Sunday, February 11, 2018

running with the big dog

And then someone stomped on the accelerator. That someone was Pachakuti.

What for centuries had been a minor clan in the highlands of the Andes transformed themselves almost overnight into the world's largest empire of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The spark was simple. An act of aggression. In 1538, the Chanka attacked the Inca at Cusco, fully expecting they would rout the insignificant Inca.

There was a rout. But it was the Chanka who left with a bloodied nose. The Inca defense was led by the youngest son, 
Pachakuti, of The Inka.  Once he got a taste for power, Pachakuti would go on to depose his father and elder brothers, to name himself as The Inka, and, for good measure, to declare himself a descendant of the sun.

Nor did he did stop there. A descendant of the sun could not be confined to the ways of small-town Cusco. During his thirty-four year reign as The Inka, he absorbed the territory of his neighbors through cajolery ("Ya got yaself a pretty nice country here. Too bad if sumpin bad should happen to it.") and, when that failed, warfare.
Pachakuti also decided his new empire needed a new look. Something that showed the power and grandeur that was rattling around his head. So, he started building. And the result is still there in Peru. Evidence of the short-lived golden age of the Inca.

Darwin, our guide, wisely started our Inca tour with what, I thought at the time, was a rather eccentric choice. I anticipated we would start with one of the mega-sites.

Instead, we simply sauntered across the street from our hotel in Cusco. I had already seen where we were heading. (That is it at the top of this essay.)

It would be hard to miss. The structure is huge. But I thought it was nothing more than a 16th century Spanish convent. I should have known better. The Catholic church in Latin America is infamous for tearing down other people's sacred places and building a churches on top of them. Cholula is the granddaddy of this technique.

If you take a close look at the bottom of the complex, you can see there are two quite different architectural styles. The platform's provenance is Inca. The large blocks of stone give it away.

This was the most sacred of all Inca temples -- Qorikancha. The temple of the sun.

Before the Spanish arrived, the temple was the center of Inca worship., After all, 
Pachakuti was a direct descendant of the sun. Its worship reflected his own power and glory.
When the Spanish built the convent and stopped the sun worship at this site, they did something quite unusual. Rather than destroying the sun temple buildings, they built the convent around it, leaving the remnants of the temple rooms in place.

The temple buildings are dwarfed by the convent, but it is possible to get a sense of the scale of the place through a diorama -- before the convent squatted around the Inca buildings. That is The Inka himself (the yellow fellow)coming to celebrate his ancestor, the sun.

The complex consisted of five buildings built of plain dressed stone -- temple of the sun, temple of the moon, temple of Venus and the stars (which would not be a bad name for the ubiquitous pan pipe bands in tourist restaurants), temple of Chuki Illapi, and the rainbow temple. The walls of the temples are so smooth, the joints are so tight, it appears to be a modern reconstruction. It isn't. It is the real McCoy. (Or McInca. Complete with golden arches.)

The interior walls of the complex were covered with plates of gold, and the niches in the rooms were filled with gold and silver statues. The windows were placed to capture the light from the sun that would then be reflected off of a large block of gold that projected light on each of the gold and silver objects in the room. It must have been quite a sight.

It was in the midst of this opulence that 
Pachakuti seated the mummies of his Inka predecessors to seek their guidance. Not even a screenwriter could have imagined such a setting.
Stretching in front of the temple is a large expanse of lawn, the solar garden, which was once the place where subjects of the empire could offer gifts of plants and animals sculpted in precious metals. Of course, for most of them, they were offering gifts to a deity of whom they knew next to nothing. But it was the empire. And attention must be paid.

I am glad we started our tour there. Of all the sites, it was not the most majestic. It would have been had all of the gold remained in place rather than being stripped to ransom The Inka, 
Atawallpa, from the Spanish.

Even stripped of ornamentation, the place still has meaning. This was the center of the empire. The place where the four regions joined. Where the subjects of the empire could worship their Inka through his ancestor the sun. It tells a lot of who the Inca were.

Pachakuti was not just a Lady Bird Johnson -- satisfied with gussying up Cusco. He had an empire to build. And he need to fill the place architecture that conveyed strength.

Everyone who goes to Peru wants to see Machu Picchu. Well, almost everyone. I am not a fan of mega-sites. But I was still looking forward to seeing the place.

So, off we went by bus -- and train -- and bus again on our pilgrimage to Peru's best-known tourist attraction.

But, we encountered an impressive sight along the way. Ollantaytambo.

Pachakuti was going to have an empire that expanded across the breadth of the Andes, he needed a bureaucratic system to help it operate. I mentioned earlier the 25,000 miles of roads that would eventually be built. Not all of them existed in Pachakuti's time. But a lot did. He ordered them built.
The roads tied the empire together. Armies could be moved quickly on them. Imperial runners could quickly carry royal decrees to The Inka's subjects. And, just importantly, necessities could be distributed from one part of the empire to another. Remember. This empire was not built in Kansas. Its topography ranged from sea level to heights well over 14,000 feet.

Ollantaytambo was a way station to facilitate all of those operations. For 
Pachakuti, it was a royal estate with a ceremonial center. He lived here and provided housing for that portion of the aristocracy who were wise enough to grab the tail of his rising star. The aristocrats who had favored his father or one of his other brothers had accommodations not quite as luxurious as those at Ollantaytambo.

Think of it as an Inca Bohemian Grove. Or, for the more conspiratorial-minded amongst you, Château de Ferrières. You can feel the sybarism in the air.

The terraces leading up to the temple area could easily be mistaken for a fortress. They aren't. (Even though Manco Inca initially chose the place as one of the last stands against the invading Spanish. Realizing it was a lousy fortress, he withdrew to Vilcabamba, where the Inca would finally fall to Spain in 1572.)

What makes it look like a fortress is all of that stone. To Pachakuti, the stone was designed to show the power of his new state. Massive. Strong. In league with the elements and the deities.

But, Ollantaytambo also served as part of the empire's warehouse system. The warehouses can still be seen on a mountain facing the temple mountain.

The site was chosen for its altitude and the warehouses were placed in the gap between the mountains to catch the wind and act as a natural refrigerator -- or freezer. The warehouses are those tan patches with the vertical lines. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

While you are clicking, take a look at what appears to be a carved face between the warehouses. And that is exactly what it is. The face of Wiracocha -- the creator god. You might remember him from his cameo appearance in walking with the inka.  Giving the impression that Michelangelo may have stopped by and used the carving as a study for The Creation of Adam.

Ollantaytambo is just a way station on our ultimate goal -- Machu Picchu.

No one is exactly certain why 
Machu Picchu even exists. It is located on a very high mountain ridge at 8000 feet. Surrounded by other high mountains. Even with Inca skills, the place was isolated.

In one sense, that was fine. It was never designed to be a population center. It was another of 
Pachakuti's private reserves. Only for him and his aristocratic buddies.

No more than 500 to 750 people lived there. It would have been a little bit like Jack Kennedy building Jackson Hole and then restricting its use to the Kennedy clan and hangers on.
Pachakuti never saw it finished. He died before it was completed. Well, that is not entirely accurate because the city was never completed. Construction stopped when Pizarro and his gang took up residence in Peru.

The Spanish never found it. Probably because it was never used as a resistance center against them. The Inca simply walked away from the place -- or died of smallpox (another type of Spanish invasion). But, people who continued to live around the mountain for the next centuries knew it was there.

Its existence was not revealed to the outside world until Hiram Bingham, in 1911, claimed to discover the "Lost City of the Incas" (in that European sense that if someone of European descent did not know it was there, it was as good as a tree falling in a forest in the Congo). Ever since, it has been one of places to visit for the bucket-obsessed. Like the pyramid of Cheops. Or the glimpse of an American balanced budget.

Dates are hard to fix with Inca construction. But archaeologists believe most of the construction at Machu Picchu was between 1438 and 1472. That means that 
Pachakuti began construction the year he became The Inka.

But, why there? Why choose a place so remote that it was easy for it to slip into obscurity when the empire fell?

Darwin, our guide, has a theory. And it is a theory supported by some anthropologists.

In creating his empire, 
Pachakuti had to use every tool at his disposal. He knew he could not defeat all of his enemies through war. And he knew he needed a way to keep the people he had pulled into the empire from pulling out again.

What better way to do it than to show his power by building a magnificent palace complex where none had been built before and that no one could imagine a mortal man building? Such a man must be revered. And feared. He is The Inka. The descendant of the sun.

Whether that is true or not, it probably does not matter. But it certainly fits the mold of 
Pachakuti's other projects. Nothing half way for him.

What we see today is not what Hiram Bingham saw. He discovered construction that had been abandoned to the jungle for almost 400 years. The amazing part of the story, though, is how much of it had survived. How the Inca had built the place to last. That alone is a tribute to Pachakuti.

Like most Inca settlements on steep terrain, farming could be performed only on terraced land. That presented a problem at Machu Picchu. The soil is very unstable and prone to landslides that can wipe out years of terrace work. But the site was blessed with plenty of rainfall negating the need for irrigation.

These terraces were still being farmed by the Quecha when Bingham popped out of the jungle in the early 1900s. More proof that Pachakuti built monuments to himself reflecting his belief that he would live forever.

Certainly, these monuments to Pachakuti's empire have withstood the ravages of time far better than his mortal body.

I received the full frontal Inca experience while I was in Peru. Every site, every story, still excited that 12-year old boy who lives deep below the folds of five additional decades.

But, we are not yet done. History did not stop in Peru with the fall of the Inca empire. Or even the fall of the Spanish empire.

Peru is a thriving republic worth visiting for its contemporary offerings. We will take a look at some of those in the next essay.

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