On Koricancha

Koricancha, or the Incan Temple of the Sun in Cusco, Peru, or at least what was left of it after the Spanish built the Dominican convent of Santo Domingo on top of it, is a must stop if you have gone to the trouble of going all the way Cusco and Machu Picchu. Cusco was an original Inca city and a major axis within their empire during both the 14th and 15th centuries. Koricancha, or “Courtyard of Gold” was a major shrine within the Incan empire, and its walls were lined with gold, gold that was eventually looted by the Conquistadores, but not enough gold to save the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa. Only a few walls of the original temple are still left, but they do bear witness to the exquisite craftsmanship of the Incan masons whose elegant work far outstrips the clumsy common blocking of the Baroque style convent that rises above the ramparts of the original temple. The temple, or its remnants, is an icon of an empire that totally collapsed under the invasion of the Spanish. The scourge that is colonialism–invade, conquer, occupy as much space as possible, strip out everything of value, redefine language, laws, and religion, isolate the locals outside of the circles of power, redefine all cultural values–is only too obvious in the baroque church built on top of Koricancha, essentially putting it under erasure, shoving it out to the margins of history. I understand how offended my modern post-post-modern post-colonial sensibility is, but I don’t condemn the Spanish for doing any of what they did because they were doing to the Inca what the Inca had been doing to other cultures and societies up and down the Andes. Invade and conquer, it’s an old story in human history. The “Leyenda Negra” of the Spanish has long since been chucked on the ash heap of world history, but their colonial legacy as a fallen empire still echoes within Peruvian society, and the Conquistadores (i.e., white Europeans) are, with a few minor exceptions, still running the government in Peru, and the local indigenous people are marginalized into slums in the urban areas or super-marginalized in the rural highlands where modern social amenities–medicine, schools, housing, utilities–are rare, lacking, or non-existent. Indigenous incomes in the high mountain mesas are almost nothing at all. The role of indigenous people working in the numerous Peruvian mines is particularly troubling, boasting a horrific safety record of numerous deaths and injuries. Koricancha is a kind of synecdoche for the entire Spanish enterprise in the “New World.” Of course, the Spanish did the same thing in Iberia when they kicked the Muslims out of C√≥rdoba, building a Gothic cathedral in the middle of the famous mosque. Carlos V actually built a palace in the middle of the Alhambra. The Visigoths built a church on top of a Roman temple in the same place. Invaders have always felt it necessary to exert their power over the conquered by building their own temple on top of the sacred space of those they have conquered. So when you go to Koricancha you will be assaulted by conflicting images of Incan art and architecture within the context of a Baroque Christian church. The conclusions that you draw about this odd juxtaposition of cultures and technologies will be your own. All of the involved parties have long since turned to dust, and the caretakers of the site today are only the genetic shadows of the movers and shakers of 16th century Cuzco. The important thing about Koricancha is to go there, see it, experience it, and be a witness, albeit four hundred years after the fact.