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Environment / Climate change

The rise and fall and rise again of the Incas’ capital city Cusco

Cities rise and fall for a lot of different reasons. London has been inhabited for over 2,000 years, but it hasn’t just grown continuously. After peaking in the 1930s London’s population shrank until it started bouncing back in the 1980s: millions of individual decisions all affected the city’s life.

The rise, and fall, and rise again of Cusco – capital city of the Incas, in the south west of what is now Peru – Is different. Instead, they are all because of one man called Pachacuti, the empire he established, and the handful of men who destroyed it.

Rise…

Cusco, properly Qosqo in the Quechua language of the Inca Empire, means “the navel of the world”.

Pachacuti knew Cusco was the centre of the world – because from 1438 onwards he had conquered that world, and built Cusco at its centre. Each of the four provinces of the Inca Empire he created pointed to Cusco, and its roads and trails all led towards it, like the UK’s rail network radiates out of London.

Unlike London, though, Cusco had been built in the shape of a Puma. Nothing says “I’m The Boss Here, Okay?” like a city shaped like a powerful ambush predator. Mayors, take note.

Where Cusco is, in case you were wondering. Image: Google.

Unlike most modern cities, Cusco didn’t grow naturally as people moved somewhere sensible to live: instead, the city was designed and built for the specific purpose of being an imperial centre. Rivers were diverted across the valley to provide water; terraces were carved into the surrounding mountainsides to create agricultural land. The city blossomed – and the population boomed, as people moved to be closer to the centre of imperial power.

…and fall…

Just as Cusco’s growth had been dictated by imperial, well, diktat, so would its decline be, too.

I can’t do this bizarre and epochal story justice, but in brief: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 with less than 200 armed men. By the next year they had defeated the Inca military, captured the-then emperor Atahaulpa, ransomed him for a fortune of gold and silver, murdered him anyway, and installed a puppet ruler in his place.

Cusco and the Inca never recovered. Although the Spanish were to face repeated rebellions, their rule was secured, and the city’s population crashed and wouldn’t exceed 10,000 until well into the 19th century. It was only recently that it finally surpassed its pre-Pizarro peak.


…and rise again

For centuries there was little interest in making Cusco important again: Peru’s 20th century industrialisation happened towards the coast, and Lima’s population in particular exploded. But sometimes places become important without anyone consciously deciding as much, and in the early 20th century, something happened near Cusco that was to kickstart its own re-emergence as a major Andean city.

The Inca site of Machu Picchu wasn’t hugely significant for the Inca empire, despite its current fame and glory. But the site was “discovered” in 1911 (actually, locals were already living there to avoid the tax inspectors, but for some reason this doesn’t count), setting off an unexpected boom: archeologists, anthropologists, tourists and the economic development that accompanies all descended.

So nearby Cusco, which had spent centuries in relative obscurity, now became the lost centre of a once globally significant empire, and the city grew rapidly throughout the second half of the 20th century. Peru’s own development and expansion would likely have meant a renewed Cusco anyway – but without the remains of the Inca empire around it, Cusco would be nothing like the thriving city it is today.

Today, it’s one of South America’s most beautiful and interesting cities. You can still see the outline of the puma, hundreds of years later in Cusco’s modern street layout. You can still see the stones of Inca construction with the Spanish buildings layered on top. You can see Cusco’s growth, stagnation and its rebirth all layered on top of one another.

Cities grow and shrink for all sorts of reasons – but not all cities’ stories are as grand or tragic as Cusco’s.
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