The Puma City

Cusco was a splendor, rich in works of art and extraordinary architectural constructions. The Incas' stone buildings were built by fitting together, without any mortar, large blocks of andesite—a very hard and heavy stone similar to granite. The joints between the blocks were polished with bewildering maniacal precision. Within this absolute technical perfection the existence of two completely different styles must be noticed: the squared blocks technique, in which the stones are always shaped as parallelepipeds and laid out on strictly horizontal courses, and the polygonal technique, in which the blocks are shaped as irregular polygons with several angles and laid out one over the other using apparently crazy, multi-angled, perfect joints. The weight of the squared blocks usually varies between a few quintals and some tons. The Incas' polygonal walls are instead truly megalithic, since the blocks often weigh several tens of tons and can even reach 100, 200, and, in some cases, 300 tons, as in the case, for example, of many blocks of Sacsahuaman, a place that we will discuss shortly (on some of the polygonal blocks the builders left two small protuberances of unknown function and meaning; they look too small to have helped in raising the block with ropes or levers, and look as though they were an aid to wall climbers).

Nobody else in human history attained the Incas' level of perfection in megalithic stonework. There are, however, a few examples of polygonal walls similar to the Incas' in other places of the world, such as Easter Island (see Chapter 13), and Egypt (see Chapter 16). In the Mediterranean area, spectacular megalithic walls were built during the Bronze Age by the Myceneans in Greece (a technique later reused in the polygonal terrace of the temple of Delphi) and by the Hittites in Anatolia. The works most similar to those of the Incas are to be found in Italy, where I have conducted a wide survey (for further details see Magli 2007b,c). Distributed over a vast area in the center of Italy, numerous cities, such as Alatri, Arpino, Ferentino, S. Felice Circeo, Segni, and many others, have polygonal walls made of large stone blocks with sharp edges, joined without mortar. Dating these huge works is a complicated problem not yet satisfactorily solved. Indeed, a disputable archaeological dogma attributes them to the Romans of the Middle-Republican period (between the fifth and the third century BC). The Roman engineers knew very well how to handle heavy stones (just think of the Pantheon columns in Rome, weighing 200 tons each and coming from a quarry in southern Egypt), and they also knew how to build using megalithic stone blocks, as the internal halls of Castel S. Angelo in Rome, made of huge travertine slabs, demonstrate (the castle was originally built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Adrian).

Figure 10.6: Polygonal walls of the Alatri Acropolis, Italy.
Bedford Indiana Easter Island
Figure 10.7: Polygonal walls on Sacsahuaman

However, except for some rare cases, such as that of the lower wall in the Palestrina sanctuary, inspired by the same building existing in Delphi, the theory attributing the building of the megalithic walls of central Italy to the Romans is difficult to support for many reasons. Indeed, the philosophy of building with polygonal blocks, which entails complicated work on the construction site because the corners of every stone need to be cut with extreme precision, clashes with the practical mentality of the Roman builders, which led to the world-famous structures built in squared blocks, such as the huge foundations of the Coliseum, that can be seen everywhere in Rome and in the Roman provinces.

Polygonal walls in Italy were thus probably made by Italic people, such as the Hernics and the Volsceans, before the Roman conquest, and therefore should be dated around the sixth to fourth centuries BC, if not earlier (Magli 2007b). Many of these works are breathtaking, but none can be compared to the perfection of the acropolis in Alatri, a gigantic megalithic structure (with walls up to 15 meters tall) built with such absolute technical accuracy that it is impossible to insert even a single sheet of paper between its blocks. It is to be hoped that a new method of dating stone will lead to a definitive date of construction (Liritzis 1994, Liritzis et al 1994). The purpose of this building is unclear as well, as we have no written record of it; however, in the 1980s a local scholar, Don Giuseppe Capone, discovered numerous solar alignments between the acropolis and the city gates, and suggested that the trapezoidal plan of the acropolis—a true replica of the polygonal blocks of its walls—was inspired by the shape of the Gemini constellation (Aveni and Capone 1987, Capone 1982; for further details on Alatri, see Magli 2006).

Coincidentally, the Incas' capital had its own particular shape. From some chronicles written after the Spanish conquest we know that the city was planned to make it look, when seen from above, like a puma (the Andean feline also called mountain lion). It is easy to see the profile of the animal when looking at a map of the historical center of Cusco; the main square is the space between the front and the back legs of the animal, while the main temple, the Temple of the Sun or Coricancha, corresponds to its genitalia (Gasparini and Margolies 1980, Rowe 1967). The puma's tail is sketched by the confluence of the Tullumayu River and the Vilcanota River, which delimited the ancient borders of the town (today they are covered and correspond to two converging streets). Following the contour of the animal, we see that the head is represented by a hill, called Sacsahuaman, located at the northeast end of the town plan. Indeed, Sarmiento de Gamboa, in his chronicle from 1572 (translated by Clements Markham in 1907), stated:

Figure 10.8: Plan of Cusco drawn by E. Squier in 1860. The profile of a four-legged animal is easily recognizable.

After Tupac Inca Yupanqui had visited all the empire and had come to Cuzco where he was served and adored, being for the time idle, he remembered that his father Pachacuti had called the city of Cuzco the lion city. He said that the tail was where the two rivers unite which flow through it, that the body was the great square and the houses round it, and that the head was wanting. It would be for some son of his to put it on. The Inca discussed this question with the orejones [the Inca nobles], who said that the best head would be to make a fortress on a high plateau to the north of the city.

Cusco is therefore, to my knowledge, unique case in the world of a town built on a specific plan conceived to satisfy some purely symbolic criteria. This monumental reassessment of the city happened probably during the first half of the 15th century, over a preexisting site; the conventional date for this event is fixed at 1438. There was no practical need to plan the town between two rivers and with a huge hill on the northwest. The town could have been built some hundred meters south without any problem. As a consequence of the crazy layout of the Incan town, still perfectly recognizable today in the Cusco center, the main roads (created in the last century by covering the rivers) cross the longitudinal streets at different angles, and the blocks of buildings (most of which still exhibit the Incas' marvelous stonework on their foundations) are not rectangular but trapezoidal, because of the need to adjust to the body of the puma defined by the two rivers, getting thinner toward the tail. It should be noted, however, that the scholar Tom Zuidema (1985) refuted the possibility that Cusco was planned in the puma's actual shape. According to him, the first description of the city as a lion—by the chronicler Betanzos—was to be interpreted only as a metaphor for the power of the head of the state, the Inca, living in the town. This metaphor was later misunderstood by Sarmiento as being factual evidence. My opinion is that Zuidema's viewpoint is not alternative but rather complementary; both interpretations are likely to be valid. The fact that Cusco was laid out in a puma shape was the counterpart of the metaphoric content of Cusco's phrase "like a puma"; this would not be strange in the Andean world, which was rich with dual aspects. The puma indeed was a sacred animal, and we shall see further on that it might have been connected with another "dual" puma in the sky.

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