Peru Trip #9 – Saqsaywaman, Cuzco

Me and one of the megaliths at Saqsaywaman, Cuzco - click to see more on Flickr
Well, the Incas were truly extraordinary masons. For all that this was – in European chronology – a medieval culture, in the 15th and 16th centuries CE, it was a megalithic culture. Not the megalithic culture of thousands of years BCE, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe and the Mediterranean, but a megalithic culture that had mastered building with stone in an extraordinary way. There are mortice and tendon joints, and metallic rings sunk into carved grooves between stones, inside these huge walls, and carefully graded horizontals that incorporate subtle ratchets at strategic points. The basic shape is trapezoidal: walls and doorways and niches that stand with legs apart. All this makes Inca buildings effectively earthquake proof – both supremely stable and protected from horizontal movement.
Example of masonry techniques at Qoricancha, Cuzco - click to see more on Flickr

Churches built by the Spanish on top of Inca temples (Christianity,
after all, built on top of pagan sites the world over, to cancel out the
old gods with their new religion) fell in the earthquakes of 1650 and
1950 and 1986. The Inca temples are only ruined by deliberate Spanish
destruction, and by having been treated as quarries right up until legal
protection in 1936. Cusco city is an image of the Puma, with the
Temple of the Sun at its phallus, and the complex of Saqsaywaman at its
head (the name Saqsaywaman literally means, Puma’s head).
Our guide shows us the Puma on the map and satellite photo - his finger on the phallus, Saqsaywayan the head
A drawing of the Cuzco puma

The layout of the Saqsaywaman site

The zigzag walls of Saqsaywaman main temple site

The zigzag construction is the hair on the lower jaw of the Puma, the
three tiers the three levels of the cosmos – underworld (snake), earth
(puma), and sky (condor). All that is left now is the foundations – you
can see the drainage holes that kept the place dry during the rainy
season. There were three towers on top of Saqsaywaman – one 160km
square, and one circular with three concentric rings of stone, that was
an enormous water tank. The hydraulic mastery of these genius
stonemasons, furthermore, continues to work perfectly where these
temples still stand, serving water at constant temperature and flow
regardless of season, from sources modern archaeologists have simply not

The ritual cleansing site

There is ample evidence of how they were able to take water from high
places, channel it through carefully carved stones down into valleys and
back up to high places on the other side of valleys, using the pressure
created by shrinking the bore of the grooves they forced the water
through. These technologies, moreover, were sacred – stone and water,
and the knowledge of their manipulation, were pure. There is no mortar
holding any of these stones together. The water flows through holes
bored through stone, along channels paved with stone tiles, never
through clay pipes. Sand, clay and ramps were used, but only to
transport the stone: the quarry for the main temples at Cuzco is 17km
away, and it is estimated that it took 20,000 people working every day
77 years to build just the one large temple as Saqsaywaman on the hill
overlooking the city. They did not have the wheel. Yep, that’s right,
they did all this without using wheels. The Incas were truly
extraordinary masons.

A doorway from one level to the next of the zigzag surround of the main temple site at Saqsaywaman

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