Cuzco welcomed us bathed in the chilly afternoon sun of late July (which is mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere). Nestled in the mountains, at an altitude of 3400m., the famous capital of the Incas leaves every visitor literally breathless upon arrival (*).
I landed with no knowledge of the region’s historical background – a veritable tabula rasa – eager to explore the mysteries of the Inca civilization which, for me, remained concealed in exotic veils of ignorance. The first impression though was not as exciting as I had imagined: the Incas existed for only four centuries (12th c-16th c), with very ambiguous beginnings lost in the mist of legends, and an abrupt end after which nothing but ruins remained. Being Greek, I have grown with the unfortunate arrogance of the people who have left deep footprints dating back a few thousand years. Hence, I failed to see, at first glance, the significance of the Incas’ achievements at a period that Europe and the Middle East had already thrived several times over and were on the verge of the scientific revolution.
And then, I stepped on the Inca trail on my way to Machu Picchu. I walked on the ancient path, on a pilgrimage that, initially, I thought it would be spiritual just because of its destination. I was soon to discover though that it was meant to be profoundly sacred as an homage to human ingenuity and magnificence. In the morning hours, I let the land speak to me, and in the evening, in my tent, I read through the pages of “The Royal Commentaries of the Inca” by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, a genuine royal descendant. Having barely scratched the surface, some of my most astonishing learnings include the following:
- Although the Incas’ civilization is rather recent compared to other developments in human history, it had not invented the art of writing. This constitutes one of the biggest problems in understanding this era (and possibly adds to the mystery), for there are no written documents except what has been written after the Spanish invasion (mostly by foreigners).
- Even more incredible is the fact that they had not invented the wheel.
- They had not conceived any arithmetic system; still, they managed to keep very detailed annual records of the various quantities of crops, the population and its sub-categories, and the in-kind taxation from the different tribes towards the Inca (meaning, the King) and the central administration on quipu (a knot system on threads of various colors and thickness).
- The Inca economy was based on barter since there was no monetary currency. The mythical quantities of gold and silver found and plundered by the conquistadores were mainly used for the decoration of the temples (their walls, utensils, and gardens) because their beauty and reflection resembled the Sun and the Moon, the two principal deities in their religion.
All the above might seem of limited importance (except for the gold, of course) if one does not take into consideration the size of the Inca Empire and the engineering achievements they mastered. At its peak, the empire did not comprise only of today’s Peru but stretched to include (through a series of peaceful assimilations or traditional military conquests) large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and north-central Chile, and southern Colombia. Their road system was extensive, resembling the legendary one of the Roman Empire. Rivers were traversed over bridges made out of plants weaved into ropes (carefully maintained and repaired throughout the years); these bridges were so strong that it had been documented the Spaniards could safely cross them on galloping horses. Administration worked smoothly despite the vastness of the land: records were kept diligently; mail was oral yet accurate, even though they didn’t even have horses for fast transportation; the King offered land, food, and clothing to all its subjects following a system of social equality, hence there was no hunger, poverty, or crime (an elaborate system of social surveillance further added to the decrease in crime to such levels that the Incas didn’t have a need for prisons). Their most imposing buildings (temples and palaces) are a marvel of engineering, given the accuracy with which huge stones, carried from far-away lands (remember: there were no tools based on the shape of the wheel), were solidly placed on top of each other without mortar and with such density that, today, not even something as slim as a credit card can fit through the cracks.
Undeniably there is something mystical, something almost “alien” about the Inca history and the history of all the Andean civilizations that managed to shine despite obvious limitations and their isolation from the rest of the civilized world. The last pages of these chapters are written in blood, and although their achievements stand as evidence of what humans can accomplish even with limited resources, their downfall is a reminder of the dark side of our species, drowned in greed and irreverence. Their civilization disappeared along with the last original Incas, as most of their creations were not really of use or interest to the already developed Europe. Their fruits and vegetables though moved across the ocean and enriched the European diet with things that today we take for granted (like tomatoes and potatoes) but they were unknown to us about 500 years ago. Finally, their gold fueled the European economy, allowing for new chapters to be written, while the lost treasures continue to inspire tales and explorers.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
(*) This article was originally published in the first official issue of 361. 361 is a travel journal with a focus on candid travel stories and photography. It is a collection of personal accounts of avid adventurers, pieces of advice from expert wanderers, and cultural insights from well-informed travelers. After two Special Editions, the first official issue of 361 is now released: Kunnasha 001. A highly recommended initiative. Visit their website for more information and to order your copy: www.361.world
Complement this article with more thoughts and experiences from my trip to Peru, like the Fragility of New Beginnings while hiking on the Inca trail, the miracle of the Floating Islands, or the mysteries of the Amazon’s Rainforest.