Nick Dall

A brief history of Cusco

Posted by on July 2nd, 2013

Cusco is so much more than the gateway to Machu Picchu. It’s probably the most important historical city in South America, and its architecture includes Killke, Inca and Spanish constructions.

Before the Incas

Located in a valley, at an altitude of about 11 000 ft, Cusco is surrounded by mountains in the truest sense of the word. Although there is evidence of human occupation going back as far as 5000 BC, the oldest surviving construction of major significance is the fortress of Saksaywaman.

Saksaywaman is widely regarded as an Inca construction, but carbon dating reveals that the central sections of the walled complex were constructed by the Killke people during the 12th century AD. As has happened with other pre-Inca cultures, our knowledge of the Killke culture has been overshadowed by what came after them: the Incas were such prolific nation builders that much of what came before has either been lost, destroyed or ignored by historians.

Inca Rule (1438 – 1533)

Although the Inca civilisation arose in the early 13th century, their period of dominance coincided with the period when Cusco was their capital. It’s amazing enough that they were able to build Machu Picchu and the scores of other sites in the Cusco valley in only 95 years, but when you consider that their empire at one time included most of modern day Peru and Ecuador, significant chunks of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and even a small slice of Colombia, their achievements are even more mind-boggling.

Under Inca rule, Cusco was divided into four quarters, each of which served as the capital of the section of the empire which radiated from it. When Francisco Pizarro first visited Cusco he wrote to the king of Spain explaining that Cusco “is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain” but this still did not stop him and his troops from sacking the entire city when they conquered it.

Spanish rule (1536 – 1821)

Between 1533 and 1536, rule of the city passed back and forth between the Incas and the Spanish, but after 1536 it was firmly in Spanish hands. Under the Spanish, Cusco served as the center of Christian expansion in the Andes and also as a major source of raw materials (gold and silver) for Spain.

In 1543 Lima was declared capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which saw a decline in Cusco’s importance, but nevertheless the Spanish still built countless churches, monasteries and administrative buildings during their reign. Usually these were constructed on top of the gargantuan Inca foundations which they had been unable to remove when sacking the city. Cusco suffered huge earthquakes in both 1650 and 1950 which caused significant damage to these Spanish buildings, but the Inca foundations remained unharmed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Convent of Santo Domingo which was built on the foundations of the Incas’ holiest temple, Qorikancha, pictured above.

Republican rule (1821 – present)

Cusco remained an important provincial administrative center in independent Peru, although most of the architecture we admire comes from before this period. In 1983 Cusco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since the 1990s Cusco’s popularity as a tourist destination has boomed. It is now, without doubt, the most popular tourist destination in the country.


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