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The history of Cusco through 4 different civilizations

Secondary Categories: PeruDig DeeperThe Great Inca Trail

Don’t make the mistake of discounting Cusco as nothing more than the gateway to Machu Picchu. It’s one of the most important historical cities in South America, spanning the history of no fewer than four civilizations.

Pre-Incan civilization

Cusco has long been favored for its strategic location in a valley at the easternmost edge of a ridge which is surrounded by some seriously high mountains. Although the first humans are thought to have settled here as long ago as 5000 BC, the oldest surviving building of contemporary significance is the fortress of Saksaywaman.

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Saksaywaman (Picture: Andrew Carman)

Traditionally Saksaywaman has been considered an Inca construction, but recent carbon dating has shown that the core of the fortress was built by the Killke civilization in the 12th century AD. ‘Inca fever’ can be thanked for the fact that we know very little about the Killke people, but the walls as Saksaywaman are proof enough they were a skilled and prosperous nation.

The heyday of the Incas

The Inca civilization may have been born at the beginning of the 13th century, but their period of dominance fell between 1438 and 1533 – the time when their capital was the great city of Cusco.

The Incan city of Cusco was divided into four quarters, each of which served as the capital of the section of the empire which lay beyond it. We’re not talking about small slices of land either: at its peak the Inca empire comprised most of what we now know as Peru and Ecuador, as well as large swathes of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and even a smidgen of Colombia.

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Inca stonemasonry (Picture: Karl Norling)

Each province of the Empire had a ruler, and each ruler had a palace, but unfortunately these incredible buildings (and many others) were sacked by the Spanish conquistadores. Ironically, in a letter addressed to the king of Spain, Francisco Pizarro described Cusco as “so beautiful that it would even be remarkable in Spain” but this didn’t stop him from destroying as much of this beauty as possible.

A Spanish colony

The Spanish ruled in Cusco for nearly 300 years, and much of the architecture you’ll see today was built by them. Under the Spanish, Cusco was the center of Christian expansion in the Andes and a major supplier of gold and silver to Europe.

The Spanish may have been ruthless in their sacking of Inca buildings, but in most cases these buildings’ immense stone foundations proved too much for them. So it is that modern Cusco is a palimpsest of Spanish adornment atop an Inca skeleton. Perhaps the clearest and greatest example of this is the Convent of Santo Domingo which was built on the foundations of the Incas’ holiest temple, Qurikancha.

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Qurikancha (Picture: David Stanley)

Interestingly, many of the Spanish constructions were damaged or destroyed in the great earthquakes of 1650 and 1950, but the Inca foundations which lay beneath them were virtually unmoved: yet more proof of their status as some of the greatest stonemasons of all time.

Republican rule

Peru has been independent since 1821 and since then Cusco has remained an important city, although most of the architecture we admire predates the republican period. Perhaps the greatest thing independent Peru has done is to leave Cusco relatively untouched. In 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since the 1990s it has become the premier tourist destination in South America.

No trip to the mysterious continent is complete without a few days in the most evocative city of them all: make sure Cusco is at the heart of your South American itinerary.

Have we convinced you yet? Speak to a Destination Expert about curating a tailor made Peru itinerary just for you, or check out our most popular Machu Picchu & Peru tours here.

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