Qosqo (“navel” or “center”) in southern central Peru was once the ancient capital of the Inkan Empire. Continuously occupied for three millennia, the oldest living city in the Americas perches 11,150 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Strategically located, Qosqo reached out to the entire Tahuantinsuyu (Land of the Four Quarters) by means of an extensive road network. In the days of its glory, the city boasted about 100,000 houses and somewhere between 225,000 and 300,000 citizens, many of whom lived in the neighboring farmland. The population compares with modern Rochester. Jersey City, or Anaheim. It was remarkable for its physical planning, its social organization, and the gold-festooned buildings of massive masonry that adorned it.
Farmers and herdsmen of the Marcavalle culture established permanent settlements in the Qosqo Valley around 1000 b.c. The Chanapata followed 200 years later, and successive groups—Qotakallis, Sawasias, Antasayas, and Wallas—also occupied the site for about six centuries from a.d. 600. There is a tradition that Inkan Qosqo was founded some time in the eleventh or twelfth century by the legendary king Manco Cápac. What is clear is that under the ninth ruler, Pachacútec (reigned 1438–1463), it became a thriving urban center and the hub of the far-flung empire’s religious and administrative life.
Its ascendancy lasted until 1533, when Pizarro’s conquistadors entered the city. The invaders corrupted its name to Cuzco—meaning “hypocrite” or “humpback.” To further diminish its power, within two years the Spanish established Lima as the new capital of Peru. In 1536 Manko Inka led his armies against them, and a protracted bloody war followed. But within forty years, the last emperor, Tupaq Amaru I, was defeated, captured, and beheaded in Qosqo.
The plan of Qosqo, like that of all Inkan cities, had several determinants. First was the cosmology of the builders, who framed it within imaginary lines governed by Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus and Aukis (spirits of the mountains and valleys). Second, creating a balance, was the pragmatism of an agrarian people who had a habit of optimum land use (so that even city streets were narrow). Third, formal rules of “symmetry, opposition, repetition and subordination” constrained relationships between elements of the urban design. Basically, Qosqo comprised two parts: the hawan (upper sector) to the north and the less important uran (lower sector) to the south. The second division, into four, reflected the Tahuantinsuyu, and twelve neighborhoods were created by dividing each of the four into thirds. Each neighborhood was again divided into three. Tradition attributes the city plan to Pachacútec, and there is some evidence to support a second tradition that the central part of his capital was based upon the shape of a puma (considered sacred by the Inka) crouching over the Saphi River. That stream was diverted through a paved canal crossing Qosqo’s central plaza—in every way the city’s heart.
Urban life was focused on the plaza. The great open space, paved with flagstones, was divided into two by the Saphi Canal, one part providing the setting for the Inkas’ principal, rituals and ceremonies. That was surrounded by the most Important buildings, including the sprawling, low palaces of the rulers and their extended families. Built of dressed stone, or at least stone faced, many were brightly painted; some had marble gates. The other part of the square was for public gatherings and celebrations. Near its center stood a platform (Usnu) from which the emperor and other dignitaries could speak to the people. Among Pachacútec’s improvements to city center were the Coricancha (a courtyard once covered in gold) and the Temple of the Sun, also encrusted, with gold plates and flanked by the trappings of the priesthood: cloisters, dormitories, gardens, and terraces, all “sparkling with gold.” What was beauty to the Inkas was merely wealth to the rapacious Spaniards and therefore quickly plundered after 1533.
Within the context of public buildings, something must be said of the Inkas’ superlative stonemasonry skills. Like the Spaniards, we marvel at the enormous granite or andesite boulders—some were almost 30 feet (9 meters) high—weighing hundreds of tons, that were transported great distances from quarries and without the benefit of the wheel. They were carved and dressed, for the most part, with stone chisels, although there is evidence of some bronze tools being used. Whatever the case, the bond known as Imperial Inkan masonry—medium-size stones laid in regular horizontal rows on very thin clay beds—was dressed with such accuracy that it was difficult to see the joints or slip even a knife blade between them.
From Qosqo’s central plaza, four main streets led to the high roads to the Four Quarters and formed the base of the divisional structure already described. Long, narrow, straight streets, all paved with cobbles of Rumiqolqa basalt, followed a regular, right-angled grid. Along the streets, covered channels carried a clean water supply. In contrast to the carefully dressed stone of the palaces, houses on the perimeter of Qosqo were built of random rubble or mud brick (adobe) and lined with painted clay stucco. Their steeply pitched, timber-framed roofs were skillfully thatched with ichu, the local wild grass.
Following a series of abortive uprisings between 1780 and 1815, Peru was finally emancipated from Spanish colonial rule in 1821. In the meantime, because of the local dialect, the Spanish name for the city had been changed to Cusco. The Inkan metropolis had been overlaid by three centuries of colonial architecture. Nevertheless, in 1933 Cusco was recognized as the “Archaeological Capital of South America,” and fifty years later it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. By the late twentieth century, a strong nationalistic movement pressed for reversion to the original name, and in 1990 the municipality officially adopted “Qosqo” and the 1993 Peruvian Constitution declared it to be the Historic Capital of the country.