Beyond the Range
The Coricancha: Part 4
This is the final blog post (and video) about the Coricancha, or “Great Enclosure,” located in Cusco, Peru. Here are the links to Part 1 and Parts 2 and 3.
My final hours at the Coricancha were spent investigating the many trapezoidal doorways and niches, as well as the mysterious enclosures located on the eastern and western sides of the complex. I also investigated the instructive model that site curators constructed to theorize what the entire structure may have looked like before the Spaniards attacked it with their crowbars. Next, I ventured outside to investigate the top of the distinctive, curved wall on the Coricancha’s exterior, paying particular attention to the perplexing square- and rectangle-shaped protrusions on the stones. My visit concluded with an examination of two modern paintings – of the Milky Way and invisible “ceque” lines – on display in an open-aired hallway, and which emphasize this site’s astrological and religious function.
In previous posts and videos, I spend a significant amount of time discussing the trapezoid shape used at the Coricancha and throughout pre-Spanish architecture;
I won’t belay those points here. Suffice it to say that I am intrigued by the reason the Incas chose to use the trapezoid. Was it selected for its structural stability (since the Inca are not known to have used the arch)? Did it serve as an imperial symbol (such as a flag or coat of arms)? Or did the shape have another meaning?
(Above) The Coricancha contains numerous trapezoidal doorways, niches, and windows. Why did the Incas use this shape?
As I continued my tour, I was stunned not only by the Coricancha’s beautiful and precise stonework, but how purposeful its design and alignments seemed to be. Many archaeologists believe this place was created and used to worship the cosmos, and it seems pretty clear that this is true.
On the southeastern side of the complex sits a glass-encased model of how the original Coricancha may have looked. As you can see in the images below, the outer walls may have collectively formed an “usnu,” or Inca ceremonial platform. Atop this usnu were probably several enclosures that served as temples for different gods or cosmic entities. Some of these enclosures still exist. For example, the temple on the west was probably dedicated to “Inti” (the sun god), while temples to the moon, thunder, lightning, and rainbows may have lined the eastern side. On the other hand, the large room that occupies the northeastern side of the complex in the model is gone – but this may have once served as the main temple.
(Above) A model on display shows how the Coricancha may have originally looked. Note the distinctive curved wall on the bottom-left.
(Below) Layout of the Coricancha. Arrow indicates approximate angle of the June (winter) solstice sun. (Base floor plan from "Monuments of the Incas," pg. 73, by John Hemming and Edward Ranney; annotation by the author.)
(Above) Model of the Coricancha, as viewed from the direction of the sun on the June (winter) solstice. From this angle, the sun would appear to shine directly through the center door of the temple of Inti (the sun god).
Even the placement of the temples, as well as their doorways and niches, suggests a cosmic focus. Many of these features may have aligned with events such as solstices, equinoxes, or zeniths. In Cusco, the azimuth of the June equinox is approximately 62-65 degrees. By tracing this path of light over a floorplan of the Coricancha, it seems to me that the sun’s rays during June solstice seem to shine directly through the door of the sun temple, where they may have once illuminated golden sheets or statues within. There’s no doubt that the June solstice was extremely significant to the Incas; one of their largest celebrations, “Inti Raymi,” was held during this time (the last having been conducted in 1535). Around the world, the winter solstice has historically represented being spiritually reborn. On this day, the sun shines the least amount, thereby representing a soul born in darkness. As the sun grows in strength and duration over the next six months, the soul journeys from darkness to enlightenment. On a more practical level, the June solstice would have marked the return of the sun and warmer weather, and the approach of the Incas’ planting season. In any case, the Church of Santo Domingo that stands atop the Inca ruins obstructs the sunlight today, which makes confirming these alignments more difficult.
(Above) The Coricancha's courtyard. Cosmic occasions were probably observed by the Inca as "horizon events" that were indicated by their alignment with distant mountain ridges. After the Spaniards built the Church of Santo Domingo atop the Coricancha's foundation, these horizon events (and their alignment with the doors, windows, and niches of the Coricancha) were no longer visible from the temple's interior courtyard.
My next destination was the distinctive curved wall on the western exterior of the Coricancha. A narrow passage extends along the top of the wall, terminating at a peculiar trapezoid window. The stonework surrounding the window is peppered with assorted protrusions, which are are mostly square- and rectangle-shaped. This style seems different from the rounded “knobs” found on many Inca blocks, and which have been theorized by archaeologists to have aided in leveraging the stones. Were the exquisitely shaped protrusions found atop the curved wall used as “tie-downs” for a canopy? Did they form shadows that mark the passage of the sun? Were sacred objects set on them during ceremonies?
(Above) Atop the curved wall that forms the northwestern exterior of the Coricancha. Note the remains of a trapezoidal window, as well as the various square- and rectangle-shaped protrusions.
Returning inside, my attention was drawn to two wall-sized paintings. These are on display in an open-air hallway on the western side of the complex. To be clear, these were created by artists in recent years and are not part of the original Coricancha. Nevertheless, they both capture visual concepts that were central to the Incas belief systems. The first shows the Milky Way, which the Inca considered to be the celestial counterpart of the Urubamba River. It was thought that constellations (such as Mach’acuay, a zig-zagging dark cloud constellation that resembles a serpent) had their counterparts on earth, as well as influence over earthly events. Many historians suggest these constellations may have been studied for the practical value of predicting weather or climatic events.
(Above) Painting of the Milky Way that resides in the open-air hallway on the western side of the complex.
(Below) Nearby painting of the Inca "ceque" system.
Moving on to the next painting, I studied the system of invisible lines that radiate outwards from Cusco, beginning here at the Coricancha. Known as ceques, these 42 lines were dotted with some 328 huacas, or shrines, that were tended by various kin groups. The ceque system is not well understood today. Perhaps its design was to impart a centripetal political force on the peoples surrounding Cusco, pulling their loyalty to their Inca rulers. Human sacrifices may have walked these lines during ceremonies such as Inti Raymi. Maybe the ceques were astronomical sight lines that were marked out using land features, which in turn became sacred places to be tended and worshipped. Do the ceques lines and their associated huacas serve as a map of the constellations? Again, no one knows – or at least no agrees. As with many other aspects of Inca history, the Coricancha is a mystery waiting to be solved.
Originally published 4/25/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.