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Enjoy a selection of our Peru articles written by our award-winning travel director.


Inca Cities

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What part of Peru's pre-Hispanic past are we really capable of understanding? The country's archaeological remains are a lesson to humility. Just to stand in the middle of Chan Chan, or on top of the pyramid at Huánuco Pampa or in the city of Vilcashuamán is enough to fill us with a mix of contradicting impressions. The debate rages between a supposed recognition of familiar forms and our incapacity to gauge their real function with any real conviction.

The monumental size, the rigidly straight lines, the vast open squares and rectangular complexes separated by access roads evoke in our minds the image of a Hippodameus-type Mediterranean city with a Greek and Roman heritage rediscovered by the architects of the Renaissance. The Andean city brings us back to the idea of old downtown Lima, and countless other Spanish foundations. However, we also get an inkling that the essence of Andean architecture could turn out to be completely different from what we expected, once we drop the easy, superficial comparisons.

In the Andes, community areas doted with potential political and economic functions (plazas and chambers) organize everything: they add to the sacred areas (pyramids, platforms, monumental complexes where access was restricted) and keep residential quarters to a minimum. Actually, the proportions are the opposite of urban complexes of European origin. In Western cities, houses that are roofed and separated from other buildings are the family residence and the key part and reason for the complex. Everything -the patios, the passageways, the streets- built around the private homes. In most ancient Mediterranean cultures, the monumental size of the homes gave rise to the form of a temple (for example the Sumerian temple, the Greek megaron, the Syrian bit-hilani and others). In the Andes, however, the role of the home is taken by an open area, the Quechua plaza; the roofed spaces, and between them, places to sleep or cook food, are complementary.

Is this the material reflection of a different social organization: the Andean community versus the family subordinated to one sole individual? Probably, but the differences do not end there. The location of a variety of monumental complexes with a potentially urban nature represent another challenge for the modern spectator to understand what the purpose was: in the highlands, these complexes often occupy the most remote, hard-to-reach sites (like the famous Machu Picchu), while on the coast, these constructions hide in lateral ravines (like Cajamarquilla), or on top of elevated, desert-like terraces, far from agricultural fields. The forced-labor housing of Viceroy Toledo's era are the clearest proof that the Andean housing system obeyed criteria that was incompatible with Spanish economic rationality: just 50 years after the Conquest, the indigenous population was forced to leave their ancestral homelands and settle in the European style in cities and towns built down in the valleys amongst the fields.
Since the last century, archaeology has thought more seriously about the possibility of the formation of urban societies, similar to a European Renaissance city, was a global phenomenon. Moreover, the concept of a city was one of the central components in the universal paradigm of civilization, next to the State, complex iconography, the discovery of metallurgy and eventually writing. In models forged consecutively by Childe and Steward, the Neolithic societies or sedentary formations necessarily enter a stage of urban growth before forming states. In the final decades of this century, doubts were cast on the supposed universality of the process under the weight of accumulated evidence that disproved it. Most of that evidence carne from the Valley of the Nile and the central Andes.

The popular models of Childe and Steward stem from the analysis of the history of Mesopotamia in third and fourth centuries B.C.: the growing dependency on irrigation-based agriculture, the taming of game and other animals previously hunted, the spread of the use of the plough, the growing sophistication of war weapons and transport laid the technological bases for a process that would concentrate populations in urban centers that were surprising because of their constancy and intensity. At the end of the proto-historic era, 78% of the population lived in urban centers that spread across areas larger than 10 hectares, often protected by imposing ramparts. As a result of this complex transformation of village-based society, which Childe called an urban revolution, for the first time in the history of mankind, there was economic and juridical order based on principles of markets and individual, private property.


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