Pacific Shores From Panama – Cuzco, The Inca Capital

The neat new station (the road has been only open a year or two) lies outside the city walls. We lost no time in jumping into an old tram-car drawn by four mules, and presently were rattling through the narrow, crooked streets of the lower town, one of the worst quarters of the city —the dirtiest district of a dirty town.

But all this was forgotten when we turned into the main plaza of the city. Picturesque arcaded houses surround it on every side; the great church of the Compañia, with its belfries and domes, looms up in the centre of the southern side; while upon its east-ern front the grand cathedral faces the setting sun, raised high upon its lofty grada.

Grouped upon these steps and in the plaza stood thousands of Indians—they told us fifteen thousand. Not shiftless, half-breed Indians in cast-off European clothes, but fine-looking fellows developed like athletes by their hardy mountain life and draped in their most brilliant ponchos with their most elaborate pointed caps upon their heads. The garrison, Indians, too, except for the officers, stood drawn up at attention. A portion of the centre of the plaza was reserved for gentlefolk, and to this we made our way and were kindly admitted by the sentries on guard.

We had scarcely taken our places before the cathedral when its sixteen bells began to toll, the rich tones of the great Maria Angola, whose voice can be heard for miles, sounding the deepest bass.

A movement swept over the populace. The Indians dropped upon their knees; the Spaniards removed their hats. From the door of the cathedral issued the procession. First came the alcaldes, the Indian mayors of all the provincial towns and villages, each carrying his great staff of office, a baton or cane varying in its size and the richness of its silver ornaments according to the importance of his community, some as tall as the men themselves, as thick as their fists, bound round and round with broad bands of silver engraved with rich designs. Next followed the brotherhoods, wearing, like those of Spain and Italy, hoods that concealed their faces; then the monks from the convents, mostly Francis-cans; then the civil authorities of Cuzco, the prefect of the department, the mayor, and other dignitaries; and after them the “Santo,” followed by the clergy massed about their bishop.

The Santo, or saint, is a great figure, some eight feet high, of the Christ crucified—a fine piece of wood-carving sent over to the cathedral in the days of its infancy by the Emperor, Charles the Fifth. It is the Indian’s most revered image—his special patron saint, stained by time, and perhaps by art as well, the colour of his own dark skin. Many miracles are attributed to it, among others the cessation of the great earthquake of 1650, whence its name, Our Lord of the Earthquakes.

Once a year, and once only, on this particular Monday of Holy Week, it is taken from its glass-enclosed chapel, put upon its bulky pedestal, a mass of silver so heavy that thirty-two men stagger beneath its weight, while others follow along beside, ready to relieve them at frequent intervals.

Thus, attended by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, it is taken in solemn state to the principal churches of the city, followed by the garrison, whose muffled drums play funeral marches on the way. As it leaves the cathedral, boys, tied high up to the pillars of the portal, throw masses of crimson leaves upon it (the ñucchu, or funeral flower of the Incas), reddening all its upper surfaces as with a shower of blood.

Swaying back and forth upon its many unsteady human legs, slowly it makes its way through the silent, kneeling throng toward Santa Teresa. In the open square before this church the women are congregated, and, as they see it approach, they begin to moan and beat their breasts; tears start from their eyes and their emotion is evidently intense. Here also boys about the portal shower the funeral flowers. We did not wait to follow it farther, but made our way back to the main plaza, there to await its return. A kind young Peruvian, noting that we were strangers, with true courtesy invited us to occupy a window in his home just opposite the cathedral.

The sun had now set. Darkness was creeping on. The Indians were slowly coming back into the plaza. A few lights twinkled from one or two street-lamps I mean lamps literally, for gas has not yet appeared in Cuzco.

From the direction of La Merced came the sound of mournful music. The great plaza had filled again with people, a huge, silent throng. From one corner emerged the procession, now lit by flickering candles and dominated by the great dark figure of El Señor de los Temblores. Slowly the lights approached the cathedral, finally mounting its long grees and grouping themselves against the tight-shut doors of the central portal that formed a bright background.

The great throng in the plaza was kneeling, and, as the black figure of the Santo mounted the steps and appeared silhouetted against the doors, a great moan, a sort of collective sob, swelling to a barbaric howl —a sound such as I had never heard before—as if in the presence of some dire calamity, swelled from the poor Indian throats; the black crucifix made three stately bows, to the north, to the west, to the south, in sign of benediction; a sigh of relief and a shudder passed over the square; the huge cathedral doors swung open; the black hole swallowed the image and the candles; the portals closed again, and all was finished.

I offer no comment upon this weird ceremony. But in its spectacular appeal to the primitive senses it impressed us more than any other religious festival we had ever seen.

THE ancient city of Cuzco, when first viewed by European eyes, was, according to the best authorities, a great and wealthy municipality of perhaps two hundred thousand souls. How old it was at that time we have scant means of knowing. Garcilasso would have us believe that there were only thirteen Incas in the royal line from Manco Capac to Huayna Capac; Montesinos, on the other hand, assures us that the Incas ruled for a thousand years! Which are we to believe? No written history of the race exists—only the records of the quipus, those queer knotted strings that were the Incas’ sole documents and for which no archaeologist has as yet discovered the key, the Rosetta stone.

Cuzco’s original plan was, singularly enough, that of the Roman camp, a quadrangle divided by two intersecting streets into quarters, with a gate on each face and towers at the angles. Ramusio gives an interesting woodcut, here reproduced, of the city as it appeared to the conquerors.

The Incas, like the citizens of the United States, had no more definite name for their country than Tavantinsuyu, the Empire of the Four Provinces. The four streets of the capital, prolonged by great roads, divided it into four main provinces, each under the dominion of its governor. When their people came to Cuzco they lodged in their own quarter, where they adhered to the costumes and customs of their own province.

The city today retains the same general plan, its two principal streets being practically the old main thoroughfares. Its two eastern quarters lie upon steep hillsides; the two western are in the valley where runs a little river, the Huatanay, spanned by bridges.

The northeast quarter was the Palatine Hill of this South American Rome, and contains the palaces of the kings, for each Inca, after the manner of the Roman emperors, built his own abode, scorning to live in that of his predecessor. Along the steep streets of this portion of the city extensive remains of the foundations and walls of these palaces still remain, their giant stones and perfect masonry provoking the constant wonder of the traveller. Pictures of them give but a poor impression, for the heavy rustic finish of the face of each stone hides the perfection of the joints, which are so finely fitted that, devoid of mortar as they are, the blade of a small pocket-knife can scarcely be inserted into any one of them.

The Incas were not artists. Their buildings displayed neither imagination nor beauty of detail, but were characterised rather by stern simplicity and extreme solidity of construction. Had they not been used as quarries they undoubtedly would all be standing today, singularly well adapted as they are to the climatic conditions of this high-lying country, resisting storm and earthquake alike where the more modern Spanish buildings crumble to decay.

The most extensive ruins left by the Incas, and perhaps the most interesting, are those of the great fortress Sachsahuamán, that stands perched upon the summit of a steep hill to the north of the town.

To reach it you must climb between garden walls, up lanes laid out in rough steps, until you come to a little plaza in front of the chapel of San Cristóbal. The cura was pacing up and down before his church when we stopped to ask him a question. He immediately became communicative and we were glad that we had spoken, for he pointed out to us the many curiosities of his small domain. There was a queer row of pillories in which thieves were exhibited in the olden days; there was a curious Inca fountain, uncouthly cut to represent a female form, and near by, in a garden, raised upon a stone terrace, was all that remains of the ancient palace of Manco Capac, who, according to legend, was the founder of the royal dynasty. This, to my mind, is the building that occupies the important north end of the city in Ramusio’s wood-block.

The property now belongs to a resident of Cuzco, an Italian, who has made it his quinta, or country home, and it is a charming spot indeed, nestled in a rustling forest of eucalypti. There are several important Inca fragments scattered among these trees —sections of handsome walls, a well-preserved doorway, and extensive remains of terraces.

The road thence up the mountain is a stiff climb in this altitude, and more than once we stopped to rest and catch our breath, and regret that we had not ordered donkeys on which to scramble up the rocky paths. Several times we passed llama trains coming down, and had to climb in the rocks to let the clumsy beasts go by. Finally we reached the first huge stones of the fortress and entered its portal, which, with its steps, is still in good preservation.

Enough of the great walls remains to amaze one with their formidable character and vast extent. The Indians consider them the works of the Evil One, and small wonder, for how human hands ever reared these mighty stones upon this mountain top is quite beyond one’s powers of speculation. The fort presents but a single line of defence, some twelve hundred feet long, toward the city, where the hill itself is so steep that it affords the best possible protection, but to the country behind it shows three massive walls placed one above the other, arranged with salients (a device unknown to Europeans of that period) and breast-works for the defenders. The stones are cyclopean, many of them being eighteen to twenty feet long and almost the same in height; the largest, we are told, measuring no less than thirty-eight feet in length.

Crowning these mighty walls was the fortress proper, consisting of three towers. The central one, the largest, was reserved for the Inca himself and contained his royal apartments. The other two were for the garrison commanded by a noble of the royal family. As in many mediaeval fortress castles, subterranean passages, also built of stone, connected these towers with the town below, thus affording a retreat for the Inca in time of peril.

Upon the hill-slopes behind the fortress, in fields of flowering shrubs, where paroquets make their homes, stand some strange rocks called by the natives “thrones of the Inca.” They are certainly cut with the nicest precision, each edge as sharp as it ever was, but I can scarcely see the reason for the appellation.

We returned to the city toward sundown. The views, as we descended, were beautiful. The lovely valley, dotted with eucalyptus groves, lay green and radiant below us, framed by its towering mountains that peeped over each other’s shoulders as they stretched away, fold upon fold, dimmer and yet more distant until they disappeared in far perspectives.

The city that lay beneath us, one-storied for the most part, flat along its regular streets, looks quite as it must have appeared to the Inca sitting in his fortress tower. Only now pottery thatch of straw or of ychu grass that covered the older houses, and the belfries and domes of numerous Spanish churches have supplanted the gilded walls and cumbersome masonry of the ancient Inca temples.

These last lay for the most part in the southeast quarter of the city and were dominated by the great Temple of the Sun, the most revered sanctuary in all the empire, called by the people Coricancha, the Place of Gold. And well it deserved its name, for, according to all accounts, its walls were a perfect mine of the precious metal. Mortised into the great stones of its exterior walls, a frieze of gold, “of a palm and a half” in width, encircled the entire edifice. The interior was ablaze, as befitted a temple dedicated to the glory of light.

In the centre of the western wall a giant sun, represented by a human countenance from which rays of light sprang in various directions, glowed in all the splendour of gold and jewels. The great eastern portal was placed directly opposite and arranged so that the sun, with its first ray, gilded this golden effigy that thus threw off a strange effulgence. The walls and ceiling were incrusted with gold and the mummies of all the Incas, dressed as on occasions of state, with their coyas, or queens, sat about upon golden thrones.

Adjoining this main temple lesser shrines were arranged. In that dedicated to the moon, for example, all was of silver, a silvery moon replacing the golden sun. These buildings were each set in extensive gardens, whose flowers and plants and animals were of gold and silver, simulating with real skill the products of nature.

Let him who doubts these tales remember that gold in the eyes of the Peruvian Indian of that day had no monetary value whatever, that money did not exist—that gold, in the popular parlance, was “the tears wept by the sun” and that all of it found in the rich mines of Peru, the real Eldorado of the New World during the Spanish colonial period, was sent either to the Inca or to his temples. Atahualpa, for his ransom, almost filled with golden vessels a room thirty-three feet by twenty, representing a value in our money of some seventeen million dollars. What a sum in those days before the discovery of the great gold mines of modern times !

Dr. Caparo Muniz, who possesses a remarkable collection of Inca antiquities, showed me a curious stone that he had unearthed on a farm some twelve leagues from Cuzco, at a place called Yayamarca, the Place of the Lord. It is carved to represent a ground-plan of the Temple of the Sun, and so interested me that I made a drawing of it, which I here present. It corresponds quite perfectly with the remains of the sanctuary that still exist.

These consist of important portions of its circular walls and a number of those singular niches that taper in toward the top like those of the edifices of Egypt. Extensive interior walls of perfect masonry are incorporated in the present church and convent of Santo Domingo that the conquerors built immediately over the pagan temple.

I visited this old church with the rector of the university, who was kindness itself to us during our stay, and Padre Vasquez, the amiable prior of the monastery, took us about in person. Strangely enough, it was the first time that these two men had met, for the prior was comparatively a new-comer to Cuzco, so I benefited by the enthusiasm of their first visit together.

We inspected in turn the cloister courts, the church, and all the intricate by-ways of its corridors and stairways. The Christian temple is doubtless interesting, but the walls that it stands upon and that crop out here and there in its fabric were the subject of our wonder. Theirs is the most perfect masonry of any of the Inca ruins that I saw. These are the massive smooth-faced stones that Sarmiento saw and commended, whose joints are so nicely wrought that they can scarcely be detected. How a nation, without iron or steel—with only champi, a mixture of copper and tin—to aid them, could have produced such finish will always be a matter of wonder. They certainly possessed some secret for cutting stone that we do not know to-day.

Near this Church of Saint Dominic stands the con-vent of the nuns of Santa Catalina, built upon the ruins of what was, in the time of the Incas, the House of the Virgins of the Sun, a huge structure some eight hundred feet in length. These girls, chosen by the provincial governors from among the most beautiful in the kingdom, tended the sacred fire in the temples, their duties being curiously analogous to those of the Roman vestal virgins. Their guardians, the mamacunas, taught them weaving and spinning, and from among them were selected the Inca’s many concubines. Once in a while one of them was chosen for sacrifice, but this was a very rare occurrence, as the religion of the Incas only permitted of human sacrifice on occasion of exceptional importance, thereby differing materially from the rites of other American races—the wholesale slaughters of the Aztecs, for example.

Soon after the conquest the Spaniards built three great churches in Cuzco, three churches worthy of a European capital. Unlike the churches of Lima, these happily have escaped remodelling.

Two of them, the cathedral and the Compania, face upon the main plaza, the heart of the city; the third, La Merced, is but a step away. All three are in the style of the Spanish Renaissance, patterned, let us say, from such a church as San Lorenzo of the Escurial.

The interior of the Compania is the handsomest of the three. Its pillars, with their simple capitals, and its well-designed architrave support wide-spreading stone arches and broad vaults of brick. The great retablo that occupies its entire east end, though defective in general design, with its bulky columns and broken pediments, is filled with such fine detail—saints and angels, paintings and niches, rising tier above tier upon its golden cornices-that you forget the one in the admiration of the other. Its gilding, too—as, for the matter of that, the gilding in all these Peruvian churches—is wonderful, done with the rich, pure metal that was found in such comparative abundance at the time of the conquest. And the dust of centuries combined with the finger of time has imparted to this gold, too gaudy perhaps in its pristine glory, a patina of rare mellowness with a depth and glint in the shadow that I have never seen equalled elsewhere.

The gold of the pulpit is perhaps the most beautiful of all—in fact, the pulpit itself is a gem, remarkable alike for the beauty of its design and its exquisite workmanship, to my mind a far finer work of art than the more famous one at San Blas, which, though a marvel indeed of the wood-carver’s art, is too ornate and too charged with intricate detail to merit its high repute.

Several of the original polychrome figures of saints still remain in the niches of the south transept, and above them a long fresco unrolls itself across the big lunette, a queer procession of black-robed monks, which, though of a much later period, has a Giottesque quality in the simplicity of its silhouettes and backgrounds.

Near the main portal are other notable pictures, significant perhaps more by reason of their subjects than for their technique. One is of distinct historic interest, depicting the marriage of Don Martin de Loyola to Da. Beatris Nusta, Princesa del Peru, a descendant of the royal Incas. A strange bird is perched upon the bride’s wrist, and she wears a cape and a gown elaborately embroidered with the nucchu, the favourite flower of the Incas. Sairitupa and Tupa Amaru, royal personages in rich Inca dress, sit upon thrones to the left, while the relatives of the groom are grouped at the right in magnificent Spanish court costumes, each detail of which is worked out with the utmost faithfulness.

Adjoining this picture hangs a queer painting of very large dimensions depicting a priest who, with open book, the “Exercicia Spiritualia,” is confounding infidels, shown under the guise of Turks whose turbans bear the legends : Luthero, Calvino, Melanton, Wiclete, Ecolampadio. I have transcribed the spelling letter by letter.

Upon our second visit to this church during Holy Week, the Indians were decorating the shrines for Easter, dressing Santiago in bright colours and hanging flags about his niche; placing above the altars huge fan-shaped ornaments made of bits of mirror, pieces of tinsel, and squares and lozenges of lurid colours combined with truly barbaric effect, and placing before these, little rows of monks and figures cut out of paper and dishes filled with grains and fruits—all of which looked strange indeed in a Christian temple and made us remember that the Indian of to-day has not yet lost all of his pagan practices, a fact that was brought back to us again and again as the week progressed toward Easter.

The Church of the Order of Mercy, La Merced, in which the bones of Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro are said to rest, is chiefly remarkable for its cloisters, whose massive stone arcades and monumental stair-cases have for centuries withstood the storms of these altitudes and are perhaps the handsomest in Peru, though not as picturesque as some of those in Lima.

One morning I visited the Franciscan convent. The rector, who again accompanied me, asked for Father M , who proved to be a sympathetic Scotchman, artistic to the tips of his long, lean fingers, a lover of music, accompanying the organ with his violin—a mystic and a dreamer, who had forsaken the business life of Lima in disgust and fled to the quiet of this mountain cloister. He kindly guided us about, showing us the strange water-fowl of the country gathered in a circular basin in one of the courts, and the lovely Spanish tiles, piled in a mass in an outhouse, that had once been ruthlessly stripped from the walls by some iconoclastic prior, presenting me with two of the best he could find, and in the sacristy he displayed the vestments of the church—some of old Spanish brocade, others rich in gold and jewels quite newly made by the nuns of Santa Catalina who dwell in the House of the Virgins of the Sun.

So the days passed by.

Sometimes we explored the by-ways of the city, sketching in the steep, picturesque streets that climb the hills; again we poked about the gaudy Indian shops that line the arcades of the plaza with their vivid wares; sometimes we loitered about the market or looked for Spanish shawls and frames and laces in the shops and houses.

We remained snugly in our car during all our stay, with good Prudenzio to cook for us and faithful Juan to serve us, the hotels of the town offering but a poor alternative for the comfort of this abode out in the broad fields just beyond the smells and dirt of the town. But let me say it here—this is the only Peruvian city we visited that offended us in this way, the other places being far cleaner and better kept than most of the small towns of Italy or Spain.

The Easter services did not prove remarkable, resembling in all their essentials those we had seen in Mediterranean countries, except for one important ceremony—that of Holy Thursday.

The interior of the cathedral at Cuzco is arranged after the peculiar fashion of some Spanish churches, with its choir occupying a large space in the central nave. Richly wrought gates enclose it and a broad flight of carpeted steps lead from it to the massive silver high altar. This arrangement, though well adapted for processionals, blocks the view of most of the congregation.

On this particular morning the bishop himself was officiating. The scene was imposing. As you stood in the centre of the nave you looked in one direction toward the richly carved silleria, or stalls of the choir, occupied by the clergy in purple and black. Just in front of the gilded gates that shut it in, the prefect and all the civil authorities in full uniform, together with the superior officers of the garrison, sat in red-velvet arm-chairs. In the other direction you saw the high altar raised upon its lofty platform and backed by a magnificent retablo, carved and gilded, that reaches to the arches overhead. Priests moved about, half hidden in clouds of incense, choir-boys and assistants walked in procession between rows of people kneeling or sitting upon the llama-wool carpets of the nave, among them Spanish women in black rebosos, Indians in ponchos, and cholos in nondescript garments, half Indian, half European.

Presently all the assistants—priests, dignitaries, and congregation—moved in slow procession toward a large chapel that adjoins the cathedral, the Corazon, or Sacred Heart.

This had been dressed as for a great festival.

Upon the massive silver high altar, with its silver tabernacle, handsome candelabra of the same metal had been placed. The reading-desk and the hanging lamps were also of silver, and in the nave itself stood many of the two hundred and eighty silver pieces given by the members of the Order of Santiago, such as huge blandones, or candlesticks, two metres in height, censers, in the form of tables, of the same metal—in fact, a most extraordinary mass of silver.

Against this shimmering background a peculiar ceremony was enacted, at the end of which the prefect knelt before the bishop, who hung about his neck a golden key, the key of the tomb, of which the prefect thus became the custodian until Easter.

In the late afternoon and evening the bishop, with his clergy, visited all the churches of the city one after the other. Most of the people did likewise. Every church and chapel was alight with thousands of twinkling candles, and hung with Easter decorations—not blooms such as we use, but great curtains of blue studded with silver stars, yards of coloured cheese-cloth, and tawdry paper flowers.

We went last to La Merced and remained there until after dark watching the people and the strange types. When we emerged night had closed in. All along the Calle de la Merced, against the very walls of the church, booths had sprung up, lit by spluttering, smoky lanterns that cast weird lights and heavy shadows upon venders and purchasers alike, as they bargained over tables covered with white-lace cloths. Upon these tables lay the strangest-looking sweet-meats prepared ready for the Easter holidays : can-died apples, browned and stuck upon sticks; jellied fruits and sugary cookies; sticky candies; and—a specialty these—swans or doves done in almond paste and laid upon plates surrounded by candied vegetables.

The bishop and his suite issued from the church door, his long purple train carried by acolytes, and slowly and with dignity he took his way down the street toward his palace in the darkness. Every street that we looked down ended in the night; we, too, made our way toward the city gate and the open fields under the stars.