Andean empire of the Incas

At its height the Inca Empire incorporated a large part of western South America, around the Andean mountain range. Centred in Peru, it included large parts of modern Ecuador and Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile, and a small part of southern Colombia.

 (Daily Times, 3 July 2013)

Waiting to receive us at Peru’s Lima airport was Juan, my friend from the 1970s.  We first met in Moscow through his wife, Pierina, who was in the same Russian language class as me.  The youngest of their three sons, Rafael, a toddler at the time, now a big man, considerably bigger than his father, was alongside Juan at the airport. 

The very kind and gentle Pierina had stayed home, busy preparing the best possible lunch for us, assisted by another son and two indigenous Quechua helpers, specially summoned for the occasion. What a reunion it was after nearly four decades!

Juan is a journalist, now a dean at a university in Lima, and Pierina a clinical psychologist who works part-time from home.  My last contact with them was an email exchange many years ago, when Juan had been forced to live in Argentina to escape persecution from a rightist junta in Peru.

The first thing that needs to be said about Lima is that it never rains there, only the occasional drizzle. At least that is what I was told with complete assurance by Juan, when I asked to take my umbrella as there was a slight drizzle.

Lima was founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, within a couple of years of subjugating the Inca emperor.  The city centre, like all cities under Spanish rule, is a large square, surrounded by big sandstone buildings on all sides.  No square is complete without a church, which is built to impress. It is always up a large flight of stairs to enhance its grandeur.

Churches in South America are considerably better attended than in Western countries, particularly in countries with large indigenous populations, such as Peru and Bolivia. In both countries, I found the churches packed with native Indians, visibly poor and weary, beseeching Christ for his favour.

It is somewhat of an irony that the Indigenous people of South and North America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island countries, whose social and cultural life was ravished and populations ravaged by the intrusion of the “White” man, cling to the religion he brought in his wake, while the churches in the countries of the “White” man cry out for the attention of the faithful.

Lima’s Basilica Cathedral, whose construction was begun the same year that the city was founded, is particularly imposing, as is the Archbishop’s Palace.  On one side is the Presidential Palace. Every day, when the clock strikes 12, a ceremonial change of guard takes place here with much pomp and ceremony.

Peru has a large indigenous population, just under half of the total, and a particularly sad history.  It is where the Spanish laid the basis of their large American empire, executing the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, after converting him to Christianity, taking the Inca gold and giving his defeated subjects Christianity and Spanish language in return. 

In fact, the seizure and execution by garrotting of Atahualpa by Pizarro has to be one the greatest acts of deception and trickery in modern history. Atahualpa was no angel himself, for the previous year he had had his half-brother executed after emerging victorious in a fratricidal war, and seizing the other half of the empire which had been bequeathed to his brother by their late father, the Inca king. 

From Lima we flew to Cuzco, the “historical capital of Peru”, situated at an elevation of 3,400 metres, on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list since 1983. It was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century to 1533, when Spanish occupation put an end to the empire.

Through both conquest and peaceful assimilation, at its height the Inca Empire incorporated a large part of western South America, around the Andean mountain range. Centred in Peru, it included large parts of modern Ecuador and Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile, and a small part of southern Colombia.

Nearly five thousand kilometres from north to south, it was not only the largest empire in the Americas, but also comparable in size to empires in other continents.  Its population is estimated to have been 15 million, but it could have been anywhere from 4 million to 40 million. The Inca kept excellent census records using their “quipus”, but these were lost under Spanish occupation.

Cuzco in fact is two cities in one: the Spanish town built over, sometimes alongside, the Inca structures, using the massive stone walls of the Incas.  The Inca walls were made of massive stone slabs, cut to shape to fit like a jigsaw puzzle.  These interlocking walls of stone slabs not only held in place without the use of mortar but even survived major earthquakes.

Given the magnitude of Inca achievement with stones, their paved roads spanning the empire and an efficient communication system using relays, it is surprising that they did not know the wheel nor even any system of writing.  Some historians and anthropologists argue that, because of the mountainous terrain, the Incas had no use for the wheel.

Cuzco is impressive enough, but Machu Picchu in the Urubamba valley, perched over a ridge of the Andean mountain range, 2,430 metres above sea level, is simply astounding.  Situated 80 kilometers northwest of Cuzco, it is a wonder of human application, toil and achievement. 

Constructed in the 1400’s, most probably as a manor for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), this city was abandoned less than 100 years after its construction, as a consequence of the Spanish Conquest. It is surmised that its population may have perished from smallpox introduced by voyagers even before the Spanish conquistadors. There are no indication that the Spanish even knew of existence of this amazing hilltop city.

Such is the remoteness of Machu Picchu that it remained a “lost city”, unknown to anyone but a few locals, until the American historian Hiram Bingham “discovered” it in 1911.

By Razi Azmi


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1 Response to Andean empire of the Incas

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib, Thank you for a lesson in history and geography not to mention the sordid politics of the Spanish invaders.
    I often wonder what the would would have been like without the Western invasions.
    Thank you for always taking us along on trips.

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