Cuzco (Peru)

Cuzco (Peru)
Cuzco (Peru)

Cuzco was the center of the great Inca Empire, located in modern-day Peru. The word cuzco means “navel of the universe.” As in many other civilizations throughout history, this term suggests that the Incas saw themselves as the center of the world.

The Inca Empire itself incorporated not just modern-day Peru, but also parts of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. Cuzco, with a very pleasant climate, is situated in a valley at an altitude of 3,250 m (10,000 ft.).

In terms of pre-Columbian Latin American history, the Incas were relative latecomers to the area, similar to the Aztecs in Mexico. It was really in the 1400s that the Inca Empire flourished. By the time the Spaniards arrived in 1533, the empire had been in existence about 200 years.


Modern knowledge of the origins of Cuzco comes from legends. Legend holds that Cuzco was founded by Manco Capac, the first Inca ruler. There are two similar legends regarding the founding of Cuzco.

In the first, four brothers and four sisters left a cave just south of Cuzco. One of the siblings carried a golden rod that was stuck into the ground at several points during their travel. As these people were the children of the God of Sun, they were looking for a homeland.

When they arrived at Cuzco, only four children were left, one of whom was Manco Cápac. In another version, the God of Sun sent out his two children, one of each gender, from Lake Titicaca. They were told to drive a golden rod into the ground wherever they stopped to rest or eat. The staff would drive into the ground and disappear. According to the legends, it was the place where the staff disappeared that became Cuzco.

Despite the legends, archaeologists have determined that the Incas did move to Cuzco, which was previously occupied by a different tribe. Their rule from Cuzco is believed to have begun somewhere around a.d 1200. During the 1300s the Incas were an ordinary tribe residing in the general Cuzco area.


The name Inca itself means “ruler,” and this group often fought with other tribes in the area for control of both the land and water. When compared to other South American tribes, the Incas were not initially considered as advanced as others.

Using Cuzco as a starting point, the Incas began to raid their neighbors. Many historians have pointed out that the Incas themselves were not so much innovators as they were adapters. Whenever a new tribe or group of people were conquered, the Incas immediately took note of their industrial and artistic strengths, drawing from their knowledge to increase their own.

Skilled artisans or artists were often sent to Cuzco to demonstrate their knowledge to the Inca ruler. At its height, Cuzco was a stunningly beautiful city. The temples and palaces were massive and extravagantly decorated with gold.

Although the Inca Empire expanded rapidly, it was not necessarily through the use of brute force. Often the Incas would send out a courier to a new tribe or group of people. These people were given a choice—either incorporate into the Inca Empire willingly or military force would be used.

Cuzco itself was the target of numerous attacks. Sapa Inca Pachacutic, an Inca king, became a hero for defending Cuzco and calming the areas around the city. He also helped to raise Cuzco back up into a major center for both empire administration and scientific learning.

The Incas relied upon the oral tradition to preserve their heritage. Historians know of approximately 11 Inca kings; there may have been more, but their names are forgotten. According to Inca heritage, it was better to forget the name of a corrupt person or ruler than to remember that person at all. To be forgotten was considered to be a terrible shame.

As an administrative center, Cuzco controlled an empire of approximately 350,000 square miles. The streets of Cuzco were laid out according to a planned, geometric design. There were carefully defined sections of the city. The empire’s best masons were brought in to work on the imperial palaces. Some of the stone blocks used to build the palaces were delicately cut pieces as long as 20 feet.

Ordinary houses, however, were made of adobe with a straw thatch. Cuzco was thus a great center for government, religion, commerce, and military life. Great wealth, both public and private, was apparent in Cuzco. But the city was not without its problems. Besides the threat of invasion from outside, many of its residents lived in decadence. Drinking and addiction to coca were major problems.

There were no attempts to curb drunkenness on a social level. As for the use of coca, its cultivation was restricted to a specific area. Its use provided the user with great endurance, even without the use of food for nourishment.

Cuzco as colonial city
Cuzco as colonial city

As opposed to drinking, the Incas restricted the use of coca to those of the upper echelons of society. The conquest of America at the hands of the Spanish is a story well known and documented. In 1533, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro entered the city of Cuzco. The city was swiftly conquered, and plundered.

The conquering Spanish then built up Cuzco as a colonial city, even to the point of using the foundations of the Inca buildings that were destroyed or damaged. Cuzco remains a thriving town today. It has good transportation access and a commercial base. Cuzco was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1950, but the town was rebuilt, and most of the ancient buildings were restored.