Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Mystery of Sacsayhuaman and its Current Threat – Part I

In the north-western suburb of the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco, there is a steep hill floating up above the ancient city—at the top of this hill there is one of the greatest monuments of the ancient Peruvian architecture, and carries the name of Sacsayhuaman. In the language of Quechua—the language that was spoken by the Pre-Inca patrials in ancient times, the name means “satiated hawk.” Sacsayhuaman is usually referred to as a fortress or a citadel, since its cycloptic walls evoke the impression of indestructible might, and its position on as cliff overlooking the valley below.
   The central part of this archaeological monument is represented by three impenetrable zigzag walls located one after another, fringing the slope of the hill. The length of each of the walls reaches 1150-feet, with their height varying from 13-16 feet for the bottom wall, and up to 10-feet for the top wallthough each was considerably higher before the Spanish tore the tops off the walls to make their own buildings in the city below. Each has more than 20 prominent bastions, which add to the zigzag shape, and each of the walls has one or two passages to the next level. 
    The walls are compiled of the large, thoroughly processed blocks of the so-called grey Yucay limestone. The lower wall consists of the largest blocks which have the height of 7-9 feet and the weight of dozens of tons, with the weight of the biggest block at 360 tons, while its height is almost 28-feet. The blocks have a different shape, but despite this they fit together with unbelievable precision. It’s impossible to squeeze even a knife blade between them, though they are joined without mortar, but with the help of a technology which today is called polygonal masonry.
In a model of a wall’s construction, the (top left) back is shown as rough and rather sloppily put together; however, in (top right) turning the model around, the (bottom) front is revealed as a polished product as is found at Sacsayhuaman

    Many of the bulges are sophisticatedly carved so that to match the shape of the adjacent boulders. This way, the blocks fit together just like the elements of a puzzle. Engineers believe, that this type of masonry provided the maximum stability and safety of the construction in such an earthquake endangered zone as the valley of Cusco. Remarkable is the fact that the blocks of the prominent bastions are rounded. That means that for the ancient developers it was not a problem to trim the facets of the 10-12 feet high monoliths just for rendering them the rounded shape. 
    In addition, the whole surface of the blocks were thoroughly polished in ancient times, though today the signs of erosion are very evident with all of the stones. At the top of the hill there remained the remnants of the Inca buildings, including the foundation of the three towers. The main tower consisted of 5 levels and were made of the smaller hewn blocks which were a pale comparison to the gigantic monoliths of the lower walls.
Yellow Arrow: In movement, stones lift off their housing, but the (red arrow) interlocking shape of the stones keep them from moving far, and return the stones to their original positions when the movement stops

    The early Spanish chroniclers noted that Sacsayhuaman was first and foremost, a tremendous temple complex, the True House of the Sun, as some chroniclers used to call it. During the time of the Inca, only the Inca and royal family could enter it. It has been described as splendidly decorated, with an amount of gold figures, facades, and wall coverings to excite the imagination. However, today, it is impossible to imagine the architecture of Sacsayhuaman, since these same chroniclers did not leave enough of the detailed descriptions to reconstruct it’s one-time magnificence; and after the suppression of the Inca mutiny of 1536 the Spaniards began energetically disassembling the complex as much as they could. The perfectly processed stone blocks of Sacsayhuaman were dismantled and used for the construction of Cathedrals and residential buildings of the central part of colonial Cusco.
    It is hard to imagine how the ancient Peruvians, with the help of the simple tools, managed to erect such a magnificent building made of the monolithic stone blocks weighing many tons each. The full scope of work assumed stone-cutting works in the mines, stone delivery to the sites—over long distances—treatment of stones at the site and, finally, the masonry. Sacsayhuaman is the most sublime, but not the only existing monument of the similar cyclopean construction. In the so-called “king’s valley,” where Cusco is located, there also survived until recent times other monuments which comprise large megalithic constructions, such as  Machu Picchu, Winay Wayna, Coricancha, Ollantaytambo, Liactapata, etc., some of which are located on the high mountain peaks and where it is not very easy to reach, while transporting scores of stone blocks onto those steep slopes is a mission close to impossible even in the present conditions.
    Originally, at the foot of the tremendous walls of Sacsayhuaman there stretched a vast square. Anciently, it was completely filled with the various temples and residential buildings which were later disassembled by the Spaniards, and on the opposite side is a rock crest, the Hill Suchuno, a dome-like diorite formation of magmatic rock. On the different slopes of this hill, in a very solid formation there are cut the multiple footsteps and niches, where the quality of work is so excellent that it’s impossible to imagine that this was done by the stone or bronze tools. In addition, there exist no justified hypotheses regarding the purpose of such architectural constructions.
For example, the so-called “throne of the Inca”—two layers of footsteps at the Eastern slope of the hill Suchuno--possesses the smoothly polished facets intersecting strictly perpendicularly which have basically not suffered any damages throughout all of the centuries, or millenniums of their existence. It’s worth highlighting that the solidity of diorite is higher than that of the basalt and it requires very labor-intensive processing. There are strange cut traces (sawn?) in the diorite rock in one location, and along the edge of a crack that appeared as a result of a split of a large piece of formation, there are cut traces left by an unknown instrument. It is claimed that the cut was ½ to ¾ inches deep and several feet long—for the modern man such trace would be the sign of a disk saw with a diameter of almost five feet.
    Pedro Sancho (Account of the Conquest of Peru), Pizarro's secretary, who visited the complex before the siege, mentions the labyrinth-like quality of the complex and the fact that it held a great number of storage rooms filled with a wide variety of items. He also notes that there were buildings with large windows that looked over the city. These structures, like so much of the site, have long since been destroyed by he Spaniaards.
    The large plaza area, capable of holding thousands of people, is well designed for ceremonial activities and several of the large structures at the site may also have been used during rituals. It is also clear from early accounts that the complex held a great number of storage rooms. Pedro Pizarro described storage rooms that were within the complex and which were filled with military equipment.
The precision cutting of the stonework at Sacsayhuaman: LtoR: Huge rounded stones; interlocking stone cuts; walls that lean inward

   This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cuzco. There is indeed not a house in the city that has not been made of this stone, or at least the houses built by the Spaniards. Today, only the stones that were too large to be easily moved remain at the site.
    In 2008, archaeologists discovered additional ruins at the periphery of Sacsayhuaman where similar construction techniques were used in building the fortress complex. It is believed that the stones were rough-cut to the approximate shape in the quarries using river cobbles. They were then dragged by rope to the construction site, a feat that at times required hundreds of men. The ropes were so impressive that they warranted mention by Diego de Trujillo (Relation of the Discovery of the Kingdom of Peru), the Spanish conquistador and highly accredited chronicler, as he inspected a room in 1571 filled with building materials. The stones were then shaped into their final form at the building site and then laid in place.
    Cieza de León, who visited the complex two times in the late 1540s, mentions the quarrying of the stones, their transposition to the site, and the digging of foundation trenches. All this was conducted by rotational labor under the close supervision of the architects. Jean-Pierre Protzen (Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo), a UC Berkeley professor of architecture, has shown how the Peruvians built long and complex ramps within the stone quarries near Ollantaytambo, and how additional ramps were built to drag the blocks to the construction above the village. He suggests that similar ramps would have been built at Sacsayhuaman.
(See the next post, “The Mystery of Sacsayhuaman and its Current Threat – Part II,” for more information on the threat that now faces the ancient complex)

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