As with most empires, the foundation of the Inca empire is shrouded in myth. The best-known version is that the empire began around A.D. 1100, when Manco Cápac and Mama Oclla, children of the sun and the moon, arose from the waters of Lake Titicaca and searched the land for a place to found their kingdom.
When they reached the fertile valley of Cusco, Manco Cápac was able, for the first time, to plunge his golden staff into the ground. This was the divine sign that showed them where to found the Inca capital city, which was christened Q’osqo, or “navel of the world.”
The seeds of truth in this legend are that the Tiwanaku (A.D. 200–1000), from the south shores of Lake Titicaca, were the first advanced culture to reach the Cusco area. Around A.D. 700 an even more potent culture, the Huari (A.D. 700–1100 ) from Ayacucho, spread here and built aqueducts, the large city of Pikillacta, and probably, as some archaeologists believe, the first water temple at Pisac.
The Inca, sandwiched between these two advanced cultures, rose out of the vacuum created when both collapsed. The Inca combined the Tiwanaku stonework and farming techniques on one hand with the Huari highway system and mummy worship on the other. The result was a potent system of economic and political organization.
Little is known about Inca history, though it is believed Manco Cápac probably existed and was indeed the first Inca. There were 13 Inca emperors, though the empire for all practical purposes began with Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Inca leader and one of the younger sons of Inca Viracocha.
Around 1440 the Chancas, the tribe that toppled the Huari, had amassed a large army that was poised to overrun Cusco. Inca Viracocha fled, probably to his estate at Huchuy Cusco in the Sacred Valley, but Inca Yupanqui stayed on to defend Cusco. Of the ensuing battle, mestizo chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega reports that even the stones of Cusco rose up and became soldiers. Against overwhelming odds, Inca Yupanqui and a team of seasoned generals beat back the Chancas.
After the battle, Inca Yupanqui changed his name to Pachacútec (“shaker of the earth” in Quechua), took over Cusco from his disgraced father, and launched the Inca’s unprecedented period of expansion. Pachacútec created a vision of the Inca people as a people of power, ruled over by a class of elites who were allowed the privilege of chewing coca leaves and wearing large ear plugs. He used a stick-and-carrot strategy, learned from the Huari, of conquering territories peacefully by bearing down on them with overwhelmingly large armies on one hand, and by offering the rich benefits of being integrated into a well-functioning web of commerce on the other.
In the Cusco area, what is most obvious about Pachacútec is that he was a master builder. He fashioned the city of Cusco into the shape of a puma, a sacred animal admired for its grace and strength, with Sacsayhuamán as the head, the city as the body, and the Coricancha sun temple as the tail. He built a huge central plaza, which included both today’s Plaza de Armas and the Plaza Regocijo, and also somehow devised a way to move the stones to begin construction of Sacsayhuamán. He is credited for building nearly all of the other major Inca monuments in the area, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and probably even Machu Picchu. Pachacútec’s armies conquered the entire area between Cusco and Lake Titicaca and also spread north through the central highlands.
His son, Túpac Yupanqui, was less of a builder and even more of a warrior. He spent most of his life away from Cusco in long, brutal campaigns in northern Peru against the stubborn Chachapoyans. He dominated the entire coastline, including the Chimú empire based at Chan Chan, and pushed all the way to Quito, in present-day Ecuador.
His son, Huayna Cápac, the last Inca to rule over a unified empire, seemed to be ruling over a territory that had extended itself almost to the breaking point. Nevertheless he continued the campaign in the north, fathering a son named Atahualpa in Quito, and pushed the Inca empire to its last limits, up against what is now the Ecuador-Colombia border. After his death Atahualpa challenged Huáscar, the legitimate heir in Cusco, and a disastrous civil war broke out, killing thousands of Inca and badly damaging the empire’s infrastructure.
In the end, Atahualpa was victorious. He might have been able to unify the empire again if it were not for the fact that Francisco Pizarro and a small Spanish army had begun their march across Peru. Pizarro and his men took Atahualpa hostage in November 1532 and held him until an entire room was filled with gold, much of which was taken from Cusco and carried by llama trains to Cajamarca. Then the Spaniards murdered Atahualpa anyway and continued their march to Cusco.
To maintain stability, Pizarro needed to find a new Inca ruler, and he befriended Manco Inca, another son of Huayna Cápac in Cusco, who was grateful to Pizarro for having routed Atahualpa’s army of Quito-based Inca. Under the guise of liberators and with Manco Inca’s blessing, Pizarro and his men entered Cusco and took full and peaceful possession of the city in November 1533.
It didn’t take long, however, for Manco Inca to grow resentful. The Spaniards had sacked Cusco for all of its gold and silver in the first month, picking clean the gold-filled sun temple and even the sacred Inca mummies and melting everything into bars for shipping to Spain. They lived in the palaces of the former Inca emperors and forced Inca nobles to hand over their wives.
Manco Inca escaped from Cusco and by May 1536 had amassed an army estimated at 100,000–200,000 soldiers, who used slingshots to throw red-hot coals onto Cusco’s thatched roofs, burning their beloved city to the ground. Trapped, the Spaniards made a last-ditch effort against the Inca, who had occupied the fortress of Sacsayhuamán. During a battle that raged for more than a week, the Spaniards prevailed against overwhelming odds, causing Manco Inca to retreat to Ollantaytambo and then later to the jungle enclave of Vilcabamba. The Inca resisted for more than three decades until their last leader, Inca Túpac Amaru, was captured in the Amazon and executed in Cusco’s main square in 1573.
By this time, Cusco had already faded from prominence. After its gold was gone, Francisco Pizarro left for the coast and made Lima the capital of the new viceroyalty. More than two centuries later, an Indian who claimed Inca descent and called himself Túpac Amaru II would rally Inca fervor once again and launch another siege of Cusco. But the Spaniards quickly captured him and hung him in Cusco’s main square. His body was quartered and pieces of it were left in the squares of surrounding Inca villages as a warning for the future.
Cusco would have ended up another quiet Andean city like Cajamarca and Ayacucho were it not for Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911. That discovery sparked an international interest in Cusco, which flourished in the 1920s with a glittering café society and a generation of intellectuals that included photographer Martín Chambi. During the 1920s the train line was built past Machu Picchu that still carries travelers today.
A 1950 earthquake, the most severe in three centuries, destroyed the homes of 35,000 people in Cusco but had the unexpected benefit of clearing away colonial facades that had covered up Inca stonework for centuries. Much of the Inca stonework visible today around Cusco, including the long wall at Coricancha, was discovered thanks to the earthquake. Based on these ruins, and Cusco’s colonial architecture, Cusco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition