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Day 6 – Two Illiterate Seamen and a Lawyer Walk into a Temple (Qorikancha, Cusco)

October 16, 2010

Location: Qorikancha, Cuzco, Peru

Date: Saturday, October 16, 2010

Qorikancha was just what the Spanish were looking for. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but this used to be the richest temple in the Incan empire. The three Spanish buffoons that stumbled into this place must have been doing the Spanish colonial equivalent of high fives. The walls of each chamber were covered with sheets of molded gold and silver. Chroniclers state that the men ran through the temple ripping the artifacts off the walls while all the Incan priests could do was watch.

It must have been exhilarating, considering only a few months before they weren’t sure if they’d make it to Cuzco alive. At the time, the sitting emperor Atahualpa had just encountered Francisco Pizarro and his motley band of men. The Incan emperor had agreed to meet the Spaniards out of curiosity, whereupon less than 200 Spanish (including their allies) ambushed and kidnapped the emperor, killing nearly 7,000 Incan servants, attendants, and warriors in the process. Turns out horses, steel, some gun powder, and surprise go a long way.

This angered and frightened the god emperor Atahualpa. He offered Pizarro a roomful of gold in exchange for his life. Pizarro, surrounded by an army of 30,000 native warriors, agreed. The gold did not come in fast enough for anyone’s liking (the emperor wanted his release, Pizarro wanted his gold now). Atahualpa suggested that Pizarro send some of his men to the Incan capital of Cuzco to speed up collection. Pizarro was suspicious, knowing that the Incas had at least three armies scattered in the area. He did not want to split up his forces, so he asked for volunteers to travel to the Cuzco. Two illiterate sailors and a notary (i.e. a lawyer) came forward.

Atahualpa provided royal litters for the three Spaniards to ride. Carried by bearers trained from birth to walk with a smooth step, the men headed down to Cuzc,o not knowing for sure if the emperor would be good to his word to let them live.

In the end, they arrived in the capital like kings and, by order of Atahualpa, were allowed to strip Qorikancha, and much of Cuzco, clean. Down came the 700 sheets of gold that lined the temple walls. Gold altars, gold statues of llamas and babies, and a gold replica of the sun were all dragged into a pile by the three Spaniards. It’s hard to think of them as anything but savages.

The remaining architecture reflects the disparity of refinement between the Spanish looters and the Incan priests. Today, hundreds of years later, the giant stones of the temple walls still sit together perfectly. You couldn’t slip a piece of tracing paper between them. The walls are some of the few in Cuzco to have survived the great earthquakes that leveled much of the city.

In contrast, the brick and mortar walls of the Spanish Dominican diocese look crude. Whereas the Incas used large, solid blocks, the Spanish used small bricks caked with mortar. The Spanish arches seem quaint next to the imposing, trapezoidal doors of the temple.

The idea that two uneducated, illiterate seamen (and a lawyer) tore this place apart–melting down crafted gold and silver into easy to transport bars–is galling. Imagine the now stark gray stone as what was then smooth white plaster and colorful murals and the spectacle of skinny, scruffy bearded men ripping gold off the walls with their bare hands becomes even more crass.

The Incan cultural norm of reciprocity led Atahualpa to believe that if he gave Pizarro what Pizarro said he wanted (gold) he’d get to keep his empire and his life. “Here,” Atahualpa might have thought, “you unrefined savages can take your shiny trinkets. Just leave me alone so I can murder the rest of my brothers and secure my empire.”

In the end, the fortune of Qorikancha only fed the greed of the band of conquistadors. Let that be a lesson to all you kidnapped emperors out there: don’t you think you can buy off your kidnapper invaders; better just kill ‘em all or die trying.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see what weapons the Spanish faced, Cuzco at night, and more pictures of Qorikancha’s chambers and courtyard.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2010 8:16 pm

    You got it, baby….Liberty or Death!

    No one ever achieved anything worth having by appeasing a predator!

  2. Sally permalink
    October 20, 2010 11:32 am

    And smallpox. Don’t forget the smallpox.

    • October 22, 2010 6:08 pm

      Good point. Small pox was a contributing factor to destabilizing the Incan empire right before the Spanish came into contact with the Incas. The disease preceded the Spanish and, if I remember correctly, killed the emperor right before the Spanish showed up.

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