Day 11 — Qoricancha

Monday — April 13

After joining up with Vidal, we headed over to visit Qoricancha (aka Korikancha). We’d stopped by the site on our first day in Cusco. At the time, we did not go inside because it was late in the day and our exploration of this intriguing place would have been rushed.

The Church and Convent of Santo Domingo sits atop the ruins of Qoricancha.

Let me quickly summarize what I posted previously about this site.

Qoricancha was a temple dedicated to the sun. As such, it was one of the most important temples of the Inca Empire. Its name means “Court of Gold” in Quechua — appropriate since the walls are said to have been covered in gold and silver (removed to pay the ransom the Spanish demanded for the release of Inca Atahualpa). After looting the temple of all valuables, the conquistadors destroyed the structure, which dated back to 1200, and built the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo upon its ruins. Consecrated in 1633, Santo Domingo was extensively damaged in the earthquake of 1650 and was not inhabited until after the 1680 reconstruction, which resulted in today’s buildings. It’s interesting to note that thanks to Inca construction ingenuity, the walls upon which Santo Domingo sits suffered no damage during the earthquake.

The baroque church is in stark contrast to the simplicity of the Inca wall that once surrounded Qoricancha.
(the darker colored curved wall is all that remains of the sun temple that was once located within the Qoricancha complex)

Once inside, we found ourselves in the cloister of the convent. We took our time walking around the cloister, studying the paintings decorating the walls. The guards were careful to make sure no one was photographing these works of art, although they seemed to have no problem when I zoomed in from across the quadrangle to capture a photo or two.

A small portion of the cloister surrounding the quadrangle.
(the fountain in the center, though re-worked to Spanish design, is the same one that was lined with gold during Inca times)

One of the many paintings that decorate the walls of the cloister.

Following another damaging earthquake — this one in 1953 — part of the cloister was removed to unearth four of the original chambers of Qoricancha. Thus, today it is possible to get a glimpse of this most revered Inca site as one strolls around a Catholic convent. (By the way, the Inca wall used as the foundation for Santo Domingo once again escaped the earthquake unscathed. Remember, we’re talking mortarless masonry here!)

At a mock-up of the site, Vidal explained that inside the high walls, Qoricancha was made up of rectangular buildings that housed temples and shrines. The 4,000 Inca priests and attendants who were dedicated to the worship of Inti (the sun) lived on site at the complex, which also served as the empire’s foremost astronomical observatory. The mummified remains of Inca leaders were kept here as well — sitting on gold thrones no less.

The rooms had polished stone floors and the walls were decorated with precious metals, such as gold and silver. The niches held life-sized gold figures, and there was a solid gold altar and a gold sun disc. Here’s a brief description from the chronicles of Pedro de Cieza de León: “… in which the earth was lumps of fine gold … with stalks of corn that were of gold stalks, leaves, and ears … so well planted that no matter how hard the wind blew it could not uproot them. Aside from this there were more than 20 sheep of gold with their lambs and the shepherds who guarded them, all of this metal.”

No one knows what happened to the sun disc, the holiest symbol of the Inca Empire. The first three conquistadors sent by Pizarro to collect the ransom for Atahualpa reported its existence, but did not remove it from Qoricancha. They focused their attention on the bigger items such as the gold altar and fountain. There was no sign of the disc when the main body of Spaniards arrived in Cusco. It is speculated that the disc was hidden away before the looters could get their hands on it; it hasn’t been found to date. As for the rest, it was all melted into bullion and transported back to Spain — all lost to civilization in the name of greed.

The glass enclosed mock-up of Qoricancha.

After walking the length of the cloister, we turned our attention to the ruins of Qoricancha. We studied the perfectness of the mortarless walls of the shrines dedicated to some of the lesser natural gods; tried to picture the mind-boggling image of walls covered in gold and silver and niches filled with life-sized figures of gold; stood on a stone platform (placed specifically for that purpose, by the way) to look through a window to see the perfect alignment with windows in subsequent chambers; studied the detail of a restored Inca mural in one of the chambers; peeked through a ceremonial door for a glimpse of a painting of the Milky Way as seen over Cusco during the summer months; spent time interpreting the Inca vision of the cosmos as depicted on a gold plate — a replica of a line drawing from a chronicle written in 1613 by a native author.

A glimpse into the “Open Room” where ceremonies were held.

Trapezoidal doorways — an element of earthquake-proof Inca construction.
Left: View of a Dominican convent from inside an Inca shrine.
Right: Double-jamb entries signified that a place of importance lay beyond.

Replica of a drawing that represents the Inca vision of the cosmos.

Left: The sky and the world — a depiction of Pachamama and her husband Pacha Camac.
Right: The Inca believed that Pacha Camac created the first man and woman.

Eventually, we found our way onto the terrace for a quick glimpse of the grounds and an Inca-style canal. This rounded out our visit to this most amazing site. With tour groups starting to show up, it was time for us to take our leave.

Glimpse of Cusco from inside the Church of Santo Domingo.

Inca-style canal on the grounds of the church-temple.

Mui and Vidal lead the way to Plaza de Armas.

Next Up: Day 11 — A Few More Hours Around Cusco

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