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

Night view of the Qurikancha and Convento de Santo Domingo, Cusco. Image: Martin St-Amant/Wikipedia.

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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.