Back in Cusco, after the civil war ceased, successive Viceroys tried to entice Manco’s successors, with a mixture of material incentives and military threats, into vacating Vilcabamba and coming to Cusco.  Finally, in 1572, Viceroy Francisco Toledo ordered an assault on the last Inca stronghold, deep in the jungles, that successfully captured the young emperor Tupac Amaru.  The expedition brought him back to Cusco, where Toledo had him beheaded in the Plaza de Armas.
12-sided stone on Hatun Rumiyoc Street
       With the Inca threat permanently extinguished, the transformation of Cusco accelerated.  It had already started around Plaza de Armas with the construction of the Church of the Triumph.  In 1559 work commenced on the building of a cathedral, which incorporated the earlier church as an annex, on the foundations of the palace of Viracocha, one of the most illustrious Inca emperors. 
       To construct their own houses, churches and administrative buildings the Spanish demolished existing Inca structures and re-employed the stones.  Unfortunately, none of the conquistadores left detailed drawings of the original palaces, fortresses and temples.  But from the existing wall segments, foundations and ruins elsewhere in the Valley of the Incas, they featured walls of interlocking stone blocks.
Church and Convent of Santo Domingo
The Spanish chroniclers of that time all expressed their admiration and amazement.  It was no wonder.  Inca masons were the best in the world.  They cut and polished huge blocks of stone that fit tightly together without mortar.  They cut some with extra corners and fit them next to other irregular blocks in complex polygonal patterns.  This technique prevented the walls from tumbling down during earthquakes.
       Besides the former Incas’ palaces, one of the prime sources for building material was the fortress at Sacsayhuaman.  Now that the Inca threat had been eradicated, and more colonists were arriving from Spain, the settlers, using conscripted Indian laborers, raided Sacsayhuman for stone.  Workers had to transport the stone down the mountain to Cusco, break it up and make stone bricks more suitable for a Spanish-style building. 
conquistador on a Cusco house
St. Michael the Rifleman
       They didn’t take everything, of course, for the blocks on the main walls, some weighing up to 300 tons, were too big.  As a result, Sacsayhuaman today is one of the prime tourist attractions of Cusco and the best place to appreciate the skills of Inca stonemasons.  
balconies and colonnades--the Cusco style
       What the Spanish did not appreciate was the general shape and style of the buildings.  They were used to a very different architectural legacy.  So they set out to recreate Spain in America.  The cathedral, finally completed in 1654, was in the Gothic-Renaissance style.  Meanwhile, the Jesuits built their own church on another side of the square, over the foundations of the palace of Huayna Capac, the Inca emperor who died a few years before the Spanish arrived.  This was in what has been called the colonial Baroque style, with a big domed vestibule in the rear.  It was intentionally designed to be more ornate than the cathedral, which prompted the Archbishop of Cusco to complain to the Pope.  But by the time the appeal reached the Vatican and the reply came back, by slow ship, of course, the Jesuits had already completed their building and no one demanded they take it down.
plaque on a house built in 1697
       Today both churches are both filled on Sundays and are major tourist attractions in the city.  One can argue over which building is aesthetically more pleasing, but the interior of the cathedral is definitely more richly embellished, with carved wooden altars and lots of gold and silver furnishings, courtesy of religious patrons enriched by the exploitation of the gold and silver nines in the colonies. 
       Portraits of Cusco’s colonial bishops hang from the walls, as well as numerous paintings of the Cusco School of art, which dominated painting styles throughout the colonial era.  The subjects were religious and didactic, intended to instruct Indian converts, and so sometimes included local Peruvian motifs.  For example, in a portrait of the Last Supper, Jesus and the apostles dine on guinea pig, an Andean specialty.  Another popular theme was that of warrior angels, dressed like Spanish nobles and carrying firearms, like the archangel St Michael the Rifleman.
       The Spanish also converted the Temple of the Sun into the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo.  In this case, unlike the churches around Plaza de Armas, they used much of the original walls and foundation, though concealing it behind an added exterior façade.  As a result it withstood the 1650 earthquake that delayed completion of the cathedral and knocked down the Church of la Merced.  Three centuries later, a 1950 earthquake damaged those exteriors and revealed the Inca stone foundations.  Now the church is a tourist attraction for its combination of Inca and colonial architectural elements.
bread sellers on Hatun Rumiyoc
typical Cusco architecture
       Besides the churches, the Spanish surrounded the Plaza de Armas with colonnaded stone arcades.  They extended this to some of the streets radiating from the square, which became the colonists’ main residential neighborhoods.  Colonists from Spain, the only ones officially allowed, continued to arrive in the 17th and 18th centuries, though not in overwhelming numbers.  Yet until the late 18th century, though Lima had been the capital of Peru since shortly after the Conquest, Cusco was the most populous city on the continent.  The numbers, however, were not very large back then—less than 7000.
colonial -ra building on Plaza de Armas, now the Bagdad Cafe
       Nowadays over 400.000 people live in Cusco.  Yet it’s far from the kind of congested, traffic jam city one would expect from those numbers.  Cusco has been a World Heritage Site since 1983 and city authorities have taken great pains to preserve everything that made it worthy of the award.  Most travelers see Cusco as a stopover on the way to Machu Picchu.  Those with time to linger longer in Cusco, though, will find their time well spent.  Just about every street in the city is interesting, for one reason or another.
       Many streets run uphill, so sometimes it’s the view of the hills and the settlements that crawl up them.  Sometimes it’s a plaque on the outside of a house wall marking the date of construction or of a proud conquistador.  Or one could pass by an iron door from the 17th century, with a knocker featuring an Inca-style godhead.  On some streets the houses are all whitewashed.  On others they are in pastel colors.  But most use orange tiles for the roof, giving a kind of uniformity to the city when viewed from above.    
the handicrafts market at theChurch of la Merced
       One of the streets, just east of the cathedral, called Hatun Rumiyoc (Street of the Big Stone in Quechua) features an extant portion of the original long walls of the palace of the Inca Roca.  The rest of the palace was demolished and replaced by the archbishop’s residence.  This street is the easiest place in Cusco to marvel at the skills of Inca stonemasons.  The Big Stone of the street’s name is a block with twelve distinct corners, fitted snugly into the polygonal pattern of the walls.  This is the most famous stone in Inca architecture, the only one with that many sidess.  But the walls here, like Sacsayhuaman’s, have many blocks of six, seven and eight corners.
       Another delight in wandering the streets of Cusco is the preponderance of carved wooden balconies on the upper floors the buildings.  They could be painted blue, yellow or green, or left in the original dark or light brown color of the wood.  The best exhibit lush, intricately carved vegetative patterns.  Some are small, suitable for one or two people, with a carved railing.  Others are enclosed by a full screen.  Some houses have two or three small balconies, spaced evenly apart.  Or there could be a single balcony as long as the width of the building.  Most of these types now serve as dining areas for the restaurants the buildings have become, especially around the Plaza de Armas.
north of Plaza de Armas and San Cristobal Church
       The advantage of sitting in one of these balconies for a meal or a drink is the view of the street action below.  Much of this will involve tourists wandering around, but the city also has a strong indigenous flavor, with Andean Indians, the women dressed in voluminous skirts and round hats, also in the streets and markets, llamas in tow, adding color to the scene. 
       Some of them live in Cusco and run stalls in the central covered market and handicraft stalls in the open-air market next to the Church of la Merced.  Among the items on sale here are scarves, sweaters, caps and ponchos made from alpaca wool, Pan pipes and other musical instruments, jewelry of all kinds, ceramic reproductions of classic, pre-Conquest pottery, wood sculptures, religious paraphernalia, carved gourds, alpaca bone flutes and chess sets with pieces of conquistadores on one side and Incas on the other.
     The scene exemplifies the historical and cultural fusion of contemporary Cusco.  Native merchants, descendants of those who survived the trauma of conquest and colonialism, sell their still appreciated handicrafts in the shadows of the church representing the imposed religion of the Europeans.  It’s all part of Cusco’s charm.

Cusco street on the edge of the city
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