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Almost five centuries after the fall of the Inca empire, the titanic fortress of Sacsayhuaman still stands above Cuzco, impervious to invading armies, earthquakes and the elements.

Gazing up at the structure, you can't help but wonder at the architectural skills of its builders. The enormous blocks that make up its walls (some weighing up to 300 tons and almost 30 feet tall) were sometimes transported more than 50 miles across hostile terrain and mountain passes. Somehow, in spite of the insurmountably hostile conditions, the architects of Sacsayhuaman managed to construct walls that are still so tight you can barely wedge a thin knife-blade between the blocks. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (The Royal Commentaries of Peru 16091617) says that Huallpu Rimachi Inca was the main architect. Construction of the fortress is attributed to the great Pachacutec, the semi-legendary founder of the Inca empire, and continued by Tupac Yupanqui, even though some chroniclers state that it was Huayna Capac who gave it the final touch.

Even by today's standards the fortress is magnificent. Its enormous main ramparts and battlements, more than 1200 feet long, were designed to force any attacker to expose a flank and they tower far above the heads of visitors, seemingly as indestructible as the mountains from which they are carved.

The name is Quechua, and depending on your sources is either derived from the term for "satisfied falcon" or "marbled head". The first meaning is sometimes taken to refer to the great flocks of carrion birds that fed on the corpses left after the unsuccessful insurrection of Inca Manco against the Spanish usurpers, in 1536. In the other reading, the outline of Cuzco looks like a puma (mountain lion), and the hill on which the fortress rests is the "marbled head" of the beast.

The archaeological site is located above and immediately to the north of Cuzco and comprises two overlooking hills, "Fortress Hill" and "Rodadero", located either side of a wide plain. Both hills have been extensively terraced and the foundations of many buildings are visible on the surface. Sacsayhuaman was used as a quarry beginning in 1537, under the pretext of preventing the Indians from taking it over and threatening the city. By 1561 a prohibition to remove stones was issued, but the damage done was already considerable. Many of Cuzcos' oldest buildings, including the cathedral, are made with stones brought from Sacsayhuaman.

Three levels of zigzagging terrace walls to the south of the plain, finely made with huge cut and dressed stone boulders, present narrow access stairways which make the passage from one level to the next difficult for large groups of people. To the east of the highest point of "Fortress Hill", on the southern side of the plain towards Cuzco, the foundations of an unusual circular tower, Muyucmarca, and the scattered remains of Paucarmarca and Sallacmarca, two tall rectangular buildings (so-called towers) which early accounts mention, can be seen. On the south side of the hill, the foundations of a group of interconnecting, rooms, referred to rather poetically as the "Religious Sector", were revealed by excavations.
 

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Last updated: February 14, 2007