Inca Building:

Empire, Stone, and Sky

A. Tsiongas

The ingenuity of the Inca stonemasons who constructed the empire’s majestic buildings out of precisely cut and fitted stone is renowned even today. They are famous for their mortarless and earthquake-proof technique of fitting finely chiseled, jointed stone blocks into one another – so closely, in fact, that a razorblade could not be slide between them – and this highly detailed work was accomplished mainly with hammerstones. Many Inca monuments (including the empire’s capital, Machu Picchu) still stand testament to the quality of the workmanship of Inca engineers, but how, why, and where they built these give important insight into the significance that building technology held for the Incas.

Building activity, in the Inca world view, was an integration of nature (rock supplied by Mother Earth) into ordered human civilization. This concept is especially apparent where outcroppings of living rock have been used as the foundation for Inca structures, resulting in buildings that seem to rise up out of masses of bare rock. According to the Inca creation myth, the ancient Inka married Pachamama (Mother Earth), and the result of this union was human children, much in the way that Inca building was the union between culture and nature, and the result was human civilizations.

Building upon already existing rock outcrops signified a joining of natural and built environments, which are complementary to one another. In Quechua (the language spoken by the Incas that is still alive today) the term tinkuy is used to identify places or events in which complements merge: the confluence of rivers, for example, or the ritual battle between necessary enemies. The Incas believed that the essential structure of the universe was complementary opposition, or yanantin (complementary pairs). Their building strategy of gradually integrating natural rock and human architecture to create a single structure reflected their sense of necessary order. According to Inca beliefs, their technologies (stonemasonry, agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving, to name a few) were simply their means of bringing this order to the unordered areas of nature, or newly acquired territories.

Thus the Incas imposed their Inca order upon surrounding groups which they conquered and integrated into their empire. Building was part of an imperialistic strategy employed by the Incas, used to convert acquired lands into “visually familiar Inca territory” (Dean). The unmistakable style of Inca building (mainly rectangular structures with pitched roofs, wall batter, trapezoidal niches, and trapezoidal openings for windows and doorways) converted itself into an “architecture of power” (Dean) indicating the Inca presence across their territories. It is crucial to note that it was mainly the imperial building in highly visible locations or at the boundaries of the empire (overlooking hostile subjects) that were built on living rock foundations, “rising out of the rock” at the aforementioned natural outcroppings. These structures had to have made some of the strongest statements of Inca order, where the empire most desired to make its dominion known.

Just one look at Inca city design will immediately reveal an imperialistic culture. Cusco, the name of the capital of the Inca Empire, translates to “navel of the world” and was the considered the hub of potentially limitless territory expanding in all directions out from it. This territory was divided into quarters, Chinchaysuyu and Antisuyu (the “upper” quadrants) and Collasuyu and Cuntiuyu (the “lower” quadrants), and each quarter was divided into forty-two radial sectors; the lines connecting the sectors were called ceques. These ceque lines converged at or near the Coricancha temple which honored the Inca sun god, and each line contained several huacas, or “holy things.” Another cultural theme that is crucial for understanding where the Incans built and why is the concept of a “sacred landscape.” The Inca perception of sacred space was central to Inca architecture, “not only in single buildings but also in the whole planning of the capital” (Magli). The huacas that Cusco was organized around included mountains, springs, rocks, shrines, buildings, and fields, all contributing to the sacred geography of the Inca empire.

Some of the ceque lines on which huacas lie are astronomically oriented and mark astronomical phenomena at the horizon, such as the rising of the sun at the solstices, and “the system as a whole was connected with the Inca lunar calendar of 328 days based on a twelve sidereal month cycle” (Magli). The influence of astronomical beliefs on Inca architecture is not to be dismissed. The Incas, who worshipped the sun and identified the shapes of various sacred animals in the black spaces between the stars of the Milky Way, chose to erect ceremonial complexes on mountaintops that, when viewed from below, would align with the rising and setting of the sun, particularly at the equinoxes and solstices. It is suggested that mountains considered sacred by the Incas were chosen for their astronomical significance. The orientations and locations of some Inca structures as well as sacred mountains are astronomically relevant.

Inca structures are not just a civil engineering marvel; they also illustrate how technology works to serve culture. Astronomy, imperialism, and the beliefs of complementary order and sacred landscape all shaped the building practices of the Inca culture. The expertly fitted stone monuments that still stand today reflect practicality: the use of jointed stones blocks and living rock foundations in an area frequented by earthquakes, and cultural significance: the architecture of imperialism and the sacredness of both natural and human landscapes.

Dean, Carolyn. "The Inka Married the Earth: Integrated Outcrops and the Making of Place." Art Bulletin 89(2007): 502-518.

Giulio Magli, "Mathematics, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in the Inka Heartland", Nexus Network Journal, vol. 7 no. 2 (Autumn 2005)

Reinhard, John, and Constanza Ceruti. "Sacred Mountains, Ceremonial Sites, and Human Sacrifice Among the Incas." Archaeoastronomy XIX(2005)

Wright, Kenneth R., and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra. Machu Picchu : A Civil Engineering Marvel. Reston, Virginia: ASCE Press, 2000.



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