Beyond the Range
The Coricancha: Part 1
One of my favorite places to visit during my time in Cusco, Peru, was the ruins of the Coricancha. Five hundred years ago, this temple was the most important huaca – or sacred place – of the entire Inca empire. In this first of several blog posts and (embedded) video segments, we’ll take a look at the Coricancha’s distinctive exterior, including the exquisite masonry of the curved western-facing wall and the zig-zagging canals that it overlooks. In following segments, I’ll lead you on a tour through the Coricancha’s courtyard, impressive halls, chambers, and trapezoidal doorways – pointing out the features I found most interesting or mysterious.
The Coricancha resides just a couple blocks south of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and is an easy and charming walk from the main square. Most historians believe it was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacutec, the ninth and “greatest” Sapa Inca. However, construction may have started a century earlier under the semi-mythical first king, Manco Inca. Some Inca-ologists assert the temple is actually much older, having been erected by a previous civilization hundreds or even thousands of years before the Inca arrived in the Cusco Valley. In any case, very little of the original structure remains, and what does is largely concealed by the church of Santo Domingo, which was built upon the site shortly after the Spaniards arrived in 1533.
(Above) Looking east from El Avenida de Sol. Remnants of the original Inca structure
can be seen as the rectangular "ashlar" style of masonry beneath the church of
Santo Domingo. The courtyard and zig-zagging canals also seem to be pre-Spanish.
During Inca times, the Coricancha (or “Golden Enclosure”) was thought to be an axis mundi – a “world tree” or connection between the earth and the heavens. As such, many celestial gods were worshipped here – primarily the Sun God (Inti), but also the moon goddess (Quilla), creator god (Wiracocha), gods of thunder and rainbows, the Milky Way, prime constellation (Pleiades), and planet Venus. The temple seems to have been an observatory for celestial events like solstices, equinoxes, and eclipses. These observations likely enabled calendrical measurements, possibly in conjunction with the numerous trapezoidal windows and niches in the temple’s walls (openings that may have captured the sun’s or moon’s rays on certain days of the year). The Inca maintained a 12-month calendar that was based on solar (rather than traditional lunar) phases. (I’ll expand on this in a future post.)
(Above) A closer look at the distinctive imperial, coursed or "ashlar" masonry in
the curved wall that faces west. What did the original Inca structure look like?
Another interesting feature associated with the Coricancha are the 42 ceques, or invisible lines, that radiate from the temple like spokes on a wheel. An estimated 328 huacas were situated along these lines, and included sacred sites like caves, waterfalls, mountains, towers, and stone carvings. The meanings of the ceques and their associated huacas are not well known today. Like the Coricancha, they may have aided calendrical measurements. Or, since responsibility for maintaining the huacas was assigned to local peoples, the ceques perhaps exerted a “centrifugal” political force that directed loyalty from surrounding regions towards the Cusco-based Incas.
(Above) Looking west from the Coricancha. Invisible lines known as "ceques" may
have extended from this temple to various "huacas" in outlying regions.
When the first Spaniards arrived, they described a temple covered in sheets of gold and silver (try to imagine how it must have glowed in the light of the sun or moon), which contained a huge collection of gem-encrusted statues and jars. The Coricancha may also have held the mummies of Inca kings and queens, living quarters for hundreds of priests, and sacred objects taken from conquered lands as hostages. Human sacrifices may have once been performed here, too; alternatively, the temple may have simply been the starting line for sacrificial ceremonies, from which human offerings began their walk along a ceque to a huaca for the “final event.”
(Above) When the Spaniards arrived, the Coricancha may have been filled with
gold and silver statues, including thousands of golden ears of corn or maize.
(Below, both pictures) The contrast of Inca and Spanish masonry
on the western side of the complex.
Our knowledge of the Coricancha is limited today. After pillaging its legendary treasures, the Spaniards requisitioned the temple stones to build their own church (echoing a much wider campaign by the conquistadors to eradicate all vestiges of the previous political and religious order). What we do know is based upon early accounts by the Spaniards and other indigenous chroniclers, as well as the efforts by modern archaeologists to explain what ruins still stand. Nowadays, all that remain of the Inca complex are the canals and distinctive rounded wall on the western side, as well as several beautiful imperial-style walls and doorways that adorn the church’s square piazza.
(Above) Looking southwest. Original(?) Inca stonework, including the megalithic style seen at places like Sacsayhuaman and Machu Picchu.
(Below) Hanging out in front of one of my favorite spots in Cusco.
In any case, the site is a must-see for visitors to Cusco, especially those interested in history, archeology, and ancient architecture. The church of Santo Domingo serves as a beautiful, 500-year-old wrapping paper for the ancient Inca-era gift within. Both deserve several hours to behold and enjoy.As you’ll see in this and follow-up videos, I would gladly have spent days investigating this amazing place.
Originally published 2/16/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.