22 May 2011

'Sexy woman'?

The view back over the city as we climbed
Red-faced and almost hyperventilating, I finally reached the Incan archaeological site Saqsaywaman, pronounced by tourists ‘Sexy woman’. It’s located 310 metres above Cusco so, for us altitude-challenged gringos, it’s quite a hike up steep streets and even steeper stone stairways. Of course, the sensible tourists get delivered to the site entrance in air-conditioned coaches, but mad dogs (that must be me!) and Englishmen (that would be Mat) go out in the midday sun (actually it was about 9 am).

It was a challenge but well worth it. According to the pamphlet, ‘The remains and foundations of a colossal structure, it features three-tiered defence walls made of stones that fit with razor-sharp precision. Saqsaywaman means Satiate Falcon. It was built in some 77 years (1431-1508) under the rule of the Incas Tupac Yupanki and Wayna Qhapaq. From 1537 to 1561 the site was used as a quarry by the Spaniards to build a cathedral, a number of temples and their own houses.'

'Four well-defined sections may be clearly identified: the fortress or walls, built with Cyclopean stonemasonry arranged in zigzags that face the second section; the so-called Chuquipampa Square, which is actually an open grassy levelled ground; ...the fortified towers; and the Suchuna hill, located opposite the walls. ... The largest stone weighs about 70 tons!' The way the stones fit together so perfectly is certainly amazing and I have no idea how the Incans built with such precision.
On top of the hill adjacent to Saqsaywaman is Cusco’s version of Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer, so Mat and I climbed up there for a look as well. Near the statue are three crosses – presumably representing the three crosses at the crucifixion of Christ – but these were ‘dressed’ in richly embroidered garments. Beneath the statue, the usual group of souvenir sellers sat patiently waiting for tourists to purchase their wares and, parked in the car park area, was a former city tram, which has been converted for use as a motorised vehicle to transport tourists around the major sites.

Needless to say, the walk back down to the city centre was MUCH easier than the walk up, and I felt entirely justified in devouring a huge lunch of guacamole and tortilla chips at an excellent vegetarian restaurant we discovered.

The tourist ticket we’d purchased at Saqsaywaman gives us access to many different archaeological sites and museums and only lasts for 10 days, so we decided to visit a couple of museums after lunch. First was the Museum of Popular Art, exhibiting a bizarre collection of small sculptures, ceramics, photography and other works by contemporary Cusco craftsmen. The most popular subjects were, understandably, religious – the nativity featured strongly, with alpacas and llamas instead of the more traditional donkeys; St George fought the dragon; grotesque images of Christ hung on crosses; and various saints beamed out from shiny gilded frames.

Next was the Qorikancha site museum. The Qorikancha, which means golden courtyard in the local Quechua language, was apparently the richest and potentially most important temple in the Incan empire. It was built in the mid-15th century, much of it was covered in gold, and there were also solid gold statues. Of course, soon after the arrival of the Spanish in 1533, the gold was melted down and, in 1534, Qorikancha was turned over to the Dominicans who dismantled much of the temple and used the site (and the stones) to build the Convento de Santo Domingo. Only the smooth basalt foundations, typical of Incan architecture, still remain.

Convento de Santo Domingo
The museum is under the old temple site, in small cramped ill-lit rooms, which don’t exactly encourage visitors. There were some interesting exhibits, however. Skulls, and photos of skulls, showed the Incan practice of trepanation, skeletons crouched tightly into foetal positions alongside large pottery urns showed Incan burial practices, and then there were also several bizarre cone-shaped skulls. ‘Aliens in Cusco?’, I asked myself. But, no, apparently Incans of wealthy lineage were into binding with bandages the heads of their babies and young children to create these strange shapes. No one quite knows why. It was almost a relief to escape the museum and emerge back into the sunshine!

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