According to legend, in the 12th century, the first inca (king), Manco Capac, was ordered by the ancestral sun god Inti to find the spot where he could plunge a golden rod into the ground until it disappeared. At this spot – deemed the navel of the earth (qosq’o in the Quechua language) – he founded Cuzco, the city that would become the thriving capital of the Americas’ greatest empire.
The Inca empire’s main expansion occurred in the hundred years prior to the arrival of the conquistadors in 1532. The ninth inca, Pachacutec, gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest, with unexpected victory against the more dominant Chanka tribe in 1438. His was the first wave of expansion that would create the Inca empire.
Pachacutec also proved himself a sophisticated urban developer, devising Cuzco’s famous puma shape and diverting rivers to cross the city. He built fine buildings, including the famous Qorikancha temple and a palace on the present Plaza de Armas. Among the monuments he built in honor of Inca victories are Sacsaywamán, the temple-fortress at Ollantaytambo and likely even Machu Picchu.
Expansion continued for generations until Europeans arrived. At that point, the empire ranged from Quito in Ecuador to south of Santiago in Chile. Shortly before the arrival of the Europeans, Huayna Cápac had divided his empire, giving the northern part to Atahualpa and the southern Cuzco area to another son, Huascar. The brothers fought bitterly for the kingdom. As a pure-blooded native cuzqueño (inhabitant of Cuzco), Huascar had the people’s support, but Atahualpa had the backing of the battle-hardened northern army. In early 1532 Atahualpa won a key battle, capturing Huascar outside Cuzco.
Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro landed in northern Peru and marched southward. 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. It would radically change the course of South American history: Atahualpa was ambushed by a few dozen armed conquistadors, who succeeded in capturing him, killing thousands of 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 to Cuzco. Mounted on horseback, protected by armor and swinging steel swords, the Spanish cavalry was virtually unstoppable.
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 leader. After a few years of towing the line, however, 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. A desperate last-ditch breakout and violent battle at Sacsaywamán 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 to that of another colonial backwater. All the gold and silver was gone, and many Inca buildings were pulled down to accommodate churches and colonial houses.
The Spanish kept chronicles in Cuzco, including Inca history as related by the Incas themselves. The most famous of these accounts is The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, written by Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish military captain.