In the days of the Inca, all roads led to Cuzco.
From here, the Inca ruled over a self-contained world that stretched from modern-day Colombia to Northern Argentina, composed of organized agriculture cultivation, education systems, trade and commerce.
The name of the city literally translates to “centre of the world,” and boasted so many modern novelties that it even had a fish-delivery system designed specifically for the king, with a road built from the ocean to the mountain capital for just that purpose.
Cuzco: A Puma at the Centre of the World
During the rule of the Inca, Cuzco (also spelled “Cusco”) was not only the political seat of the empire; it served as a cultural and religious centre as well. According to Inca legend, it was constructed for the great Inca ruler Pachacutec. What ensued was a well thought-out city crafted of perfectly cut stone, which was often layered in gold. It encompassed sewage and drainage systems that were very advanced and efficient for this remote culture. The design of the city was said to mimic the outline of a puma, a sacred animal of the Inca.
The Spanish took control of Cuzco in 1534, setting up Manco Inca as a puppet governor. In this fashion, the Spanish ruled the empire for almost two years before Manco Inca rebelled and tried in vain to fight off the Spanish. Cuzco was later set ablaze by the Incas in a last and ultimately ill-fated attempt to corner the Spanish. What remains of Cuzco is an interesting array of Incan foundations beneath a colonial Spanish village.
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“Magnificent, but Unforgivable”
In the 1920s it was the Andean capital for arts and culture, with bob-top haircuts and jazz music, tennis clubs, and pisco sours served on verandas throughout the town; its unique blend of European and Andean cultures found a home in the valley. You can still see remnants of this mix in paintings of the Last Supper hung high in the cathedrals, which feature images of the apostles dining on cuy or Guinea pig, a local delicacy.
Today’s Cuzco is thus a fascinating blend of two opposing forces. Christopher Isherwood described it best in his 1948 book The Condor and the Cow, “What remains with you is the sense of a great outrage, magnificent but unforgivable. The Spaniards tore down the Inca temples and grafted splendid churches and mansions onto their foundations. This is one of the most beautiful monuments to bigotry and sheer stupid brutality in the whole world.”
Like most Incan sites, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced, I swear, “saxy woman”) remains something of a mystery to archaeologists. Though the Spanish referred to it as a fortress—and it was in fact used as a fortress when Manco Inca tried to win back the freedom of his people—recent research indicates that it may have been a temple in earlier times. Whatever its function, it certainly must have communicated the power and grandiosity of the Incan people to all its visitors.
Even today, one cannot help but feel awestruck by the precision with which the enormous stones were fit together along its zigzagging walls.