Sacsayhuaman: the mysteries of the ancient Peruvian architects

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Andrey Zhukov, Candidate of Historical Sciences

In the north-western suburb of the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco, there’s a steep hill floating up above the ancient city. It has the name of Sacsayhuaman. In the language of Quechua – the language that was spoken by the patrials of the Empire in the ancient times – this means “a satiated hawk”. This language is still widely used by 12 million of the citizens of the South America.

At the top of this hill there is one of the greatest monuments of the ancient Peruvian architecture. In 1983 Sacsayhuaman (as well as the whole city of Cusco) was included into the UNESCO World Heritage List. The central part of this archaeological monument is represented by the three zigzag walls located one after another, fringing the slope of the hill. The length of each of the walls reaches 350 m. Their height varies from 4 to 5 meters (for the bottom wall) and up to 3 meters (for the top wall). Each of them has more than 20 prominent «bastions», which add to the zigzag shape of the walls. Each of the walls has one or two passages to the next level. The walls are compiled of the large, thoroughly processed blocks of the so-called grey Yucay limestone. The lower wall consists of the largest blocks which have the height of 2-3 meters and the weight of dozens of tons. The weight of the biggest block amounts to 360 tons, while its height is 8,4 meters. The blocks have a different shape, but despite this they are fit together with unbelievable precision. It’s impossible to squeeze even the knife’s blade between them. The walls are made without any mortar, but with the help of a technology which is nowadays called the polygonal masonry. Many of the bulges are sophisticatedly carved so that to match the shape of the adjacent boulders. This way, the blocks are fit together just like the elements of a puzzle. Engineers believe, that this type of masonry provided the maximum stability and safety of the construction in such an earthquake endangered zone as the valley of Cusco.

Remarkable is the fact that the blocks of the prominent bastions are rounded. That means that for the ancient developers it was not a problem to trim the facets of the 3-4 meters’ high monoliths just for rendering them the rounded shape. In addition, the whole surface of the blocks was thoroughly polished yet in the ancient times. Nowadays, of course, the signs of erosion are very much evident at all of the stones.

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At the top of the hill there remained the remnants of the Inca buildings, including the foundation of the three towers. The main tower consisted of the 5 levels and had the multiple premises. The towers were made of the smaller hewn blocks which were a pale comparison to the gigantic monoliths of the lower walls.

According to the historic, which survived until our times in the Spanish chronicles, the construction of Sacsayhuaman was started by the great Inca Emperor and conqueror Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438 – 1471), and continued during the rein of his successors all the way until the start of the civil wars in the Empire in 1528. In fiction books Sacsayhuaman is usually referred to as a fortress or a citadel. Indeed, its cyclopic walls evoke the impression of indestructible might. However, Sacsayhuaman was not in fact a fortress. From the Spanish sources there come the information that it was only once that the hill was subjected to assualt.

Having conquered Cusco in 1534, the Spanish conquistadors have enthroned Manco Inca Yupanqui, the son of the last great Inca Huayna Capac. However, it is already in 1536 that Manco Inca raised a revolt against the Spanish conquistadors. In May of that year a huge army of Inca (as of the chroniclers' data, it counted between 100 and 200 thousand people) put Cusco under the siege. The Indians took possession of the Sacsayhuaman hill and from its top began to bombard the city, where the Spaniards have settled, with the fire shells. So that to avoid a disastrous defeat, the conquistadors attempted with a counterattack of the hill and on day they succeeded and seized it. They managed to win due to application of the assault ladder during a night raid. And there’s nothing unexpected or unusual in such a result of the fight, because for the soldiers who have already had an experience of assaulting the European castles, there was no problem with conquering the 5-6 meters walls of Sacsayhuaman.

In other words, this sole episode of the military action in Sacsayhuaman evidently demonstrates that this grandiose construction has never been a fortress in fact. Even more – some of the Spanish chroniclers noted that Sacsayhuaman was in first place a tremendous temple complex, the True House of the Sun (as some chroniclers used to call it) to enter into which was the right enjoyed solely by the Incas. Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine the architecture of the Inca Sacsayhuaman. The chroniclers did not leave enough of the detailed descriptions, while after the suppression of the mutiny of 1536 the Spaniards began proactive diassembling of the complex. The perfectly processed stone blocks of Sacsayhuaman were used for the construction of Cathedrals and residential buildings of the central part of colonial Cusco.

Centuries later the religious tradition transformed into a theater show. Nowadays annually on July 24 in Sacsayhuaman they celebrate the Inti Raymi (the festival of Sun) – the annual celebration of the winter solstice  which attracts thousands of tourists.

However, the purpose of the megalithic wall of Sacsayhuaman is not the only mystery left to us by the ancient architects. The construction technology remains to be a mystery as well. It is just 50 years ago that the modern science, due to the input of the American researchers, adopted the thesis that all of the known masonry techniques at the Inca monuments pertained to Incas. Although earlier many of the researchers believed that the cyclopean stone constructions must have been erected by a rather developed ancient culture which existed there long before the accession of Inca.

Indeed, according to the present day perceptions, Incas came to the valley of Cusco and found their capital there around 1200 BC. However, this fertile territory was densely inhabited yet before their arrival. The archaeological research, including that conducted at the territory of Sacsayhuaman, confirm this idea. The artefacts that were found at this territory signify of the existence of earlier cultures, which existed there centuries before the arrival of Incas. Even more, the Incan Empire, that spread its power over the majority of the Western part of South America, lasted in fact for only less than 1 century. Until the succession of Inca Pachacuti Yupanqui to the throne (1438 – 1471) the Kingdom of Cusco was one of the many formations in Andes, by far not the largest one. And even until then the Inca had to survive engaging themselves into the constant wars with their closest neighbours.

It is hard to imagine how the ancient Peruvians, with the help of the most simple tools only, managed to erect such a magnificent building made of the monolithic stone blocks weighing dozens of tons each. The full scope of work assumed stone-cutting works in the mines, stone delivery to the sites (for rather long distances by the way), treatment of stones at the site and, finally, the masonry. Sacsayhuaman is the most sublime, but not the only existing monument of the similar cyclopean construction. In the so-called “Tsar valley”, where Cusco is located, there survived until our times also other monuments which comprise large megalithic constructions – Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, etc. Some of them are located on the high mountain peaks and where it is not very easy to climb to, while transporting the several dozen stone blocks onto those steep slopes is a mission close to impossible even in the present conditions.

One of the most famous Spanish chroniclers, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, in his “Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas»” described the following incident. One of the Incan kings decided to deliver to one of the “tired stones” to the place of the next construction site. The “tired stones” – this is how the Inca called the large-tonnage processed monoliths which were not yet installed into the constructions, but were laying close to them waiting for their turn. One can find such blocks at the foot of Ollantaytambo nowadays. So, for this mission the king appointed 20 000 Indians to drag that stone with the help of ropes. At some place the stone fell down off the cliff and squashed 3 000 people. Naturally, one should not put too much emphasis on the specific number of people involved into that operation, since the ancient chroniclers used to exaggerate these figures. The major question concerns another domain: according to this evidence, Incas were not only incapable of to construct such tremendous buildings, but they couldn’t even transport such blocks. Even more, in this source it is stated clearly that in the times of Incas these construction already existed and were already prone to major damage. Then who and when was capable of constructing such monuments? The modern science has no information about any civilizations existing on this territory before Inca and which would be more advanced then Inca. A number of researchers, usually not related to the academic circles, believe that this was created by some ancient “megalithic civilization”, while Incas, who were the last to come to this region, simply acquired the ancient legacy and made use of the construction experience of the predecessors.

This hypothesis is also supported by other archaeological facts which deal, in first place, with the technology of stone treatment in the ancient times. At the foot of the tremendous walls of Sacsayhuaman there stretched a vast square. In the ancient times it was completely filled in with the various temples and residential buildings which were later disassembled by the Spaniards. From the opposite side (opposite to the walls of Sacsayhuaman) the square is bound by a rock crest Hill Suchuno. It’s a dome-like diorite formation (magmatic rock formation), who’s surface reminds of the shell of a scallop available in plenty at any seaside beach. At the different slopes of this hill, in a very solid formation there are cut the multiple footsteps and niches. The quality of the performed work is so high that it’s impossible to imagine that this was done by the stone or bronze tools. In addition, there exist no justified hypotheses regarding the purpose of such architectural constructions. For example, the so-called “throne of the Inca” – two layers of footsteps at the Eastern slope of the hill Suchuno – possesses the smoothly polished facets intersecting strictly perpendicularly which have basically not suffered any damages throughout all of the centuries (or even millenniums) of their existence. It’s worth highlighting that the solidity of diorite is higher than that of the basalt and it requires very labor-intensive processing.

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During one of the trips to Sacsayhuaman, at the Eastern slope of the hill we have discovered the strange saw cut traces in the diorite rock. Along the edge of a crack that appeared as a result of a split of a large piece of formation, we saw the saw cut traces left by an unknown instrument. The cut was 1-2 centimetres deep and several meters long. For the modern man such trace would be the sign of a disk (!) saw. But it’s impossible to assume, that the ancient Peruvian constructors were using such tools. Neither one can admit that these are the tracks of the modern-times restorers. Judging by the traces, the diameter of this saw must have been not less than 1,5 meters!

In 2003 a Spanish archaeologist Anselm Pi Ramba discovered an underground tunnel connecting Sacsayhuaman with he center of Cusco. The tunnel was laid at the depth of around 100 meters under the ground and had the length of about 2 km. Garcilaso de la Vega mentioned about an underground city which was the capital of the Incan Empire and which consisted of a labyrinth of galleries, underground temples and depositaries. During the disassembling of the Sacsayhuman constructions  the Spaniards also dismantled the walls of the underground tunnels which they were able to reach and which were coated with the stone blocks. It is still in the middle of the previous century that the discoveries of the various entrances into this underground city took place. Several enthusiasts, who dared to penetrate inside, got lost. After that accident all of the known entrances were bricked up upon the order of the authorities. The majority of the researchers departed for such expeditions in search of the mythical treasures of the Inca, which according to the rumors that originated yet in the times of Conquista, were hidden in the underground tunnels of Cusco.

Yet, these are not all the mysteries which were gifted to us by the cryptic architects of the ancient Peru.

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