The Inca capital of Cusco is surrounded by a ring of high mountains. Nestled into a small depression in the inaccessible peaks of the Andes, this remote high altitude city is even today surrounded by Inca structures, ruins, and sacred sites.
Perhaps the largest and the most prominent of these to any visitor to Cusco, in southern Peru, is the huge fortress-temple complex located on the northern outskirts of the city, known as Sacsayhuaman. The complex is believed to have been built during the 15th century by the Inca, especially under the leadership of the Pachacuti, the ninth Inca king, although the site was used much earlier than this.
Sacsayhuaman means the “place where the hawk is satiated” and this matches the site, with the high outcrops on which the structure is built being perfect for soaring birds. And it is clear that the site was very important to the Inca, with over 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) being covered in carefully built stonework, all surrounded by a curtain wall containing truly massive dressed stone blocks.
The complex is used even today in order to perform a number of Inca-inspired ceremonies. However it is unclear what the original structure was for. It is clearly well defensible, but the large central courtyard suggests it was more than just military in its purpose.
An Astonishing Feat of Construction
The fortress was believed to be one of the largest structures that the Incas built, positioned on a rocky promontory atop the city of Cusco. Although the site had been previously used, there is no doubt that the Inca, using their advanced stone working techniques, built the massive palace found there today.
The construction is known to have begun during the reign of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui in the mid of 15th century AD. The initial structures were made with the use of clay and mud only. After that, they were replaced by magnificent stonework.
Nearly 20,000 laborers were employed to complete the massive project. About 4,000 people were involved in the quarrying activities, while 6,000 people made ropes to move the stone blocks. The remaining half dug trenches and laid the foundations. The walls were constructed in vertical sections and contained huge blocks of dressed stone.
The Incas were known as master stonemasons. They quarried huge blocks and then shaped them with the use of wooden, bronze and stone tools. Blocks were moved with the use of logs, ropes, levers, earthen ramps, as well as poles. The setting and cutting of the blocks were quite precise, the structures being placed without the use of mortar.
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The largest and most prominent structures form the vast series of curtain walls. The wall is built in a zigzag design with three towers along their length named Paucamarca, Muyucmarca, and Sallaqmarca. With the walls in place and an abundant water supply, Sacsayhuaman could act as a formidable fortress.
Because of the design of the stonework, interlocking without mortar and with rounded corners, Sacsayhuman is also surprisingly earthquake proof. There have been several large earthquakes in more recent history which have damaged Cusco but Sacsayhuaman has been left undamaged.
Entry to the complex interior is through one of three trapezoidal doors (the Inca had also not discovered the arch) located in the central and middle parts of the bastions. The doors also had unique names, being called Wiracochapunku, Ajawanapunku, and T’iopunku.
At the heart of the complex was the Inca throne, another stone structure in the form of a bench or seat, perfectly carved and polished. On the throne, the Inca preside over ceremonies, parties, as well as sacrifices.
The tunnels, also known as Chicana, are underground caves that are present in Sacsayhuaman. There are two tunnels in Sacsayhuaman. The smallest tunnel measures about 15 meters (50 feet) and offers little more than a distraction for visitors.
On the other hand, the largest tunnel is situated towards the north of the Sacsayhuaman complex. According to legends, many people have made an attempt to find the largest tunnel’s end. However, they have not been successful. Some believe that this tunnel once led to the Temple of the Sun, known as “Coricancha”, another sacred Inca site in Cusco.
Sacsayhuaman also contained an Inca bath complex, situated towards the northeast of the fortress. It is believed that this zone was used by the Inca king to rest, and was also used for worshipping the water.
Outside the structures, a large part of Sacsayhuaman was given over to a natural park on the hillside. With these areas given over to pleasure, it seems clear that the structure cannot be solely a fortress. But with the huge defenses it is also clear that this is not simply some palace. What was it for?
The Function of the Sacsayhuaman
The answer might be found in changing priorities within the Inca empire. On completion of Sacsayhuaman, it was said that the fortress had a capacity for about 1,000 warriors. However, the Incas did not require the fortress as Cusco was under no threat of invasion.
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It is possible then that Sacsayhuaman was repurposed and found another use. Some historians stated that Sacsayhuaman could have been used as a sanctuary, due to the presence of several temples in the complex.
Among all the temples present in the complex, one that stands out is the one dedicated to Illapa, an Inca god. This would also have been the focal point for Inca ceremonies, perhaps a processional destination from the city below.
There is also evidence that proves Sacsayhuaman was used as a deposit. It is known that the Incas used to keep their ceramics, food, precious metal tools, valuable textiles, weapons, and armors in the enclosure.
It was common Inca practice to keep storehouses in easily seen positions above settlements, to remind the population that they were being cared for. Could Sacsayhuaman, at least in part, be a grand version of this, a statement to the success of the Inca empire in providing for the people of Cusco?
There are several parallels with that other stunning Inca enigma. Mach Picchu. The high position, the large open spaces and easily defended core are all reminiscent of the nearby citadel. But Sacsayhuaman is far more visible and less private than Machu Picchu, and far larger.
However much of the beautiful stonework of the Inca was lost after the Spanish invasion, and the collapse of their empire. The majority of the stones of Sacsayhuaman were used in the post-colonial buildings in the city below.
After taking what they needed, the Spanish covered the remaining ruins with earth to prevent them from being used by the rebel Inca forces. The site remained undiscovered until the excavations in 1934.
Today, the ruins are used as a site for hosting the annual Inca reenactment festival, the Inti Raymi, that is held during the winter solstice. At the festival, one can witness traditional music and dance performances. Sadly though, we can only guess at whether this was the intention for the original Sacsayhuaman.
Top Image: The enormous Sacsayhuaman complex. Source: MyriamB / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri