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Notes on the Geography of Peru: Ollantaytambo

Yes, it's true, the Inca chose to withdraw from Ollantaytambo a year after they had repelled a furious Spanish attack: the Inca decided not to face another one. But don't let your sympathies for the underdog run away with you. This place--isn't it always the way--had, before the Inca, been the domain of the Tambo, who had been killed or enslaved by guess who. Easy come, easy go, or maybe not so easy. Either way, the artists and masons--for these masons were artists--who built the Ollantaytambo estate for the great and ruthless Pachacuti did their stuff, which has lasted longer than any of the dramatis personae.

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We're coming east from Cusco and dropping down several thousand feet into the valley of the Urubamba, a parent of the Ucayali and so an ancestor of the Amazon. But you knew that, didn't you? Consider the terraces a foretaste.

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There's very little flat land around here; what there is, is put to good use.

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Either to conserve arable land or to organize Nature, the Inca confined miles of the Urubamba between stone walls, now mostly lost. Instead, the river is now bordered by a highway and this narrow-gauge railway ferrying visitors north to Machu Picchu. The track deadends just short of there, but you don't want a lecture on the fragmentary character of the Peruvian rail network. Pity, really.

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And here is a tributary of the Urubamba. It's the Patacancha, leading east to the Amazon rain forest, which is only 40 miles thataway but a lot longer by road. (Try four hours to Challabamba at the forest's edge.) We'll head up the Patacancha Valley in a bit but must first dutifully explore the place we came to see.

Ever seen terraces on this scale? Certainly not in Bali or Luzon or whatever other paddy-growing paradise you treasure. No wonder the local name for these terraces is andene, Spanish for platform. Perhaps the wonder is why the Spanish name prevails locally for terraces unlike any in Spain.

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We're standing on top of the terraces and looking over the town of Ollantaytambo, which lies at the confluence of the Urubamba and Patacancha. There's lots of tourist stuff for sale in those light-colored sheds, and beyond that there's the old--meaning Inca-old--settlement of Ollantaytambo, colloquially simply Tambo. Again there's an irony, because the Inca burned down the town that the Tambo themselves had built. The Inca then proceeded to build another town on the site. Today, it's the best preserved of all Inca towns. It takes some nerve to call the place Tambo, don't you think?

Time to overcome our natural aversion and go join the mob down there at the bottom.

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Ever notice how tourists cluster? Anyway, here's the main set of terraces at Ollantaytambo (yes, there are others), along with, up top, a fortress, a residential complex, and a temple--all unfinished.

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Impressive? In the words of Stella Nair and Jean-Pierre Protzen, these "terraces symbolized the Inkas' power both to conquer the Andean landscape and to transform it... the importance of this symbolic aspect of Inka terraces can be seen by the fact that Inka terraces tend to be found much more often around the Inka heartland--in particular, around Inka royal estates--than in the provinces."

See Stella Nair and Jean-Pierre Protzen, "The Inka Built Environment," p. 217, in Izumi Shimada, The Inka Empire: A Multidisciplinary Approach.

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Susan Niles writes: "Founding of an estate was the duty of each Inka; to sustain his cult and support his descendants after he became a mummy."

Who did the work, you ask? Well, that's not very polite: you might as well ask rich people to explain in detail how they got their money. In this case the answer is forced labor by conquered peoples. A kinder view is that the conquered peoples came to believe that their labor was an act of faith offered as part of a spiritual undertaking. And the children of the builders? They remained in service to the estate, generation after generation. Enough to make you welcome the Spanish? Well, maybe not, but there's an argument to be made, isn't there?

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Maybe you don't need to catch your breath after all those damned steps, but I do. Time to mention that Hiram Bingham came by early in the 20th century and wrote that he saw "broad terraces of unbelievable extent where abundant crops are still harvested...." A century later, the only crop is grass, harvested by Weed Eaters. The farmers who might cultivate the terraces don't want to do it the old way, with footplows. They want to use buffalo, but the terraces won't stand the weight--or so the authorities say.

The green space down below is what's left of Manaraki, the site of an Inca government hall.

(See Bingham's Inca Land, p. 131.)

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The terraces are behind us, and that's the Urubamba Valley down below. Even conceding that Pachacuti wanted a secure place to lay his head, was it necessary to fortify this nearly vertical slope--and, if so, necessary to employ megalithic blocks?

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Maybe walls like this were seen as impregnable because they were so inconceivably perfect: it's like a thief who won't hesitate to steal a Volkswagen but is afraid to lift a McLaren.

Bits of crude modern work plug gaps in the old walls.

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We've turned left onto the fortified ridge. The trapezoidal taper of the gate can be explained as a strengthening device, but the nipples on the occasional rocks are more of a challenge. What would Sigmund would make of them? Trouble is, he's always fiddling with his damned cigars.

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Did I mention that the Spanish took over before Ollantaytambo was finished? Here's a gateway to nothing. Odd that it should have been built before the space behind it was tackled.

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If through the miracle of time-travel you resurrected an Inca mason who was intimately familiar with the men who made these walls, do you think he could wander around and spot work done here by let's-call-him-Mozart and work over there done by let's-call-him-Schubert? In other words, does the variety on display here reveal individual styles to the trained eye? I'm betting it does and that he could. Anyway, John Ruskin would really have liked this place, if only he had dragged himself away from his Gothic buddies.

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We're approaching what's called the Sun Temple, though nobody knows what it would have looked like if the Inca had stayed long enough to finish it. There's not even a gnomon, the prerequisite Sun Temple protuberance that measured the progress of the sun. Of megalithic blocks, on the other hand, there are several. They're bigger than those of the Egyptian pyramids, and the lucky Egyptians didn't have to drag blocks up steep hills.

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These blocks are unusual on several counts, not least the now-eroded carving on the faces.

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The tenon at the upper right suggests that the blocks are locked together, though it's had to verify this. Why the blocks have similar bulges on the front is anybody's guess.

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You'll have a hard time finding another array of such massive blocks.

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Instead of deeply bevelled edges, here (and only here) the Inca separated the blocks with stone shims. Why the T-shape on the top shim? Sure, it prevents slipping, but was slipping a problem? I call it esthetic redundancy.

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We're looking over the edge of the ridge. The obvious feature is the protective wall--must less imposing that the walls facing the town. A less obvious feature is the unpaved road working its way up the slope. Any ideas?

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Another view. See the carved block? Brainstorm yet? Hint: the stones we've been looking at came from a quarry across the river.

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The road, in other words, is how the stones got up here. Dragged, it appears. Work ended abruptly.

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A couple of pictures back I suggested that the defensive wall was "unimpressive." Maybe I should rephrase that to "crude in comparison with the fine work the Inca did when they chose." Crude or not, this wall obliged attackers to haul ladders up the slope. Not much fun when you're assailed with arrows and rocks. The style of wall, by the way, is called pirka, meaning walls of rough blocks mortared with adobe.

Did I just say "mortar" in a sentence about the Inca? I did. You just have to allow the Inca to dress down as well as up.

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More pirka, here forming the walls of buildings behind the unfinished temple. They're part of a so-called residential quarter--a charmingly vague description. Anywhere else, the work would be judged handsome, maybe even elegant.

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We're crossing over the top of the terraces to follow that path winding around the corner, where we'll bump into another terrace set.

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Here it is, along with the natural, unterraced slope. It's fashionable to mock the French for attempting at Versailles to improve on nature; shall we do the same here? Ah, I forgot: of course not.

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We're up top of this second set of terraces and looking down not only a staircase but an irrigation channel.

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Shipshape.

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A nice crop of grass, though potatoes would be more evocative.

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Well, what do you know. Was corn grown here in the old days? I'm betting it was.

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There are still some active irrigation works here, though presumably they're all or at least mostly reconstructions.

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Do you have a favorite stone? Mine is the dog-eared one near the top of the channel.

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Canal drop.

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A supply ditch hugs the cliff, and conduits under the path bring water to the terraces, whose walls are permeable by design.

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On the right, a canal diverts water from the Patacancha and flows onto fields on the valley floor.

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You can see some of those fields here, along with excavated ruins.

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Irrigation can't get simpler than this.

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Nor can the cultivation methods.

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Economists can talk all day about labor-intensive jobs, but this guy walks the walk.

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Man with a hoe.

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Here's the floor of the Patacancha Valley maybe two miles upstream from Ollantaytambo.

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Not even the Inca attempted to build terraces on these canyon walls.

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Maize. How did the ground get wet?

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Yep, back to the hoe, this time opening a channel.

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Farther upstream, the flat land has given out but the canyon walls have opened up. Somebody long ago built terraces, but there's a modern twist. You can't see it.

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You probably still can't see it, but the wires hint at it. I'm talking about impact sprinklers driven by piped water pushed by electrical pumps. Too bad that the farmer is letting the terraces crumble.

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Here's the central square at Ollantaytambo. Not much to see but wait a minute. Before we snoop, here's old Squier writing about his experience here. "All foreigners in the Sierra are supposed by the mixed population to be French by nationality, and peddlers of jewellery by occupation. He [the cura or local priest] advised us not to go down the valley to Santa Ana, adding, significantly, that the peones had ascertained the real value of the glittering wares which the last Franceses had disposed of there. And then he wanted to see what trinkets we had with us, and intimated the possibility of making a purchase. It was with difficulty that I convinced him that we were not peddlers, when he inquired, what, in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, had brought us to Ollantaytambo? "Antiguedades!" he repeated after me, with unfeigned astonishment, became suddenly silent, and left the room.... Like the cura of Tiahuanuco, he, too, was weary of life in an Indian village; he knew the soil was stuffed with treasure, and understood perfectly the object of our visit. It was well enough to disguise it from the people generally and the governor in particular; but now we might just as well take him into our confidence, and divide the spoils we had come so far to obtain" (Squier, p. 511).

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Venturing off the square. We're still in tourist territory.

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What about now?

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Now? The Inca laid out the town with blocks containing two lots, each with a walled enclosure for a noble family. The wall on the right here hints as much. Squier seems not to have much liked them: "Of course the long, dull lines of walls, with no other openings than a single, heavily jambed door-way in each block, give the cramped streets a gloomy, monotonous appearance, and the eye turns from them, with a sense of relief, to the bright sky above..." (Squier, p. 505).

The name for these walled lots was cancha as in Cusco's Coricancha, the "golden enclosure."

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The inca town had a formal entrance, bypassed now. Here it is, the Tiyupunku, two double-jambed entrances with a parapet walkway and an irrigation ditch.

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Here's the old Inca road from that gate into town.

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A ditch runs along one side of it.

The architect Graziano Gasparini writes that "the Incas were not city builders. With the exception of Cuzco, the known examples tend to give the impression of a limited urban concept. The lack of cities may, however, result from a planned policy of territorial control. It seems that the nucleus of control was more important than the great city"

And Ollantaytambo? Gasparini calls is a "unique case of regular planning..." He writes that "the entire Ollantaytambo complex was under construction at the moment of the conquest. Thus, we are dealing with an urban concept of the final years of the Inca empire, and regularity of the plan may possibly suggest a groping toward increasingly precise and rigid principles of order. By pure chance, in Europe, at the same time, Renaissance urbanism was turning toward certain principles of order, which were then applied in the colonial cities founded by Spain in America" (Inca Architecture, pp. 68-71).

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The niches were originally above street level, which has risen over the centuries.

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Meanwhile, a train to Machu Picchu comes by, slowly, slowly.

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Maybe we're more likely to remember the walls that were old long before the first train into town. Pity the Spanish planning their attack.

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Who did that song? You know, "Stairway to Heaven."


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