The Serpent on the Lions Head

The Sacsahuaman hill was the puma's head. The building, which lies, opposite to the town, in the northern flank of this hill, is, among all the crazy things that we are coming across in this book, definitely the most absurd to us. But the person who planned it and the thousands of people who built it with much effort over several decades knew very well what they were doing, and why (Plate 19).

The building is a series of three parallel, terraced walls over 300 meters

Figure 10.9: Map of Sacsahuaman hill (adapted from Gasparini and Margolies 1997). 1) Main gate 2) Zig zag walls 3) Circular tower 4) Storehouses

long and more than 6 meters tall, made of polygonal stonework. The huge blocks fit together with insuperable precision, and some of them, especially in the corners, weigh over 300 tons. The blocks were quarried on the flanks of a hill that lies some kilometers to the northwest of Cusco (Bauer and Stanish 2001). The walls are laid out in a zigzag line, with regular projections like saw teeth, a feature of even more obscure use than the entire complex (see below). On the hill's top there were various buildings and a round tower, of which only the foundations remain. Important public ceremonies were certainly held in the vast square in front of the walls, and the aristocracy could attend them sitting on the "Inca throne'', which is a large rock sprouting characterized by natural "slides'' of volcanic origin, finely carved in the shape of a tribune.

Although many archaeologists love to call Sacsahuaman a fortress (which it was during a desperate anti-Spaniards rebellion in 1536), it is ridiculous to think that the structure could have been built for military purposes. The Sacsahuaman "fortress" is totally inadequate for any defensive purpose, for the following reasons:

1. The building is composed by three terraces that form defense lines. However, the width of the first line is too small to allow an effective defense, and the central entrances to subsequent lines are too close together. If the building were to have a defensive purpose, the entrances would have been constructed as far apart as possible, so that if an enemy penetrated the first line, it would have been obliged to move along the line, under the bows of the defenders, to reach the next gate.

2. The defensive function of the saw teeth is totally mysterious. The Spaniards certainly thought that they were used as protruding towers to cross-fire bows or missiles on the enemy. I have estimated, however, that the distance between two such towers is an average of 19 meters. This is much less than twice the maximum shooting distance by a bow or by the hand projectiles that were used by the Incas. This shows that more than one third of the saw teeth built with much effort from enormous stone blocks are superfluous for defense. In comparison, one may notice that the Roman standard for the construction of towers in city walls was to separate them about 33 meters each, a distance that allowed a perfect cross-shot by the defenders.

3. The way in which the gates were closed is unclear, if they were closed at all.

4. The use of the zigzag wall technique is poorly documented among the Incas. A single example can be found in one of the fortification walls of the provincial fort of Inkallakta, Bolivia (Hyslop 1990). But there the distance between the saw teeth is much larger, and the zigzags are probably due to the fact that the wall ascends on the flank of a steep hill.

5. Aesthetics, much more than functionality, seem to have been the inspiring principle of the building. For instance, it was noticed by Gasparini and Margolies (1983) that, at a certain point, the builders first put in place a huge, rectangular megalith and then realized that, instead, two smaller blocks joined together would have been more in harmony with the sinuous turns of the polygonal courses. Thus, they carved a thin line on the surface of the megalith to make it look like two joined blocks (yes, quite an efficacious defense trick indeed).

6. The Incas at their apogee had practically no dangerous enemies at all, and certainly none in the heart of their empire.

The only reason why Sacsahuaman has always been called a fortress is that the Conquistadores could not even remotely think that such a structure was built without a military purpose.

But what is the real purpose of this building? And what are its symbolic meanings? It can be read in many tourist guides that the zigzag walls of Sacsahuaman were meant to reproduce the teeth of the puma's head. However, this is nonsense, because the walls are not laid out where the puma's mouth should be, but rather distributed on the upper part of the head's profile. I believe, rather, that the walls were conceived and built in order to represent, on the same hill of the puma's head, another sacred animal of the Incas: the serpent. Clues for this interpretation can be found in the Poma de Ayala chronicle, where a quadripartite Incan coat of arms is depicted, showing a puma and a serpent (and a buzzard and a piece of textile). The iconography of zigzag serpents, connected with that of Illapa, the thunderbolt, can be seen carved on several stones in Incan (or immediately postconquest) buildings in Cusco, and one such carving has been found on Sacsahuaman as well (Trever 2007); furthermore, a longstanding tradition identifies the shape of a running serpent in the polygonal masonry of one of the zigzag terraces (although this might be due to pure chance). Finally, as we shall see, the serpent had a celestial counterpart in the sky, as did the Puma in all probability, in the form of dark constellations located at the two convergences between the branches of the Milky Way.

Another enigmatic place in which Incan stonework reaches perfection is Ollantaytambo, some dozens of kilometers north of Cusco, in the Urubamba valley (Protzen 1985, 1993) (Plate 20).

Ollantaytambo is placed in a strategic position, at the entrance of a canyon, and it is made of a series of artificial terraces with a building on top, erected with the usual extreme precision; as a consequence it is usually described as a stronghold meant to guard the valley. However, some consider it a royal estate belonging to the king. Others consider it a ritual complex; clues for this interpretation come from a sophisticated net of channels that feed a series of wonderful fountains and pools, perhaps meant for ritual ceremonies, and from the observation that the rocks on the hill that faces Ollantaytambo seem to form a gigantic human profile, which the (modern) tradition states is that of Viracocha (curiously enough, a very similar profile can be seen in Pedra de Gavea, a rocky peak not far from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). As these three different explanations indicate, we really have no clear idea of the purpose of this complex. For instance, the megaliths on the summit could have been part of a building, maybe a temple, but it was never completed, and not because of the arrival of the Conquistadores but because the project was abandoned much earlier. The entire site gives the impression of an ambitious work in progress, a construction site that remained frozen in the state in which it was 600 years ago. The gigantic blocks, dozens of which are still scattered around the site, were quarried from the Kachiqhata hill, some 5 kilometers away on the opposite bank of the Urubamba, and were first carried down to the valley (using a huge rock-cut slide), and then ferried on the river and finally carried up the hill on the opposite side. All in all, I believe that the true meaning of Ollantaytambo has not yet been fully grasped, and the same holds for many other Incan sites in the Urubamba valley. [I discuss in more depth the symbolism of Incan architecture and sacred landscape in a forthcoming book (Magli 2009).] More generally, I do not believe that the origin and meaning of the Inca polygonal stonework have been sufficiently investigated. It is indeed apparent that such a complicated, time-consuming technique was employed—in contrast with the simpler, standardized square-block technique—in specially chosen places with a symbolic, rather than functional, meaning. My friend and colleague Laura Laurencich Minelli (personal communication) proposed the idea that the polygonal, chaotic arrangement of the blocks may symbolize Pachamama (the Mother Earth) while the square-block technique might be associated with the cosmic order; in particular, the polygonal masonry of Sacsahuaman might be compared with a symbolic piece of textile, in which the scheme becomes more and more regular. This kind of Incan textile appears to symbolize Pachamama and the progressive ordering of the world. Furthermore, as usual in the Incan world, the two stonework techniques might have been associated with the complementary "haran" and "hurin" concepts: of the two main monuments of Cusco, the Coricancha is built exclusively with square blocks, and the Sacsahuaman is built exclusively with polygonal blocks.

The origin of the technical procedures of stone quarrying and cutting has been traced in part to Tiahuanaco (Protzen and Nair 1997). Sometimes one actually gets the impression that at least part of the huge megalithic constructions (especially those in Machu Picchu; see below) may belong to a period prior to the Incas. As is well known, it is almost impossible to date stone buildings using physical-chemical methods, and the only historical evidence of the building of, for example, Sacsahuaman by the Incas—a construction that should have been carried out in a period very close in time to the conquest—is the recording in some chronicle, particularly that by Garcilaso de La Vega. But even de La Vega, who was born only a few decades after the presumed completion date of the construction and thus could have known an eyewitness to its construction, declares that he does not understand how they could have built such a structure without the help of the Devil.

Perhaps a better understanding of the symbolism underlying the polygonal stonework will help us in better understanding this construction. In any case, works as huge as the Sacsahuaman are only elements in the gigantic sacred landscape of the Incan heartland.

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