Peru Diary, Days 7 and 8…Cusco, Cusco, Cusco

I asked my father how he would describe Cusco and he said it was “like a dusty kaleidoscope of Inca and Spanish vulgarity.” Which doesn’t mean he didn’t like it, apparently. I really enjoyed it; the history of Peru is fascinating! He’s…not wrong, though. I found the historic parts of the city very charming, with lots of narrow cobblestone streets winding up the steep hills of the city, some of them dating back to Inca days. The old colonial houses are beautiful. The food was fantastic, especially the soups (sopa criolla, aji de gallina, and adobo cusqueno, I will see you all at my house next month). It was in Cusco, though, that I really got a sense of the systematic and callous, not to say evil, way in which the Spaniards went about dismantling Inca culture, so that the greatest city of the empire retains almost none of the character given it by its Inca kings. Gone are the palaces and temples that faced the current Plaza de Armas in Inca times, and in their places are churches built from their very stones. The Cathedral of Cusco is a gaudy monstrosity! Its style is Andean baroque, with enough gold leaf and silver to sink a galleon. Apparently, by building the church on an old Incan temple, the Spanish gave themselves a certain amount of religious power with the Incas, which allowed them to extort treasure from them under the threat of damnation. Funsies! Andean baroque is the sometimes-subversive result of Native artists being commissioned to paint and sculpt Christian works. The church has one redeeming quality: it is the home of this painting:

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That right there is the last supper, featuring a guinea pig. I also figured out that Black Jesus, who I’ve seen before (dressed in a VERY fancy wig in Aguas Calientes), is actually Our Lord of Earthquakes:


Earthquakes are a big problem in the Andes. The city of Cusco has been leveled several times. I have a theory that the only reason any Inca structures were left standing at all is because they survived the earthquake of 1650 so perfectly intact that the Spaniards left them up to figure out how the Inca had managed it.

Anyway, this whole experience has made me even more interested in the way that a conquering force deals with conquered people…lately, because of the novel I’m working on, I’ve been reading quite a bit about how the Spanish treated the Moors after the Reconquista, which was a sort of proving ground for their strategies for conquest in the Americas. In that earlier case the Spanish left native architecture, at least, standing (they turned mosques into churches, the same strategy they pursued by building the Cusco cathedral on an Inca temple). At first, the Spanish dealt with the Granada Moors under the terms of a treaty that left most of their culture intact, but in the long run, rebellion (or anyway, the pretext of Moorish rebellion) made that situation untenable for the Spanish, so that eventually they burned all the Moorish books, outlawed their language and religion, and expelled everyone who didn’t conform. I wonder to what extent that informed the totally ruthless way they dealt with Native Americans, or if their horribleness was more the result of the encounter between the two groups being so unequal in terms of military technology, plus the Native Americans just being totally ravaged by European diseases. 60-94% of the Inca population died! There is an Inca system of accounting or possibly writing called qipu, based on knots, which to this day has not been deciphered because apparently every person trained to read it was dead by the time anyone got around to wondering about it. So much lost knowledge…

I read a little bit about how the Inca treated the peoples they conquered, too. It seems they pursued a strategy similar to that of the Romans: absorbing and integrating other cultures and even Gods into their own culture and religion, and turning the ruling classes of conquered peoples into loyal subjects by taking their children, training them in Inca management strategies, and marrying them to the existing ruling class. I also learned about the mit’a, the pretty fascinating system of shared labor that built the Inca empire and which the Spanish co-opted and perverted to basically enslave a ton of people…but this entry is forever-long, omg (what happened???), so I’m just going to leave a link to this and that on wikipedia.


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