One of the most impressive pre-Columbian ruins in Peru is Sacsayhuaman (SACK-say-wuh-MON). This massive structure overlooks Cusco from the north and, according to some sources, is the largest megalithic project ever completed in the western hemisphere. Many historians believe it was built as an Inca fortress or ceremonial center, but its size and grandeur have stimulated other, less orthodox explanations, as well. Something everyone can agree upon is that Sacsayhuaman has astounded generations of visitors since the conquistadors arrived 500 years ago. Today, it is a must-see for any visitor to Cusco who is interested in history, architecture, and ancient mysteries.
Supposing Sacsayhuaman was designed as a fortress, its builders could hardly have chosen a more strategic location. Situated 1000 feet above Cusco – and more than two miles above sea level – Sacsayhuaman would have been a challenging objective for attacking forces. On its three sides are steep slopes covered in thick vegetation. Breathing hard from my 30-minute climb to the site, I couldn’t help thinking these factors would work to the advantage of anyone defending the stronghold. Moreover, its summit offers a commanding view of the valley. When I reached its top, looking down at the Cusco, I could clearly make out the Plaza de Armas at the city’s center, as well as mountaintops many miles away.
(Above) The path to Sacsayhuaman from Cusco (looking south).
(Below) View of Cusco from top of Sacsayhuaman (looking south).
But was Sacsayhuaman really built as a fortress? Archaeologists continue to debate this question. The only known military conflict there was fought between the conquistadors and Manco Inca’s insurgent forces. In 1536, just a few years after the Spaniards arrived in Cusco, they found themselves surrounded by the rebellious leader and his army of 200,000 indigenous warriors. In an attempt to break the siege, Juan Pizarro (Francisco’s brother) led a band of 50 horsemen against the Inca contingent stationed at Sacsayhuaman. After several assaults, the Spaniards were successful. Juan was fatally wounded during the clash, but the victory proved a turning point in the siege and, ultimately, the fate of Peru.
Notwithstanding its strategic role during the 1536 conflict, Sacsayhuaman may have been built and primarily used as a ceremonial center. Construction is thought to have begun as early as 900 A.D., possibly at the direction of the Killke culture. The bulk of the project, however, may have been accomplished by the ninth Sapa Inca, Pachacutec (“he who overturns space and time”) during his mid-1400s reign. Pachacutec must have been an extraordinary visionary and administrator, for he is also credited with building Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, the Coricancha (Cusco’s “Temple of the Sun”), and many other large-scale Inca constructions. According to legend, he rebuilt Cusco in the shape of a puma, and placed Sacsayhuaman at its head (perhaps the zig-zagging terraced walls form its teeth).
(Above) Sacsayhuaman's zig-zagging (crenelated) walls.
Archaeologists have divided Sacsayhuaman into three sectors. Along the north is a large circular structure that resembles a gladiatorial arena and contains a monolithic carving known as the “Throne of the Inca.” This entire area may have served as a ceremonial center, and perhaps a shrine along an Inca ceque line. Early chroniclers referred to this site as the “Royal House of the Sun.” Just below this hill stretches a wide grassy plaza, which possibly hosted battle reenactments. To the southwest, overlooking Cusco, lies the third sector – formed of three terraces of zig-zagging walls. In 1536, a large structure stood atop these walls, which may have included two or three large towers. Today, only the foundations of circular and radial stone walls remain; however, according to the conquistadors, the stronghold was once large enough to house 5000 men.
(Above) The plaza of Sacsayhuaman (looking south), perhaps usedby the Inca for ceremonial battle reenactments.
(Below) Ruins of the structure that once sat atop the zig-zagging walls. Two large towers may have stood here.
The question of how Sacsayhuaman was built remains a mystery. The Inca are not believed to have used the wheel. Nor did they possess large work animals (such as the horse or ox) or iron tools. Therefore, archaeologists assume that huge numbers of workers were employed (as many as 20,000 per day, working continuously for 20 years). After mining the Yucay limestone (from quarries as far as 20 miles away), the large stones may have been rolled over logs or dragged atop sledges. Once onsite, the stones could have been pounded into shape using bronze or quartzite hammers. Finally, they would have been muscled up dirt ramps and set in place using ropes and wooden levers. Several indentions and protrusions can be seen in the stones; they may have aided the construction process.
Whatever method was employed, the final product is remarkable in its size, beauty, intricacy, and durability. Many of the boulders that form the terraced walls are estimated to weigh as much as 300 tons (600,000 pounds), yet they are assembled with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. Some have been cut into as many as 36 sides. As with other pre-Columbian structures found in Cusco (and throughout the Inca empire), the stonework of Sacsayhuaman features a beautiful polygonal style of masonry that has been attributed to the Incas; however, some archaeologists theorize it may have been influenced by earlier civilizations, and created by workers imported from Lake Titicaca. The stones fit together so tightly (and without mortar) that not even a knife can be inserted into their joints. According to some claims, the walls “dance” (rather than crumble) during earthquakes.
(Above and below) The polygonal style of megalithic masonry features huge
limestone blocks assembled with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle.
(Above) The largest stones at Sacsayhuaman have been estimated to weigh as much as 300 tons (600,000 pounds).
Today, Sacsayhuaman looks very different than it did in Juan Pizarro’s time. After their victory, the Spaniards razed whatever they could in their efforts to erase all symbols of the previous political and religious regime. After pillaging the site for valuables, they hauled off whatever stones they could carry to feed the construction of new buildings such as the cathedral. Only the monolithic walls of Sacsayhuaman remain today, and nothing short of a nuclear blast is likely to displace them anytime soon.
Outside the academic community are many “nonconformist” archaeologists who advance various unconventional ideas about how and why Sacsayhuaman was built. According to them, the fortress may have been constructed by pre-Inca societies, visitors from overseas, giants, or even aliens. These skeptics of conventional theories point to the size of the stones at Sacsayhuaman, their precise methods of precision, and the stone-age technology known to the Incas – and insist that such a project would have been impossible in the 1400s. They also mention the underground tunnels that were described by early chroniclers, and which have only recently been rediscovered by archaeologists – what were these used for? Moreover, in the caves northeast of Sacsayhuaman, there are many other strange features that have yet to be explained (such as lines, carvings, passageways, “hieroglyphics,” what looks like “softened” or “melted”limestone, and evidence of cataclysmic disruptions). Though scoffed at by professional archaeologists, these unconventional theories pose intriguing questions that have yet to be convincingly answered.
How did a society with stone-age technology build the largest megalithic structure in the western hemisphere? How did they finish it in less than 100 years – and, most intriguingly, what purpose did the site serve? Like much of Peru’s pre-Columbian history, Sacsayhuaman remains a mystery for future archeologists to unravel.
Originally published 01/06/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.