Tuesday, August 9, 2011

All That Glitters

Santo Domingo Church/Qoricancha photo by Eduardo Manchon
Cuzco, Peru, is famed for cobblestoned streets and gray stone walls built by gifted Incan craftsmen. Wandering through the alleys and ancient sites, it’s easy to imagine bustling roads filled with priests and priestesses, politicians and royals. After the Spanish defeated the Incas in 1533 and took over the city, they razed many buildings, including temples, and built colonial structures on top of Incan walls. The one thing the Spanish couldn’t change, however, was Cuzco’s layout, a design highly revered by the Incas.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Cuzco served as the political and religious capital of the Incan Empire and is also known Tawantinsuyu, the Four Quarters of the Earth. The rugged mountains and plunging valleys proved a challenge when the Incas designed the layout of Cuzco, but their strong belief in finding a centre that would represent their religious beliefs meant Cuzco was the perfect site. And to make their dream a reality, they had to defy gravity at times.

Ancient Cuzco is in the shape of a puma, a symbol of courage and strength to the Incas. The tail starts at the confluence of the Huatanay and Tullumayo rivers, the head of the feline is at Sacsayhuamán, a gigantic complex still used for celebrations of the winter solstice, and the belly of the feline is Qorikancha.

While most buildings and sites in Cuzco were sacred to the Incas, one of the most revered was Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun. Although calling it Temple of the Sun is a misnomer because the Incas worshipped all of their celestial beings, along with important royal mummies, within the walls of this fascinating temple.

Originating from Qorikancha are 42 seques, imaginary lines that start at the temple and spread in different directions for hundreds of miles. Along the seques were huacas, shrines that housed the spirits of the dead. Four of the seques represented the four quarters of the Incan empire, while other lines pointed to constellations, solstice points, and stars of importance to the Incas. 

Incan stonework -- photo by Pethrus
Qorikancha is a Quechua word that translates to Golden Courtyard. In its heyday, the walls and floors of the temple were covered with over 700 sheets of solid gold, each weighing 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). The courtyard had life-sized sculptures of animals, a garden and cornfields all made from pure gold. Inside the temple stood a large sculpture of the Punchaco, a solid gold disc inlaid with precious stones, including emeralds, and probably the most sacred possession of the Incas. Over 4,000 priests held ceremonies at all times of the day and night.

When the Spanish arrived in 1532, they stripped 1.5 tons of gold from the walls and took possession of the hundreds of gold sculptures, including an altar big enough to lay two men on. At the centre of Qorikancha was the Cara Urumi, an octagonal stone coffer covered in 55 kilograms (121 pounds) of gold. That too, was taken.

The Spanish helped themselves to the treasures and melted everything down. They placed the precious gold and stones on boats and set sail for Spain. Unfortunately, the navy fought a battle at sea, which resulted in their boats sinking to the bottom of the ocean, along with the Incan gold. To this day, none of it has been recovered. 

After the Spanish took over Cuzco, they demolished Qorikancha and used its foundations to build the Church of Santo Domingo. It’s possible to visit this church now, as well as numerous other sites in and around Cuzco where the Spanish used the unique stone masonry of the Incas as their foundation. The Spanish have a lot to be thankful for, because without the ingenious work of the Incas, their buildings would never have withstood the earthquakes Cuzco has suffered over the years. 

Santo Domingo Church/Qorikancha photo by Jorge Lascar
The Incas are an endless source of fascination for me, and I love trying to figure out exactly what places like Qorikancha were like back then. To live in a city full of temples rich in gold and precious stones, and to have deities on every street corner, must have been a sight to behold.

What ancient places of worship have you visited, and were you able to visualize what life must have been like in those long-ago days?

The RWA Australia writing conference is this weekend and I’m on the organising committee. There’s a very good chance my brain will explode from too much information and socialising over the weekend, so I won’t be blogging next week but I will definitely be back in two weeks time!

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