Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trujillo—the Culture Capital of Peru

                                               by Jim Goodman

colonial architecture in central Trujillo
    Peruvians call the northern coastal metropolis of Trujillo “City of Eternal Spring” for its fine weather and balmy temperatures all year round.  They also consider it the Capital of Peru’s Culture.  It is the center of the elegant, traditional courtship dance known as the marinera.   It is the birthplace of the breed of Peruvian horse called Paso, with its distinctive ambling gait, the breed overseers preferred on the big sugarcane and cotton plantations of days past.  Several of the country’s famous writers and artists hailed from Trujillo and the city plays host to various cultural events and festivals each year.  The city center features many fine churches, government buildings and mansions from the colonial era.  In addition, it is close to the impressive ruins of important pre-Inca civilizations—the Moche and the Chimú.
totora boats on the sea
    With about 800,000 inhabitants, Trujillo is Peru’s third largest city.  It lies along the Moche River about four kilometers from the sea.  The beaches here are renowned as top-grade surfing venues.  But even when the waves are too slight for surfboards the beaches are still interesting for the caballitos de totora—“little horses of the bulrush reeds.”  Long and narrow, with upturned prow, the paddler and passenger seated near the back, these reed boats have supposedly been in use about three thousand years and reflect the basic geographical fact of seacoast settlements:  they
are a long distance from the wood of any forests, which are only in the mountains.    
totora boats on the shore
    Trujillo also lays claim to being the first new city established by the Spanish after their conquest of the Inca Empire and seizure of Cusco.  Pedro de Amalgro established the town in late 1534, a few months before the founding of Lima.  He named it Trujillo of New Spain, after the birthplace of his boss, Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador-in-chief.  Three years later Trujillo became the first city granted official recognition by King Charles I, who also bestowed a coat-of-arms, another first in colonial Peru.  In the early 19th century Trujillo became a major hotbed of anti-colonial sentiment and was the first city to declare independence from Spain.  It was also briefly the first capital of the Republic of Peru.
    Amalgro chose a site along the Moche River, one of those rivers that tumble down from the Andes and punctuate the coast of northern Peru, providing a strip of fertile land through a landscape that is otherwise desert.  Previous settlers, like the Moche and the Chimú, had extended this land with irrigation systems and the Spanish did the same.  In time, large plantations appeared, raising cotton and sugarcane.  In recent times this has included rice and asparagus and Trujillo is one of the world’s leading asparagus exporters.
    But the city’s history is not one of continued growth and success.  Geo-physically, northern Peru is a volatile place.  The weather may continue dependably for a long time and then suddenly undergo a spell of violent alterations, like severe drought and high winds that create monstrous sand dunes. Moreover, the entire Pacific Coast is on a major tectonic fault line and no place is completely safe from the threat of earthquakes. In 1619 Trujillo suffered near-total destruction from an earthquake, which also killed nearly half the city’s population.
    In the late 17th century drought and pestilence caused a steep decline in agricultural production.  Meanwhile, the city was vulnerable to pirate raids until a defensive wall went up, with a 5.5 km-long perimeter.  It remained until the end of the 19th century, when it was removed to make way for the city’s expansion.  Problems with the weather returned next century.  Flash floods afflicted Trujillo in 1701, 1720, 1728 and 1814, as well as two more earthquakes, in 1725 and 1759.
Huaca del Sol--Pyramid of the Sun
    What the frustrated conquerors and colonists didn’t realize at the time was that such disasters were a common thread to the history of the area since long before the Spanish arrived.  The periodic weather phenomenon known as el Niño drastically altered living conditions throughout the history of the settlement of northern Peru, sometimes destroying whole civilizations.  This was probably the case with cultures in the area that rose and fell prior to the beginnings of the more durable Moche culture (also known as Mochica), which began around 100 C. E.
Moche warriors, Pyramid of the Moon mural
    There was never a true Moche empire, but rather a common culture shared by a number of autonomous states.  The largest and most important of these was in the Moche River valley, but Moche cultural influence extended for 400 kilometers along Peru’s northern coast and up to 80 km inland.  Fishing was important to the local economy, but the society was basically an agricultural one, dependent on extensive use of irrigation.  This reliance led to a highly stratified society of an elite class able to direct the irrigation work and organize the defense of the state and the rites of religion designed to keep the entire system going.
    Scholars reckon Moche culture flourished from the 4th to mid-6th centuries, characterized by monumental construction projects and outstanding achievements in ceramics, textiles and mural painting.  The most impressive monument was the Huaca del Sol, or Pyramid of the Sun, 50 meters high and 340m by 160 m at the base. It stood beside the biggest Moche urban center, a few km from present-day Trujillo, next to the volcanic peak of Cerro Blanco..  Erected in the mid-5th century, it was the largest adobe structure in all of pre-Columbian America, utilizing over 130 million bricks made in over 100 communities.  Moche rulers conducted state rituals here, lived and were buried here, while the smaller Huaca de la Luna, Pyramid of the Moon, saw service as a religious center and burial site for the religious elite.
Moche god Aiapaec--the Decapitator
    The exteriors of both temples originally featured brightly colored murals, only traces of which remain, due to the effects of the weather over the many centuries after they were abandoned.  The Pyramid of the Sun suffered from vandalism, especially by the Spanish, but the Pyramid of the Moon is better preserved.  Interior walls, platforms and even brick staircases feature mural paintings and low-relief sculptures, brightly painted, depicting gods, warriors, mythic tales, serpents, spiders and other animals, real and mythological.  One of the most common, and striking portraits is that of the chief Moche deity Aiapaec.  He was their Creator god, provider of food and water, but also the Punisher.  Usually artists only painted his fierce face, but sometimes they showed his whole body, a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other.  Archaeologists later nicknamed him the Decapitator. 
Moche mural, Huaca de la Luna
    Moche religious practice could be pretty brutal.  Excavators at Moche ruins have found plenty of evidence of human sacrifice, even torture, with severed heads offered to Aiapaec.  Apparently Moche religion included the belief that because the flow of irrigated water was so important to the life of the nation, it had to be magically aided by the flow of human blood.  As for the victims, some scholars argue they were members of the local elite who lost in ritual battles, while others postulate they were warriors captured from rival tribes, like the Aztecs’ victims. 
    The masses of simple farmers and fishers who made up the non-elite were probably not affected by these ritual slaughters.  They carried on their daily chores and at the same time developed the arts of weaving and pottery to unprecedented levels.  With simple back-strap looms that are still in use today, Moche weavers created cloth made from vicuña and alpaca wool that, in the few extant samples, display intricate inlaid patterns and fine pictorial representation.  But it’s the ceramic work that is the Moche culture’s finest achievement.
    Much more of Moche pottery has survived than its textiles or murals.  And most of it was found intact in burial sites.  Go to a museum anywhere in Europe or the Far East to see ancient ceramics and you see pieces that are patched together from several dozen shards.  But Peruvian ceramics are in such good
Moche ceramics--fishing motif
condition it’s like they just came out of the artisan’s shop.  While the Moche and others apparently created molds to reproduce a particular piece, those that wound up in common people’s houses are all lost, while those interred with corpses never broke or shattered.  Or perhaps they created unique pieces for burials, for when visiting all the museums in Peru you won’t find two pieces exactly alike.
    Moche potters used few colors, mainly rich red and creamy yellow, but the range of their subject matter was extremely broad.  Virtually every activity of daily life found expression in their ceramics, as well as the plants and animals of their environment.  Besides farming, fishing and fighting, this included sexual acts like masturbation, fellatio and anal sex.  But even more impressive is Moche portraiture pottery, featuring faces based on real people, even those born with deformities.   
    In the mid-6th century Moche country suffered from severe climatic changes that included thirty years of heavy rains and floods, followed by thirty years of drought.  This not only destroyed much of the elaborate irrigation system but also undermined the religious belief that sacrifices assured the stability of the weather.  Moche culture survived for more than two more centuries, but in an attenuated form, while the days of building gigantic temple structures was over.  Much of their material culture, in agricultural techniques, arts and crafts, passed on to their successors, the Chimú, who set up their state of Chimor in the late 9th century. 
porno pottery
ceramic Moche portrait
    This eventually became a much more sophisticated and organized state than anything the Moche had experienced.  The Chimú expanded agriculture by linking valleys with great hydraulic projects.  They built large cities and elaborate defensive works, carried on maritime trade with areas beyond their realm on the Pacific Coast, inherited and developed the Moche traditions in ceramics, weaving and metal-working, and eventually expanded to rule an empire that encompassed the former Moche realm as well as south all the way to Lima.
    The Chimú imperial capital was Chan Chan, 5 km west of modern Trujillo, in a well-watered part of the Moche Valley.  Founded around 850, it grew to cover an area of 20 square kilometers and was the largest adobe city in the world, housing at least 30,000 residents.  As Chimor expanded, developed an administrative bureaucracy and its capital became a major trading center, Chan Chan’s original core of palaces, citadels, temples and burial chambers added marketplaces, storehouses for goods and new neighborhoods for the merchants and crafts workers who came to live there.  Walls featured decorations like carved fish, crabs, birds and other animals and reservoirs were built adjacent to its southern walls.
the ruins of Chan Chan
    The peak of Chimor’s power came in the late 14th century, but in the 1460s it suffered defeat and conquest by the Incas, less than three generations before the Spanish came and started conquering everybody.  Chan Chan was already a deserted city by then.  But after the Spanish got over their initial sense of wonder they did not try to resurrect it as a city but built their own nearby at Trujillo.  Of course, anything so impressive as a former royal capital meant it was probably sure to hold lots of buried treasure like gold ornaments.  So the Spanish systematically looted it.  They also diverted the Moche River to flood the base of the Moche Pyramid of the Sun to loot its tombs more easily.
    There’s a limit to how long an economy can subsist on the plunder of ancient valuables, for eventually the search stops yielding.  Trujillo’s ultimate success lay in its development of agriculture, fishing and coastal maritime trade, just like Chimor.  And to ensure that success, the Spanish copied the hydraulic engineering and irrigation systems first put into place by their Moche and Chimú predecessors. 
    Nowadays Trujillo’s economy has developed beyond fishing and farming.  Shoes and leather goods are an important sector.  But even more important is the burgeoning tourist business, which always promotes visits to the Moche and Chimú ruins, for it was the achievements of these ancient peoples that provided the model for Trujillo’s establishment and success.  Centuries after their demise, the legacies of the Moche and Chimú are still major components of the culture of Trujillo.
Chimú gold funerary mask
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