Qosqo, Peru

Qosqo (“navel” or “center”) in southern central Peru was once the ancient capital of the Inkan Empire. Continuously occupied for three millennia, the oldest living city in the Americas perches 11,150 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Strategically located, Qosqo reached out to the entire Tahuantinsuyu (Land of the Four Quarters) by means of an extensive road network. In the days of its glory, the city boasted about 100,000 houses and somewhere between 225,000 and 300,000 citizens, many of whom lived in the neighboring farmland. The population compares with modern Rochester. Jersey City, or Anaheim. It was remarkable for its physical planning, its social organization, and the gold-festooned buildings of massive masonry that adorned it.

Farmers and herdsmen of the Marcavalle culture established permanent settlements in the Qosqo Valley around 1000 b.c. The Chanapata followed 200 years later, and successive groups—Qotakallis, Sawasias, Antasayas, and Wallas—also occupied the site for about six centuries from a.d. 600. There is a tradition that Inkan Qosqo was founded some time in the eleventh or twelfth century by the legendary king Manco Cápac. What is clear is that under the ninth ruler, Pachacútec (reigned 1438–1463), it became a thriving urban center and the hub of the far-flung empire’s religious and administrative life.

Its ascendancy lasted until 1533, when Pizarro’s conquistadors entered the city. The invaders corrupted its name to Cuzco—meaning “hypocrite” or “humpback.” To further diminish its power, within two years the Spanish established Lima as the new capital of Peru. In 1536 Manko Inka led his armies against them, and a protracted bloody war followed. But within forty years, the last emperor, Tupaq Amaru I, was defeated, captured, and beheaded in Qosqo.

The plan of Qosqo, like that of all Inkan cities, had several determinants. First was the cosmology of the builders, who framed it within imaginary lines governed by Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus and Aukis (spirits of the mountains and valleys). Second, creating a balance, was the pragmatism of an agrarian people who had a habit of optimum land use (so that even city streets were narrow). Third, formal rules of “symmetry, opposition, repetition and subordination” constrained relationships between elements of the urban design. Basically, Qosqo comprised two parts: the hawan (upper sector) to the north and the less important uran (lower sector) to the south. The second division, into four, reflected the Tahuantinsuyu, and twelve neighborhoods were created by dividing each of the four into thirds. Each neighborhood was again divided into three. Tradition attributes the city plan to Pachacútec, and there is some evidence to support a second tradition that the central part of his capital was based