Like a supernova, the Inca Empire was a dazzling but short-lived explosion of human civilization, centered in its capital city of Cusco, Perú. Because the Inca left no written records, their history, from humble origin to exponential expansion and ultimate defeat, remains shrouded in legend.
According to Inca mythology, in the 12th century, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, children of the sun god Inti, emerged from Lake Titicaca and traveled to Cusco to form a simple pastoral clan. For the next three centuries, the unremarkable Quechua-speaking Inca farmed the fertile valley of Cusco, co-existing with several other local tribes.
Beginning in 1438 with the reign of the first great ruler Pachacuti, the Inca consolidated Cusco’s population and launched the explosive expansion of the Inca Empire. For the next century, the Inca enlarged their empire by assimilation and conquest of numerous weaker tribes of western South America.
Ultimately, the Inca Empire stretched 3,400 miles from southern Columbia to northern Argentina, and comprised a total population of ten million citizens. Remarkably, the Inca established the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas without a written language, knowledge of the wheel, iron tools, guns, draft animals, markets, or money.
During the height of their civilization, the Inca considered Cusco to be the navel of the world. Inca engineers and public works laborers built and maintained 25,000 miles of roads and sacred sight lines radiating out from Cusco to the four corners of the empire.
Master stonemasons constructed Cusco using finely-worked polygonal blocks of stone, fitted so precisely that no mortar was needed. Built to withstand earthquakes, the remains of extraordinary Inca masonry are still visible in the walls and foundations of modern-day Cusco.
By the 16th century, smallpox and other European diseases spread to the Inca Empire from Central America killing a large percentage of the population. By 1532, when Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spanish conquistadors arrived in Perú, the Inca Empire was already in decline and embroiled in a divisive civil war of succession.
Despite being tremendously outnumbered, the Spanish, with their steel armor, long swords, guns and war horses, had a superior battlefield advantage. The Inca had no concept for defeating cavalry forces and no weaponry capable of piercing the Spanish armor. With only their weapons of wood, stone, copper and bronze, and armor made of alpaca wool, the Inca were brutally slaughtered.
The Spanish went on to capture Cusco in 1533 and immediately began dismantling the Inca capital. Stone-by-stone they tore down Cusco to build their own administrative, residential and religious structures. All the Spanish left of the incomparable Inca masonry are foundation stones and megalithic cyclopean blocks too massive for them to repurpose.
Less than one hundred years since the reign of Pachacuti, the explosion of the Inca supernova was extinguished by the Spanish conquest. Today, all that remains of the great but short-lived civilization are millions of Quechua-speaking descendants and remnants of master stone masonry in and around the Inca capital of Cusco.
Feature Photo: The Cusco Cathedral and municipal flag. Often mistaken for the gay pride flag, the multi-colored Cusco city flag represents the Inca belief that the rainbow is a gift from the sun god Inti.
Blogger’s Note: The day we arrived at our rental apartment in Cusco, Esther tested positive with a mild covid infection. Needing to isolate, I moved into a nearby hotel as Esther quarantined in the apartment for the next ten days. Thankfully, because Esther is vaccinated and double-boosted and has no underlying health conditions, she only experienced minor symptoms. As you can see from the final photo, she has made a full recovery and is now working herself back into shape.