beautiful as the pictures I will attach will attest.
Our first day of touring began with a visit to a village an hour or so outside the city. The ride up was a reminder in our blessings here in America. This is not severe poverty, but it is what I would refer to as working poor. The stray dogs are what was hardest for me- they are everywhere. However, they appeared well fed. They tended to travel in twos, and our guide indicated that they did that to look out for one another. Another interesting fact is that the local governments, given the lack of space to house them in shelters, has full time personnel who vaccinate and if they can neuter the dogs. Like all here in this ancient city, they survive.
Also notable was the number of families that I observed out walking, working in the street markets, and relaxing in the very few and very small parks. Many were in the traditional costumes and hats of their native villages. The thought I had- industrious. No one was staring down at a cell phone.
As we passed the shanty towns on the hills our guide, Miguel, explained that these were mainly a result of the dark days of Peru in the early 1990’s. I remember reading about the group The Shining Path which was using violence in rural areas to recruit soldiers to overthrow the then Peruvian government. Fearing for their lives, these families moved to the safety of the the cities. They squatted on the hills of Cusco and built what they could. Eventually the group was defeated. At that point, the government granted them their land. Today you see many, as their economic conditions improve, tear down their shanties and build brick housing with their own hands.
Today Cusco is a fast growing tourist destination of 500,000 people. The city is built upon the ruins of the Incas and and the roofs are decidedly Spanish. A fitting visual for the brutal conquest of the Incan people. To give perspective, the Inca’s first organized from various tribes in the Peruvian highlands in the early 12th century. The Empire was short lived-from 1438 AD to 1532 AD.
We arrived at the village to observe an ancient weaving demonstration. This included the taking of the raw alpaca, cleaning it with roots that produce soap, making the yarn with wooden spindles, dying it with nothing but plants and berries, and finally weaving it. All done with tools of the time-sticks, clay pots, fire, wood, and human effort. The colors of the finished product are nothing short of remarkable-deep, bright and as the women proudly stated totally colorfast.
In the afternoon we began our tours of the Inca civilization, and the guides gave us a fascinating history of the early Inca’s, the rise of the Incan Empire and the timeline of the arrival of the Spanish. Well prepared after several lectures and documentaries, things began to fall into place. I will just do bullet points to give you the highlights:
-Our guides, all young men, considered themselves Incan and flowed easily between speaking contemporary Spanish and the language of Quechua-the language of the Incas. They were passionate about their culture-and preserving it. They were complimented by Nat Geo experts, who appeared to me to be mainly old hippies or single undatable men. That might need another write up.
-The Incas had 3 laws-
Do not lie
Do not steal
Do not be lazy
Chuck loved number 3. In fact, 3 is present everywhere in the Inca heritage and you see it often in various forms.
-The first place you see it is in their religious beliefs, which are rooted in the elements and the stars. They worshipped the sun, moon, and were astoundingly adept at astronomy. They felt the mountains were living deities and many of their buildings were designed as a complement to their spiritual surroundings. They believed in three worlds-The upper world represented by the condor, the middle world represented by the puma, and the lower world represented by-who else- the snake. Of interest is that they did believe in one God -Viracocha-and that the lower world was just that- a lower world. They did not believe in evil as we understand it today. Their basic belief was that the universe consists of contrasts, and that the prosperity and welfare of all depend on the maintenance of a harmonious relationship between those contrasts. Machu Picchu is where one is able to see all of this in full display, which is why it is so significant. They had no written language- they communicated by colorful yarn that they knotted in patterns and hung across a smooth pole called a quipu. This has never been deciphered (although scholars feel they are close) and 80 percent of these were destroyed by the Spanish as a way to further isolate the Inca people and to deny them their historical heritage.
-Our first stop after the weaving demonstration was a group of ruins near the village we were visiting. Discovered in the early 1950’s, there is still some archeologists on site. The belief is that this was the temple for the village, most of what is built on ruins. It is here that I first saw in person the incredible architectural and masonry skills of the Inca people. You have seen in the pictures the precision by which they cut and honed large stones- fitting them perfectly. The better the stonework and bigger the stones the more important the structure. They did this without iron (they used hematite) or knowledge of the wheel (they used a system of logs and humans powered by coco leaves which I need to order as soon as I get home)
– The terraces you see in the pictures have two purposes- to support the building structure in a land prone to landslides and earthquakes, and to grow food. They all incorporated an ingenious system of filtering with the lower layer large rocks, the next gravel, the next sand, then a layer of clay and finally a layer of soil. Think of that next time you see pictures of these and imagine the sheer effort. To say nothing of moving those stones.
– Moving the stones was a different story. Quarries were sometimes miles away. There is no easy way to describe this but you if you are interested you can watch the excellent Nat Geo documentary on Machu Picchu. The basic thing is this- they first excavated, laid large stone foundations, then built. They revered the mountains and believed in their natural beauty-which is why the structures are very simple.
-At this site, there is a church where the Inca temple once was. The Spaniards destroyed every temple they could find and in its place built a church-many times with the very stones of the demolished temple. This was a beautiful church-much like those you have all toured in Europe. It is still utilized by the village and the first mass every mornings is said in Quechua. As the Inca’s practiced mummification, there was a decorated mummy of the Christ in a glass casket. This is paraded around on feast days. This gave Chuck and I the excellent idea of being mummified, set up in a nice room, and paraded around periodically so that our children and our descendants could still enjoy our company.
-After lunch, we took the bus a short ride from our hotel to one of the three most important Inca monuments, Sacsauaman. This was a fortified site overlooking Cusco, and was the primary symbol of Inca power. It also served as a palace and administrative center and, like all important sites, included temples. It is believed this was the site of temples to the sun, moon and lightening. It contains the largest stones used in any Inca site with the largest standing 13 feet and weighing over 200 tons. Imagine dragging this 4 miles and you will never complain about your luggage again.
-We then toured the Main Square. With the New Year, there were many festive dances being performed and locals celebrating the New Year. Our main purpose however was to visit the immense church that sits at the center of Cusco-of course built on the site where the Inca kings lived and worshipped.
-Like many parts of Europe, there are no pictures allowed in the churches. Take it from me that this one was right up there with Westminster Abbey. It was magnificent. It was also full- and I mean FULL- of religious paintings. The Spaniards had two purposes in conquering the Inca’s. One was obviously to loot and pillage the place as quickly as possible. The other, which was used as a cover to loot and pillage, was to impose upon them the Catholic Religion.
In order to build these churches, and especially this one, they needed to bring in artisans as well as train local artists. This they did. The result was spectacular, but there were some interesting ways in which these local artists managed to reflect their traditional worship of the earth, sun and moon into the art. Many depict Mary shaped like a mountain with a white collar-like a mountain with a glacier which are considered to this day to have special powers. Others depict her as pregnant with Jesus as a boy standing next to her- signifying fertility, another important spiritual aspect of the Inca people. The Southern Cross, the moon and the sun all make their way into these paintings. No idiots, the Spaniards overlooked these interpretations feeling that they would add in their conversion effort. To this day, many Catholics in Peru worship as a combined religion of the Catholic Church and the mystical Inca concepts.
– The next day we headed to where all the real action is…Machu Picchu. We traveled an hour by bus through the shanty towns and up into the mountains to catch the Hiram Bingham train- named after the man who discovered Machu Picchu. The 3 and a half hour train ride was a spectacular display of the changing landscapes as we descended from 12,000 feet to 6,000 feet. We also were heading east toward the rain forest and what is considered the edge of the Amazon. Operated by the Oriental Express, it was certainly a first for me. At our arrival, we boarded buses and made the 20 minute steep dirt road ride on up to what is now considered one of the new seven wonders of the world.
-Background- Searching for The Lost City of the Inca’s, Bingham stumbled upon MP in 1911. It was the only Inca site that had not been totally destroyed by the Spaniards as they never found it. The excavation was large and complex and took decades to complete. It was built during the reign of King Pachacuti who was the greatest of the Inca kings and who orchestrated the rise of the Inca Empire. At its height, the Empire went from the border of Columbia to the border of Argentina and consisted of 12 million people. That is a lot of coco leaf chewing laborers to be sure. Immediate question- why? With Cusco as the seat of the Empire? Scholars have many theories. One is that the city itself is imposing, and word of its greatness along the Inca trail led many tribes in the area to agree to come into the Empire knowing that the prowess of the Incas was evident in their abilities. Another is that Pachacuti planned to begin a campaign into the rain forest in order to conquer and control its vast natural resources. My theory? It seems like a great spot to rest and relax amongst gorgeous temples and spectacular mountain scapes in what is known locally as the cloud forest. Kind of like Lake Geneva or Naples. And you have lots of help.
The Inca did not have slaves, even as they conquered other tribes. They did however collect taxes. And these were paid for in labor. At MP, as it was being built, there were 20,000 people working. Many were growing food and using sophisticated methods of food preservation. Others were mathematicians, astronomers, priests, etc. There was a small elite, and a large civilian population in every city throughout the Empire and MP was no exception.
-One does not take their first look at Machu Picchu and not be deeply moved. You are rendered speechless. At first it is hard to take pictures because your mind is processing all you have learned and applying it to the magnitude of what you are seeing. We walked the ground with our guide visiting important temples, seeing where the nobility and civilians lived, observing the elegance and simplicity of their temples. Patrick and Eric came here a few years back with their cousins, actually backpacking the Inca trail and emerging to the site through the Sun Gate-I believe that is the best way to enter Machu Picchu. It is so well preserved that you can definitely envision what the city must have looked like- it’s sights, sounds, smells. I imagined the colorful garments I had observed being made yesterday on the many people- the daily rhythms of life amongst what can only be called the most overwhelming display of cultural significance I have ever seen.
I could go on. And on. Watch the Nat Geo documentary and you will not be disappointed.
Now for the hot mess. After the death of Pachacuti the Inca Empire began to quickly weaken. First came small pox. Then civil war between two factions of the Inca people. At that time, the Spaniards arrive with only 178 men… but they have horses.. they have iron…they have cannon. They capitalize on the then King who, in Incan tradition, calls a “unarmed” meeting. Which they arrive armed and proceed to ambush the King ( who they collect ransom for and then murder) and slaughter as many as they can. In just two short years, they purge all of the elite (who, as stated earlier have all the education and knowledge) and assume command of the rest ( who now are absent of leaders and have no advanced skills) Aided by tribes conquered by the Incas they proceed to destroy temples and all manner of Inca society, including the large libraries of knotted ropes that would have told their history. For those Incas that managed to flee, they are pushed further into the mountains, weakened and eventually overthrown by the Spaniards. The capital during that time is moved to Lima, the systematic destruction of the culture continued, and a highly evolved civilization vanquished.
As I know you all are thinking, similarities abound with our own American West, Rome, and the British Empire to name a few. Unfortunately our times have also seen the rise of Nazi Germany, the division and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Syria and now Myanmar.
On another front, there is a deeper lesson here- that education and development of all of a society’s population and not just the elite enables the society to grow, prosper and very importantly, survive.
What occurred to me as I watched our guides and as I observed the younger residents of Cusco was this… with the internet bringing us closer I believe there is more understanding in your generation. There is greater acceptance and respect for differences in those that have educated themselves in the ways of the world. I think we are one or two generations away from a new type of leader; one that understands that true power is given, not taken or paid for. And that with the rise of such leaders, the increased awareness and cultural insight of an increasingly well educated populace. Very simplistic, but true.
As Nietzsche said “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” Those days need to be over.
There was another first on this trip- Chuck did not demand any discounts on the hotel bill. I was treated for shock by the trip doctor.
More as we travel. On to Easter Island.
Thanks for reading, safe travels!