The walls of Sacsayhuaman in the hills overlooking the city of Cuzco are the largest surviving remains of any pre-Colombian fortification in the Americas. Based on the descriptions of Spanish conquistadors, Sacsayhuaman was once an immenst complex which included palaces, temples towers and a labyrinthine defensive system. Although picked over for centuries for building materials, the surviving structure is still almost incomprehensibly immense, despite being a scant shadow of its former self. The oddly shaped yet precisely cut stones are a marvel of ancient engineering. The Sacsayhuaman Fortress is part of the City of Cuzco UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Very little is known of the origins of the Incan people, due in no small part to the brutal cultural practices of European conquerors in the 1500s. The Incan Empire began as the relatively modest Kingdom of Cuzco sometime 12th century. The city of Cuzco, located high in the Andes, remained the only imperial capital for over 300 years. Construction of the complex at Sacsayhuaman appears to have begun soon after the founding of the Kingdom of Cuzco, and due to the shear enormity of the site probably continued throughout its history.
Cuzco and Sacsayhuaman were at the heart of the thriving Incan empire, which slowly expanded along the Andes Mountains and the west coast of South America. By the time the Spanish made contact with the Incas, their realm stretched from modern-day Ecuador in the north to about half-way down Chile in the south. Cuzco was by far the largest and wealthiest city in all of South America at this time, and a natural target for the European invaders.
Throughout the 1520s and 1530s, the Incan Empire was rocked by numerous wars, including a civil war fomented by the Spanish which significantly weakened their ability to resist the onslaught of the conquistadors. Sacsayhuaman was the site of several battles and sieges, and the site changed hands several times. After the fortress and city were briefly retaken by the Incas, both were finally taken by the Spanish in 1536.
Although Incan guerillas and rebels continued to fight on for another four decades, the fall of Sacsayhuaman effectively put an end the Incan Empire as a cohesive state. The immense fortress, once the pride of the empire, was systematically pillaged for building materials. Many of the public buildings and churches which now grace the city of Cuzco are composed at least in part of stone from Sacsayhuaman. The destruction only stopped when the blocks towards the bottom simply became too big to remove. Finally, in the 20th century, the site was recognized for the architectural treasure it was, and efforts were made to save and restore the site.
The ruins of the Fortress of Sacsayhuaman are huge, but only offer a glimpse of the size of the place in its heyday. According to one Spanish chronicler who visited Sacsayhuaman while it was still intact, it boasted immense walls with towers; large, beautiful windowed buildings; storehouses; and at least one temple. Viewed from above, the fortress was said to have once resembled the head of a puma, with the city of Cuzco serving as its body.
What survives are mostly the foundations and outer walls, which are still breathtaking in size and scope. Built on three levels on a hillside, the walls consist of titanic, precisely cut stones, some weighing over one-hundred tons. Backed up by packed earth, these stones were all but impervious to the cannons of the time. The wall’s curvature created natural towers, which allowed defenders to protect the complex from many angles. The ruins of Sacsayhuaman remain home to one of the last surviving Incan religious festivals, the Inti Raymi, which takes place every year on the Winter Solstice.
The Fortress of Sacsayhuaman is located on a tall hill about a mile northwest of the modern-day city of Cuzco. It is easily accessible on foot to the city center by way of an ancient Incan pathway. The fortress is an unrestricted, open site. Web: www.cusco-peru.org (official tourism website of Cusco).
The Incans, who built the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas, also built many massive fortresses to protect their domains. Not too far from Cuzco are the remains of the Xaquixahuana Fortress. More impressive are the remains of the Acaray Fortress, which guarded the northern frontiers of the empire; and the spectacular cliffside Ollantaytambo Fortress in the south, where the Incan emperor made this last stand in 1572. Also of note is the Chankillo Fortress, a pre-Incan structure which is surprisingly intact and boasts towers which may have once been used for astronomical observation.