Beyond the Range
The Coricancha: Parts 2 and 3
This is the second in a series of blog posts and videos about the Coricancha, or “Great Enclosure,” located in Cusco, Peru. Read the first post here.
The Coricancha is one of those historical sites that allow you to truly appreciate a bygone era – not just by looking at old ruins or perusing informational plaques, but by literally feeling the spiritual energy of the past. When I visited, I spent my first half-hour in a blissful trance, overcome with wonder that I was really there – physically standing inside the Great Enclosure of the Incas. After a year of researching Peru’s history, I had often imagined how this visit would feel, but I never expected to have such an intense emotional response. The weather was perfect that day – clear and warm – and the afternoon sky seemed to make the Inca stones glow as if with their own energy. Strolling around the interior courtyard, I felt the details from my research begin to play out as a drama behind my eyes. At every turn, I almost expected to happen upon the ghost of an Inca priest or Spanish conquistador.
It’s helpful to have a vivid imagination when visiting the Coricancha today. While there’s still plenty to see, the site looks much different than it did 500 years ago. When the Spaniards arrived, they plundered the temple of its riches, requisitioned much of the ancient stonework for their own buildings, and constructed the church of Santo Domingo above the ruins. It wasn’t until centuries later, when an earthquake shook the church to the ground, that the surviving Inca walls were rediscovered. But even most of the conquistadors did not see the temple in its original glory. This honor belonged only to two Spanish scouts dispatched to Cusco by Francisco Pizarro with orders to confirm the existence of a legendary house of treasure.
These two Spaniards described a structure that was constructed with awe-inspiring exactness and beauty. Inside were temples dedicated to the sun god (Inti), moon goddess (Quilla), and gods of thunder and rainbows. A golden “punchao,” or statue of the sun idol, may have been kept in the courtyard. In the temple of Inti, on the western side of the complex, sunlight may have poured through trapezoidal windows to illuminate a massive gold sun disk, which then reflected this light throughout the temple interior. Some 700 sheets of hammered gold are said to have adorned the stone walls, along with various gems. On the eastern side of the complex, in the temple of Quilla, a disk made of silver may have radiated the light of the moon. Golden statues of animals, deities, and various other idols may have decorated the grounds, along with an entire field of golden corn.
(Above) Inca gold figurines, such as those which may have adorned the Coricancha. Image in the public domain.
The two Spaniards wasted little time looting the temple. They attacked it with crowbars, prying away the “sweat of the sun” before the wide eyes of astonished Incas. When the rest of the conquistadors arrived in Cusco, they joined in the plunder. Within a few months, more than 40-50,000 pounds of precious metals were collected and melted down, and either shipped to Spain or kept as personal wealth by Peru’s new administrators (of course, this amount pales in comparison to Peru’s current annual gold production of 200 tons). Today, only the architectural and cultural wealth remain – along with the enduring questions of why, when, and by whom this place was built.
Many archaeologists believe the Coricancha rests upon a foundation erected by the Killke culture, a people that inhabited the area from 900 to 1200 A.D. Inca-led construction activities may have begun with Manco Capac, the mythical “first Sapa Inca” who settled his people in the Cusco Valley in the early-1200s. Two hundred years later, the ninth Sapa Inca, Pachacutec (“He who overturns space and time”), likely rebuilt or expanded upon the Coricancha during his redesign of Cusco.
(Above) Pachacutec (the 9th Sapa Inca) worshipping the sun. Image in the public domain.
As the initial ecstasy of my visit to the Coricancha subsided, my attention was drawn to the inward-sloping walls of the Inca buildings, as well as their trapezoid-shaped openings. To be honest, I’ve never been completely satisfied with any of the various explanations regarding the meaning of the trapezoid shape. Many Inca experts assert that because the Incas did not use the arch, the trapezoid was the most “seismically sound” design available (earthquakes are an ever-present danger in Peru). Others explain that the trapezoid served as a symbol of Inca power (much like a flag or coat of arms). Perhaps the trapezoid was repeated in Inca architecture for its simple beauty. I have other theories, but for now this matter remains a mystery in my mind.
(Above) The author standing below some of the many trapezoid-shaped wall niches.
(Below) The trapezoid-shaped doors and inward-sloping walls of the Coricancha.
While there’s no consensus about the purpose for the trapezoid shape, everyone who visits the Coricancha will agree that its stonework is impressive. The complex was built in the Inca imperial style of rectangular “coursed” masonry, with precisely straight and tight-fitting joints. Incredibly, no mortar was used, yet the stones remain as tightly fit together as when they were laid. In fact, the Inca stonework has withstood several earthquakes over the past 500 years that crumbled Spanish edifices.
(Above) Impressive double-jamb doors that are found at sacred or politically significant Inca sites.
The Coricancha boasts several other impressive architectural features. Many of its trapezoidal windows are aligned so that a viewer can see through several temples at once. Visitors enter temples via “double-jamb” doorways (think of one door jamb set inside another), which signify the most important Inca buildings (this method is seen at sacred places throughout the empire, including Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo). I was surprised to discover one double-jamb doorway that includes a stone of 14 angles – a single, solid slab cut precisely to bend around and inside the temple entryway. This seems an even more impressive feat than the (much more famous) 12-angle stone found along Cusco’s Calle Hatunrumayoc.
All in all, the Coricancha was one of my favorite places to visit in Cusco. In the next blog/video, I’ll expand on the mysterious wall niches that line the temple interiors, and discuss their potential use as calendrical aids.
Originally published 3/14/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.