Top Left: Coricancha (from Quechua quri gold; kancha enclosure), the temple of the sun, was the most important temple in the Inca Empire (Cusco, Perú), the structure above is the Temple of Santo Domingo. Top Right: View of one of Coricancha’s original rooms. Bottom Left: The remaining walls of Hatunrumiyoc or palace of Inca Roca in Cusco. Bottom Right: The perfectly cut stone of the twelve angles, it is part of a wall known as the Hatun Rumiyoc, which constitutes the outside of the Archbishop’s palace at Cusco.

The Inca culture originated in the basin of Lake Titicaca. Manco Capac, founder of the dynasty, was established in Cusco around the eleventh century, influencing the local towns. Three centuries later, the Inca Viracocha and his son Pachacutec first conquered the Chancas and later the Collao. The Incas later advanced towards the North on the Chimu empire and after conquering it went to the Quito area (Ecuador). Their successors, Tupac Inca Yupanqui and Huaina Capac consolidated the conquest of Quito by incorporating in the South the Bolivian highlands to the north of Argentina and Chile and advancing East to the plains of Mojos.

The Empire was divided into four parts: Chinchasuyo, Antisuyo, Contisuyo and Collasuyo. It was a collectivist state in which the economic product based mainly on agriculture was also divided into four parts: Inca and His family, priests and temple, widows and orphans, and the general people. The Inca religion, beginning with Pachacutec, had as its main god the Sun which was followed in importance by the Moon and the Thunderbolt. The main festivals were the solstice and equinox days being the most important the Inti Raymi (June 21). The crops were carried out in agricultural terraces thus taking advantage of the mountain slopes; the Inca cultivated there potato, coca, quinoa and maize, while on the plains they grew cotton. Large herds of lamas, alpacas and vicuñas provided them with meat and wool. The cui or guinea pig completed their diet. A wide road network favored their communications and mail was made by chasquis* with relays. The “mitimaes*” or transplanted populations favored the colonization and stability of the Empire.

First of all, the Incas were great organizers and builders, who stood out for the layout of their cities and the quality of their buildings. They used stone to build their constructions, with or without clay for the joints, and for the roofs they used wood. The constructions had diverse types of styles according to the nature and type of stone used in their construction: megalithic, where the individual stones reached dimensions up to 5 by 5 m; polygonal, taking advantage of the original stone shape (in this case, the carving of the stones retains their angles that were usually up to twelve or more); ashlar; small ashlars; ordinary masonry, and finally pirca consisting of stone pieces placed on top of each other. The walls were built in a “talud” (slope) style, and in the polygonal and megalithic styles the fit of the stone pieces was perfect, here the stones fit so tightly together that not even a knife’s blade could fit between them. Doors and windows openings were trapezoidal. The roofs were of straw placed on a wooden structure fastened to the walls. The pavements, especially on the roads, were of polygonal style stones with steps to save the unevenness of the terrain; the Inca built hanging bridges by using thick ropes made of maguey fiber (an Agave plant).

Top Left: The fortress of Sacsahuamán, an Inca citadel on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco (Peru). Top Right: The carefully cut stones at Sacsahuamán, the boulders were cut to fit them together tightly without the use of mortar. Bottom Left: The group of 27 Cullcas or storage buildings in the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo in Cusco, southern Peru. Bottom Right: The stone work at Ollantaytambo ruins.

The most important buildings were the temples, rectangular enclosures with a row of doors in one of the major sides and niches in the interior. In the center, in order to hold the gabled roof, stood a wall or row of columns. The palaces and civil buildings were arranged around courtyards or “courts”. Temples, palaces and houses were adapted to the natural topography of the area they occupied, sometimes resulting in curved walls. The fortresses had double or triple walls.

For the veneration sites, the Inca religious tradition maintained the stone architecture with a complicated symbology. In most of their sacred places there were constructions carved in the rock in the form of seats, caves, small windows and elaborate drainage nets. Sometimes in the shrines were isolated menhirs.

By their layout, the Inca cities belong to two categories: those that evolved over time, such as Cusco, and those that responded to a detailed planning, such as Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, etc.


Cusco and its surroundings

Top Left: The “Bath of the Princess”, a fountain located at the bottom of the Ollantaytambo ruins. Top Right: View of the Qallaqasa ruins at Pisac, a Peruvian village in the Sacred Valley of the Incas located near the Vilcanota River (Cusco). Bottom Left: The ruins of Pikillaqta 20 kilometres east of Cusco. Bottom Right: The Inca shrine or Intihuatana at Pisac.

The capital of the Inca Empire was the city of Cusco, whose primitive nucleus dates back from the beginnings of the Inca culture and comprised old buildings like Collcampata (the palace of Manco Capac) in the slopes of Sacsahuamán with long walls built in ordinary masonry style and trapezoidal openings. In the central part of the city, created by Pachacutec, was the Huacapata Square (550 m long by 250 m wide) crossed by the Huatanay river; on this square was the palace of the Inca (Ccsana), the house of the “Acllas” or Sun Virgins (of which some walls still exist) and the Amarucancha or palace of Huaina Capac. The most important building of the city was the temple of the Sun or Coricancha, on top of which the convent of Santo Domingo was later constructed. Part of this temple is conserved evidencing its rectangular floor plan ending in a curve where the doors opened in one of the major sides. Next to it  were the chapels of the Moon, Venus, Lightning, and Stars, which were rectangular enclosures with niches and a single door. The roof of the Coricancha was of wood and straw, and part of its walls was covered with gold sheets. In 1534, the Spaniards found the gold solar disc.

The Hatunrumiyoc or palace of Inca Roca was a remarkable building on its main wall was the famous stone of the twelve angles.

The fortress of Sacsahuamán was placed on a great esplanade in front of the Rodadero in the mountain that dominates the city. It had three lines of walls built in the megalithic style, in the center was a circular tower which corresponded  to the tower of homage* and last defense of the fortress, it had a double row of enclosures and a circular central courtyard.

On a slope 68 km northwest of Cusco stood the city of Ollantaytambo. It was surrounded by a wall four to six meters high with a stone portico that served as an entrance; in its interior stood out a building with polygonal walls and niches. The enormous megalithic mass of six perfectly assembled stones (3.65 m high) is striking. In the high part there were two rock monuments: “the princess throne” and the “altar of the Inca”. The housing neighborhood was laid out in a checkerboard pattern around a square.

Pisac was 62 km north of Cusco on the right bank of the Vilcanota River. Located on a mountain it was accessible only by a long way that ascended by steps between agricultural terraces. In the upper part surrounded by walls and small squares were several religious buildings among which the Intihuatana, with a frustoconical form, stood out. All buildings were built in the ashlar type.

Top Left: The small baths at the ruins of Tambomachay, near Cusco. An alternate Spanish name is El Baño del Inca (“the bath of the Inca”). Top Right: The military ruins of Puca Pucara (Quechua puka red, pukara fortress, “red fortress”) near Cusco. Bottom Left: A monolith in the ruins of Kenko (Quechua for “zig-zag”) located in the Sacred Valley of Peru in the Cusco Region. Kenko is one of the largest huacas (or holy places) in the Cusco Region. Bottom Right: The Inca ruins at Chincheros located between the cities of Cusco and Urubamba.

Thirty kilometers south of Cusco was Pikillacta whose function was to be a large grain warehouse and military garrison. Situated on a slope on the banks of the Huatanay river it had a rectangular shape (770 by 680 m). The very regular streets crossed one another at right angles. Two squares constituted the only open spaces in the city, one bigger for the unloading of the grain, and another civic in nature around which the houses were grouped; the rest was occupied by the “collcas*” (grain dryers) and silos. The existence of a perimeter wall gave an account of this city’s military quality.

Tambomachay, very close to Cusco, seems to have been a place destined to the cult of the water; it consisted in two groups of buildings in the polished ashlar style and attached to the mountain on which the water continually fell. Pucapucara was a small fortress built of simple stones whose function was to protect one of the accesses to Cusco.

Also very close to Cusco was Kenko, a rock sanctuary of singular importance. It consisted of a semicircle erected around an “intihuatana*“, or menhir, with the polished stone construction with niches where mummies were probably placed for funeral rites. This building was next to a great rock in which steps were carved and also included a complicated system of channels with symbols; underneath was a sacred subterranean chamber.

The complex of Chincheros, to the north of the capital, had a series of buildings between which there was a temple with polished walls that served later as base to the vice royal church. The most interesting is the rock part made up of large rocks through which a door was opened. There it was a system of canals and steps carved into the stone. The whole complex, as usual, was surrounded by agricultural terraces.

Moray, near the village of Maras, was a very original architectural structure built in the form of an amphitheater. With a circular floor plan, it was constituted by deep agricultural terraces. The complex is  209 x 147 m and 150 m deep.

Although slightly far from Cusco, the temple of Viracocha should also be considered as part of the Cusco complex. Located near the town of Cacha, which was the largest of the Empire, it had a rectangular form (105 x 26 m) and four naves; at its center stood a high adobe wall 12 m high, with stone foundations and in which doors and windows were opened; at the sides, two rows of stone columns held a roof of wood and straw. Next to the temple were the rooms for the priests arranged around courts. The town houses were circular and aligned in tenths. It is possible that this layout represented a pre-Inca urban structure.


Machu Picchu and other cities

Top Left: The Incan agricultural terraces at Moray, ca. 50 Km northwest of Cuzco. As with many other Inca sites, it also has an irrigation system. Top Right: The remains of the temple of Viracocha in the Raqch’i archaeological site in the Cusco region. Bottom Left: Panoramic view of Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca citadel (Cusco Region, Peru). It was built around 1450 but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Bottom Right: The Temple or Room of the Three Windows in Machu Picchu, it was dedicated to Inti the Inca sun god and greatest deity.

Machu-Picchu, the best-known and best-preserved of the Inca cities, was discovered in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. It is located on one of the margins of the river Vilcanota, 112 km from Cusco. It is located between four mountains, the most important of which is the Huayna Picchu; the city is surrounded by a wall and flanked by agricultural terraces. The staggered buildings were grouped around a rectangular square, creating both religious and residential neighborhoods. In the religious complex, stand out the tower of the three windows with a circular floor plan below which there is a sacred rock construction. In the religious square rise the remains of the great temple that rested on monolithic blocks carved in the natural rock with walls in “talud” and niches; from there you climb a staircase of seventy steps to the highest point of the city in the middle of which rises the Intihuatana. The housing area, apparently belonging to the villagers, is perhaps the best preserved area of Machu-Picchu; it includes constructions built with cut stones with a wall in the center whose purpose was to hold the roof. The very steep streets overcome the unevenness of the terrain by using small stairs. The architecture and urban layout, perfectly adapted to the natural topography, make of Machu-Picchu the most beautiful city of the Inca Empire.

During their expansion to the coast, the Incas occupied important places such as Huánuco Viejo nestled in the center of Peru. Following almost an elliptic pattern, the city was grouped around a gigantic square (600 by 400 m) in the center of which stood a building called “The Castle”. Its walls were polished and its layout symmetrical. Huánuco was divided into neighborhoods, apart from these was the House of the Inca and the Acllahuasi, both located in the eastern part of the square. These were buildings with a trapezoidal floor plan and a complicated interior distribution.

Top Left: Ruins of the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu. Top Right: The Intihuatana at Machu Picchu, an important ritual stone associated with the astronomic clock or calendar of the Inca. Bottom Left: The Inca ruins at Huánuco Pampa, also known as Huánuco Viejo (Huánuco, Peru). Bottom Right: El Castillo ruins at Huánuco Pampa.

Further north, near the pre-Inca ruins of Marcahuamachuco, the Incas built Viracochapampa a square-shaped city. Within its walled enclosure, the streets were orthogonally planned highlighting the central square of 85 m in each side. Smaller squares grouped around the town houses. This city was built towards the middle of the fifteenth century.

A typical Inca military camp, which later became a city, was Incahuasi located on the Cañete River. It was built by Tupac Inca Yupanqui during his campaigns against the Yuncas. The city was divided in four clearly established areas: religious sector, barracks, palace of the Inca and deposits or granaries. Along the Pisco River, Tambo Colorado was built, this city also had military and administrative purposes. Built next to some hills, it was developed around a trapezoidal plaza. A wall flanked the main building which, following the influence of the architecture of the Northern Inca cities, had a frieze of latticed adobe.

Paramonga and Pachacamac, both pre-Inca, were remodeled and expanded in times of the Inca empire.


The Inca architecture in Bolivia

Top Left: Tambo Colorado adobe ruins near the coast of Peru (Ica Region). Top Right: Inca ruins at Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) located in the southern part of Lake Titicaca (La Paz Department, Bolivia). Bottom Left: Incahuasi (or “”House of the Inca”) ruins, they resemble a small Cusco as the ruins show the exact image of this Inca city (Huancavelica Region, Peru). Bottom Right: Remains of the Incan Temple of the Virgins in the Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon) in Lake Titicaca (La Paz Department, Bolivia). The Inca legend refers to the island as the location where Viracocha commanded the rising of the moon.

In the area of ​​the Bolivian highlands and valley, the Inca architecture suffered the influences of local elements, mainly Collas. The most important archaeological remains are found on the islands of the Sun and the Moon on Lake Titicaca; in the latter, is the palace of Pilcocaina with quadrangular structure and that originally had two floors covered with a false vault. This structure was built in cut stone and was covered by clay painted in red and yellow. Also on the island of the Sun is the Chincana, a building similar to the Pilcocaina but with an asymmetric floor plan and a poor preserved Temple of the Sun. On the island of the Moon, also called Coati, is the Temple of the Virgins. It is a “U” shaped construction around a patio and its facades display a fine ornamentation based on doors and niches with stepped lintels.

The citadel of Incallacta, in the foothills of the Eastern Cordillera and built to contain the Chiriguana invasion, is the most important archaeological ruin in the area. It is located on a hillside between two rivers and protected in its northern part by a wall. The main building of the complex is 78 m long by 25 m wide and, as usual, the Inca opened doors on one of the major facades while the others were decorated with interior niches. There is no trace of a central wall, so it can be assumed that the ceiling rested on a wooden framework. Next to this great building there are other 40 smaller but with a structure similar to that of the main building.

The last Inca fortress in Bolivian territory is Samaipata, located in the department of Santa Cruz, in Chiquitanos land. Although traditionally it has been thought to be a military construction, its structure corresponds in everything to the rock ceremonial style described previously in other Inca constructions. It is a mound 80 m long carved in the natural rock with steps, wells and animal symbols.


Ceramics, goldsmithing and textiles

Top Left: The Incallacta (Inca Place) ruins located in central Bolivia in the Cochabamba Department. Top Right: Panoramic view of the “Fuerte de Samaipata” or Samaipata Fort in the Santa Cruz Department (Bolivia). Although called a fort, Samaipata had also a religious, ceremonial and residential function. Bottom Left: An Inca pottery vessel. Bottom right: Three views of a large Inca conopa* (or votive lama or alpaca) in form of a lama.

The sculpture, forbidden by Pachacutec, was little practiced by the Incas; however, we know some pumas carved in stone and some “ultis” or tiny lamas carved in the same material.

The Inca pottery is sober; its decorative themes were circumscribed to geometric lines and few, totally schematic, zoomorphic representations. The main shape of the vessels was the Inca aryballos*, a pointed pitcher which had extraordinary dimensions since it used to reach up to a meter and a half in height and was decorated with grecas and black, white and red designs on the natural brown color of the clay. Another form was the plate whose handle imitated a bird’s head and was decorated with black designs that represented very schematically fish, lamas or birds. Finally there were the standing pots which lacked any painted decoration.

The Inca goldsmithing was well developed and experienced a rich ancient tradition; the most common pieces were small figures of men and women, perhaps amulets, finely made in gold and silver; there were also some ceremonial vessels and “tumis*” (crescent-shaped knives with a central handle) decorated with lama or alpaca heads.

The typically Inca “kero*” was a wooden vessel decorated with incisions in which a colored paste of resinous consistency was added. This was a mixed technique that survived into the Vice royal times. Although the “kero” form had its antecedent in the Tiahuanaco style pottery, its technique and realization was very characteristic of the Inca art. The decorative themes highlighted with vivid colors represented scenes of the Inca life and episodes of the later Spanish conquest.

Textiles outperformed those of Paracas (about 500 threads per square inch) but their designs were very simple: geometric figures, checkered designs in two tones, crosses, diagonals and so on. The most usual form was the “uncu*” or short tunic, which constituted the male traditional dress woven by using the tapestry technique. In the same style were the ponchos decorated with horizontal stripes alternating areas enriched with ornamentation based on stylized animals and floral motifs. This technique continued until the XVIII century, adapting itself to the Vice royal-style garments thus developing textiles that showed a mestizo artistry.

Top Left: Inca Style Aryballus. Bottom Left: Incan kero (Birmingham Museum of Art). Center: Incan uncu or men’s traditional robe. Right: Inca Tumi or ceremonial knife.


Aryballos: (From the Greek). A small spherical or globular flask with a narrow neck used in Ancient Greece and whose basic forms are used to describe similar vessels from other ancient cultures. It was used to contain perfume or oil, and is often depicted in vase paintings being used by athletes during bathing. In these depictions, the vessel is at times attached by a strap to the athlete’s wrist, or hung by a strap from a peg on the wall.

Chasqui: (Also chaskis). The Chasquia were the messengers of the Inca empire. Agile, highly trained and physically fit, they were in charge of carrying the quipus or numerical recording devices used in that time, messages and gifts up to 240 km per day through the chasquis relay system. The Chasquis were not just messengers but were trained to be able to read and translate the quipus to each other and higher authorities.

Collca: Or Qullqa (from the Quechua meaning “deposit, storehouse”), was a storage building found along roads and near the cities and political centers of the Inca Empire. To a huge extent, the Incas stored food and other commodities which could be distributed to their armies, officials, conscripted laborers, and, in times of need, to the populace. 

Conopa: A type of sacred Inca object owned by families and that had its own private cult. This characteristic made the first Spanish chroniclers to assimilate Conopas with the Latin Penates. Conopas were special stones, sometimes left in their raw natural state, but sometimes they were finely carved with mostly zoomorphic motifs. The function of the Conopas was similar to that of amulets believed by the Inca people to propitiate health and well-being. It was the task of the sorcerer doctor to recognize among the many existing stones those with the characteristics typical of a particualr Conopa. From that moment the amulet became part of the family of its owner and was later inherited by the eldest son. The Conopas were carefully preserved enveloped in soft fabrics and were the object of particular rituals secretly celebrated by families. They received prayers and invocations and, in some cases, were the object of sacrifices. Usually it was coca leaves or colored powders, but, in some cases, even guinea pigs. It was the duty of the head of the family to interpret the outcome of these sacrifices by blowing the lungs of the victims to obtain responses.

Intihuatana: A ritual stone in South America associated with the astronomic clock or calendar of the Inca. Its name is derived from the local Quechua language: inti means “sun”, and wata- is the verb root “to tie, hitch (up)”. The Quechua -na suffix derives nouns for tools or places. Hence inti watana is literally an instrument or place to “tie up the sun”, often expressed in English as “The Hitching Post of the Sun”.

Mitimaes: The Mitimaes o Mitma (from the Quechua word meaning “sprinkle, distribute, spread”) was a policy of forced resettlement employed by the Incas. It involved the forceful migration of groups of extended families or ethnic groups from their home territory to lands recently conquered by the Incas. The objective was to transfer both loyalty to the state and a cultural baggage of Inca culture such as language, technology, economic and other resources into areas that were in transition.

Tower of Homage: The highest tower within a fortified construction.

Tumi: A Peruvian sacrificial ceremonial axe, or knife as it is most commonly referred to, distinctly characterized by a semi-circular blade, made of either bronze, copper, gold-alloy, wood, or silver alloy and is often inlayed with semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli. Tumis are most often associated with Pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian Coastal Region and in some cases with the Inca culture itself.


Uncu: The traditional clothes or tunic wore by the Inca men, its design featured geometric bands adorned with geometric patterns.