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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.