Peru: Vestiges of Power in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco
1) The Plaza de Armas from the Baghdad Cafe: how the average tourist sees the view
I first visited the former capital of the Inca Empire in 1979 and last strolled its precincts in April of this year. A lot of water since then has passed under the proverbial bridge – or in this case under the main plaza, where a network of tunnels and pools exists under the main square of the city.
2) The Cathedral: In decades past, tourists were frequently denied entry
Cusco has experienced an overwhelming history of brutality and conquest since the first Quechuas founded their city the valley. The legends recount how they plunged a staff into the ground and it sprouted forth as a sprig of corn or wheat , thus divining that this was the locale where the wandering tribe should congregate and build their capital. They called it the Navel of the Earth.
The islanders of Rapa Nui referred to their homeland with the same term, as did the original builders of Tiwanuku and a variety of other cultures around the world. How many navels does the world possess? Apparently quite a few. Perhaps each old culture that spoke of their homeland in this fashion made only an allegorical statement. But I hear the ring of truth.
During the Conquest, the Spanish tore the gold sheathing from the walls of the Coricancha and smelted into ingots the golden garden in front of the sacred temple. The conquistadors then settled into a pattern of garroting their enemies in the Plaza de Armas, just to show the locals who was boss. A fight at the fortress at Sacsayhuaman above the city secured their control of Cuzco Valley. Even the infighting among the Spaniards, ultimately resulting in the death of Pizarro in Lima, did not break their hold on the new colony and its unspeakable wealth.
3) La Coricancha
The murder of Atahuallpa in Cajamarca began the Spanish conquest after the Incas filled a room with gold to try and save their leader’s life. Further battles at Ollantaytambo – where the Incas won a battle for their cause – and the final revolt at Vilcabamba did little to deter the Europeans’ eventual victory. The Spanish survived and thrived after exhibiting appalling behavior, at least in the short-term.
Scientists tell us the original city plan was laid out in the form of a puma. But this theory is rather like an inkblot test; the observer sees what he or she wants to see. Drawings of the city plans remind me more of a tapir, but that animal lacks the sexiness of a big cat, so we’ll agree with the savants that the Incas were thinking pumas, not giant rodents, when they built their metropolis.
4) Iglesia de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas
Nowadays Cuzco is a kind of amusement park, where tourists wander the streets, admiring the stone foundations of the original builders.
5) The famous 12-angled stone on Hatunrumiyoc Street that leads uphill to the left of the Cathedral: Photo by Shawn Herring
Remarkably, the biggest stones show a workmanship quite different from that normally ascribed to the later Incas. Huge multi-angled blocks, impossibly shaped into geometric forms, line the walls of the streets of the San Blas district, while more prosaic stonework connects the Plaza de Armas to the Coricancha. Who built what? we might ask. As for the Coricancha, one fact is clear. Its walls have survived every earthquake in modern times, while the Dominican church built atop the fortifications crumble with every tremor of the Earth, and the church has been constantly re-built after devastating earthquakes. So much for the superiority of modern construction methods.
6) Later stonework, definitely Inca. Not as precise or massive as the older foundations: Photo by Shawn Herring
Yet as the visitor walks through the Plaza de Armas, the old vibes are still powerful. This place was a gathering point for the masses, from the original Native American inhabitants who paraded the mummified bodies of their former rulers, to the current crop of Catholic fiesta celebrants who carry bizarre statues of the Virgin through the streets during Easter Week. This year I briefly watched one of these processions. The sight was underwhelming. I spent most of the occasion with both hands thrust into my pockets to ward off pickpockets, of which Cuzco boasts huge numbers. In fact, if you visit the market area, the locals constantly play tricks on the tourists, dumping refuse or worse on their persons in order to distract them, while accomplices efficiently fleece the well-lined foreign pockets. Excellent techniques and very rewarding for those who practice this impromptu form of wealth redistribution.
7) A notorious bar, now closed, on the corner of the main square
During the 1960s you could wander the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuaman completely unmolested. Now, similar to the crowd control practiced at Machu Picchu, guards blow whistles at visitors foolish enough to step into the roped-off areas to investigate unusual features – most notably the great zodiac or sundial at the edge of the cliff that drops toward Cusco’s center. A real buzz killer, to use modern vernacular.
Despite the negativity, going to Cuzco is an honor, a privilege, and an obligation to all those who wish to experience the interplay of cultures and see the results of exploitation and imperialism. Inside the Cathedral stands an alter fashioned from solid silver, obscene in its gaudy proclamation of stolen wealth. Innumerable and priceless paintings from the famous Cuzco School line the church’s dark stone walls. Here material and political power scream at the observer, gloating at the conquest of a civilization that was once more advanced than any society Europe had achieved.
Too bad the Incas never invented firearms. Maybe history would have turned out differently and instead of poor peasants hunched over massive loads of goods, hauling them into the city for sale, or old Native American women laying antique weavings on street corners for visitors to buy at ridiculously low prices, artworks that incorporate the ancient Peruvian form of communication and writing, we’d see illegal Spanish immigrants begging for work outside hardware stores and construction sites, just as their distant cousins are obliged to do at the Home Depots and Wal-Marts of North America. Now that would be justice.