Legend tells that in the 12th century, the first inca, Manco Capac, was charged by Inti, the ancestral sun god, to find the navel of the earth (qosq’o in the Quechua language) –the spot where he could plunge a golden rod into the ground until it disappeared. When at last Manco discovered such a spot, he founded the city that was to become the thriving capital of the Americas’ greatest empire.
The Inca empire’s main expansion likely occurred in the hundred years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors in 1533. When the Spanish reached Cuzco, they began keeping chronicles, including Inca history as related by the Incas themselves. The most famous of these accounts was The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, written by Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish military captain.
The ninth inca, Pachacutec, gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest. Until his time, the Incas had dominated only a modest area close to Cuzco, though they frequently skirmished with other highland tribes. One such tribe was the Chanka, whose growing thirst for expansion led them to Cuzco’s doorstep in 1438.
Viracocha Inca fled in the belief that his small empire was lost, but his third son refused to give up the fight. With the help of some of the older generals, he rallied the Inca army and, in a desperate final battle, in which legend claims that the very boulders transformed themselves into warriors to fight alongside the Incas, he famously managed to rout the Chanka.
The victorious younger son changed his name to Pachacutec, proclaimed himself inca and, buoyed by his victory over the Chanka, embarked upon the first wave of Inca expansion that was eventually to create the Inca empire. During the next 25 years, he bagged much of the central Andes, including the region between the two great lakes of Titicaca and Junín.
Pachacutec also proved himself a sophisticated urban developer, devising Cuzco’s famous puma shape and diverting rivers to cross the city. He also built some fine buildings, including the famous Qorikancha temple and a palace on a corner of what is now the Plaza de Armas.
Pachacutec’s successor, Túpac Yupanqui, was every bit his father’s son. During the 1460s he helped his father subdue a great area to the north, including the northern Peruvian and southern Ecuadorian Andes of today, as well as the northern Peruvian coast. And as the 10th inca, his empire continued to expand dramatically, extending from Quito in Ecuador to south of Santiago in Chile by his death.
Huayna Capac, the 11th inca, was the last to rule over a united empire, an empire so big that it seemed to have little left to conquer. Nevertheless, Huayna Capac doggedly marched to the northernmost limits of his empire, along the present-day Ecuador–Colombia border, and fought a long series of campaigns during which he sired his son, Atahualpa, who was possibly born of a quiteña (inhabitant of Quito, Ecuador) mother.
Then something totally unexpected happened: Europeans discovered the New World, bringing with them various Old World diseases. Epidemics, including smallpox and the common cold, swept down from Central America and the Caribbean. Shortly before dying of such an epidemic around 1525, Huayna Capac divided his empire, giving the northern part to Atahualpa and the southern Cuzco area to another son, Huascar.
Both sons were suited to ruling an empire – so well suited, in fact, that neither wished to share power, and an Inca civil war ensued. As a pure-blooded native cuzqueño (inhabitant of Cuzco), it was Huascar who had the people’s support, but Atahualpa had the backing of the northern army and in 1532 his battle-hardened troops won a key battle, capturing Huascar outside Cuzco.
Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro landed in northern Ecuador and marched southward in the wake of Atahualpa’s conquests. Atahualpa himself had been too busy fighting the civil war to worry about a small band of foreigners, but by 1532 a fateful meeting had been arranged with the Spaniard in Cajamarca. This meeting was to radically change the course of South American history, as Atahualpa was ambushed by a few dozen armed conquistadors, who succeeded in capturing him, killing thousands of unarmed indigenous tribespeople and routing tens of thousands more.
In an attempt to regain his freedom, the inca offered a ransom of a roomful of gold and two rooms of silver, including gold stripped from the temple walls of Qorikancha. But after holding Atahualpa prisoner for a number of months, Pizarro murdered him anyway, and soon marched on Cuzco. Mounted on horseback, protected by armor and swinging steel swords, the Spanish cavalry was virtually unstoppable at the time.
Pizarro entered Cuzco on November 8, 1533, by which time he had appointed Manco, a half-brother of Huascar and Atahualpa, as the new puppet inca. But after a few years of keeping to heel, the docile puppet rebelled. In 1536, Manco Inca set out to drive the Spaniards from his empire, laying siege to Cuzco with an army estimated at well over a hundred thousand people. Indeed, it was only a desperate last-ditch breakout and violent battle at Saqsaywamán that saved the Spanish from complete annihilation.
Manco Inca was forced to retreat to Ollantaytambo and then into the jungle at Vilcabamba. After Cuzco was safely recaptured, looted and settled, the seafaring Spaniards turned their attentions to the newly founded colonial capital, Lima. Cuzco’s importance quickly waned, becoming just another quiet colonial backwater. All the gold and silver was gone, and many Inca buildings were pulled down to accommodate churches and colonial houses.
Few events of historical significance have rocked Cuzco since the Spanish conquest, except for earthquakes in 1650 and 1950, and an infamous Inca uprising led by Túpac Amaru II in 1780. His was the only indigenous revolt that ever came close to succeeding, but eventually he too was defeated by the Spaniards. Not coincidentally, just over two centuries later in 1984, a Peruvian Marxist guerrilla group named itself after the Inca warrior.
Battles for Peruvian independence in the 1820s achieved what the Inca armies never had. Yet as it was the descendants of the conquistadors who wrested power from Spain, life continued much as before. It was the ‘rediscovery’ of Machu Picchu in 1911 that affected Cuzco far more than any event since the arrival of the Spanish, changing the city from a provincial backwater into Peru’s foremost tourist hub.