It is commonly questioned as to how the Incas were able to develop such an exquisite architecture without the use of the wheel and modern tools. Their buildings have withstood five centuries in an earthquake prone zone and provided the foundations of many current buildings.
Inca architecture was inherited from pre-Inca civilizations. Archeological studies show that the Incas reproduced and updated many buildings, especially those in the Middle Horizon period. In newly conquered territories the Incas built administrative centers using pre-existing buildings and adding new elements, such as in the Sanctuary of Pachacamac located south of Lima. The Tiawanaku culture had the greatest influence in Inca architecture, the use of stone in their buildings was a legacy that the Incas continued. Tiawanaku flourished in the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia and its development was centered around Lake Titicaca in the present department of Puno, Peru.
One of the reasons Inca architecture was successful was the organization of its society and labor. Through ayllus and mita labor or tribute they were able to organize their manpower in extraordinary numbers necessary to build such labor intensive monuments. The strongest males were chosen and it was an honor to be part of the team as they were building temples dedicated to Inca Gods.
Inca Architecture technique
The Incas were certainly skilled stonemasons. They used granite or limestone to build their cities, these materials were available locally. To cut the rocks they used stones, metal tools made of bronze or copper, pieces of wood and water. Using the natural fracture lines of the stones they used tools to crack them open introducing pieces of wood and then pouring water so that the wood would expand, as the crack becomes bigger they would insert a bigger piece of wood and repeat the process until the piece was completely separated. Next they needed to shape the stones which could have been rectangular or polygonal, which they did by carving and then polish them with sand. Each stone was carved to such precision as they had to fit perfectly with each other.
Archeologists believe that a lot of planning took place before carving and placing the stones together. It was not so much a process of trial and error in fitting the stones but careful measuring and planning.
Sacsahuaman stone wall made by the Incas.
To transport the finished stones workers had to build up roads and ramps to the construction site. It is amazing how they transported 100 metric-ton stone some as far as 35 kilometers. Researchers believe that 1,800 men were required to drag such a big block using inclined planes, thick ropes, gravity and muscle power. It is also believed that they used wet clay or gravel to reduce friction. For instance the largest stone at Ollantaytambo weighs around 140,000 kilograms.
The building method used by Inca architecture was straightforward. They laid the larger stones first to build a strong foundation then they built up ramps around them to facilitate the placement of the smaller stones until they finished the wall.
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The most famous Inca architectural heritage is Machu Picchu, it is considered the best example of its architecture. Other ruins include the Fortress of Sasahuaman, Coricancha Temple and Ollantaytambo among others.
The most repeated construction in Inca architecture is the rectangular shaped building with wooden beams and thatch as roof, this basic design was used in almost all buildings. Inca planners used this design to build their cities and towns. Four or more of these buildings were built around a central plaza forming a kancha, several kancha would make blocks. Many cities in Peru are built around this layout.
In the heart of Cusco in a plaza called Huacapata was built the Coricancha or Temple of the Sun. It was the religious center of the empire and was reserved for the Sapa Inca, his immediate family, priests and the chosen women to worship. Although it was meant to be a center for pilgrimage, people were not allowed to go inside.
Coricancha was a magnificent building, an architectural marvel. Its walls were covered with sheets of gold and silver. Gold was a sacred metal thought to be the sweat of the sun and the tears of the moon. Archeologists think that Coricancha was serviced by a staff of four thousand. High priests and priestesses or acllas served the gods. These women were chosen for their beauty and worked in a secluded convent called the Accllahuaci. They served by cooking food for the gods, weaving fine clothes for the Sapa Inca and making daily offerings to the gods. Unfortunately the original temple was modified by the Spanish who built a church using the original walls of the temple. The gold and silver sheets covering the walls and all other objects were appropriated by the Spanish.
The Fortress of Sacsahuaman is an impressive construction that stood on the highest point of a steep-sided hill overlooking the city. The Inca’s engineering skills were tested in the building of this magnificent structure. Its zigzag walls were made of enormous stone blocks that weighed 90 to 120 tons each.
Similar walls but not as elaborate architectural achievement have been found in Easter Island, it is believed that migration to the Polynesian island was responsible for transferring the skill.
Zig zag walls of the Fortress of Sacsahuaman, Cusco.