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Imperial marvels

Solange Hando is entranced by the historic legacy of the Inca and Spanish empires in Peru

A view of Machu Picchu, Peru
Published: April 4, 2008 at 4:02 pm
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This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


When in 1911 Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led to the ruins of an Incan “lost city” by a 12-year-old boy, he was moved to declare, “In the variety of its charms and the power of its spells, I know of no place in the world which can compare with Machu Picchu”.

Perched on the eastern slopes of the Andes, Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century when through conquest and diplomacy, Emperor Pachacutec, known as the world shaker, began to expand the newly unified Inca state. It has been suggested that the site may have been home to a royal estate where farmers, potters and weavers supplied the needs of noble Incas and priests. Marvel at the dizzying terraces, the remains of workshops, palaces and temples, explore the ceremonial square, the funerary rock, the main spring and sacred stone and examine the sundial used to predict agricultural cycles and the altar where priests tried to tie down the sun on the winter solstice for fear it may never return.

Abandoned after barely 100 years and probably unknown to the Spanish, Machu Picchu is the highlight of any visit to Peru but the Sacred Valley and Cusco area preserve an equally rich heritage. Tambo Machay claims a royal bathing place, Qenko a sacred maze and underground chamber and Puca Pucara a small citadel guarding the road to Pisac. Most spectacular are the temple and fortress of Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuaman, a zigzag-shaped stronghold, with stones weighing up to 125 tons so finely fitted you could not insert a blade between them.

Around 1450, Cusco was transformed into the magnificent “navel of the world” where from Colombia to Chile, the four quarters of the Inca domain met symbolically, linked by an extensive road network. Twelve million people were brought under Inca rule but by 1532, smallpox and internal feuds had weakened the empire. That year, Francisco Pizarro landed with 180 men, 37 horses and the blessing of the Spanish king, lusting for land and gold under cover of Christian zeal. Atahuallpa, the gallant Inca leader, was tricked into submission and later executed. The Spaniards marched on Cusco, terrifying the natives with glinting armour and horses they had never seen. Manco, rival claimant to the throne, was appointed by the Spanish as Inca leader but he soon realised his “liberators” had come to stay. He lay siege to the capital for ten months but was forced to retreat to Ollantaytambo and finally to Vilcabamba. The exiled court survived for 35 years until Tupac Amaru, the last Inca, was captured and put to death in 1572.

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From Cajamarca, the first inland town taken by Pizarro, to Lima, his new capital, or Arequipa, there is no shortage of colonial splendour but it is high in the Andes that Inca and Spanish heritage collide most openly, be it in the Sacred Valley with its Catholic fiestas and Inca ruins or in the stunning city of Cusco. Stroll under the elegant arcades of Plaza de Armas and you could be in Spain, were it not for the brightly clothed Amerindians sitting on the cathedral steps. Myriad churches dot the historical centre, from the ornate Compania de Jesus and El Triunfo, which celebrated the end of the siege, to the cathedral built on an Inca site, a splendid example of Spanish Renaissance and Andean spirit. There are gleaming altars and chapels and indigenous paintings, including Our Lord of the Earthquakes and a Last Supper consisting of cheese, chillies and roast guinea pig. The choir stalls hide unexpected sexual symbols and the lost bell of Magdalena is said to toll in Lake Titicaca, birthplace of the once mighty Inca empire.

Meanwhile the nuns of Santa Catalina pray on the spot where Chosen Women once worshipped the Sun and paintings from the Cusco School show armed archangels in Spanish dress and Catholic saints and cherubs with Amerindian faces. The church of Santo Domingo stands on the site of Coricancha, the Incas’ most sacred Temple of the Sun whose legendary treasures disappeared, with many others, in Spanish coffers. The main sanctuary is buried below the church but you can see the massive walls which survived major earthquakes. All around town, Inca walls stood the test of time, too strong for the Spanish to tear down so they simply built on top of them.

Once a town of clay and straw founded by Children of the Sun, then a fabulous Inca capital, now a stopover on the way to Machu Picchu, Cusco shows an intriguing juxtaposition of cultures. On the Feast of St John, bells chime across the city but that night, the longest of the year, fires are lit to ensure the return of the sun. The next day, an Inca procession heads for the fortress of Sacsayhuaman where Manco attempted to defeat the conquistadors.

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The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming (Harvest/HBJ Book, 2003); The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie (Simon & Schuster, 2007)


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