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October 23, 2015

The 24,000-Mile Long Great Inca Road

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 1.07.46 PM

The Q'eswachaka suspension bridge, part of the 24,000-mile-long Inca Road

Excerpts from Edward Rothstein's Wall Street Journal article follow:


In 1535, a conquistador who accompanied Pizarro described "one of the greatest constructions that the world has ever seen." It was the Inca Road — a 24,000-mile-long network that stretches through six contemporary nations, from Chile to Colombia. Another conquistador said that since the beginning of recorded time, "there has been no account of such grandeur as is to be seen in this road." Significant portions of that 500-year-old road are still maintained by local populations; hiking groups follow another segment on four-day treks from Cuzco to Machu Picchu in Peru, and yet another became the foundation of the Pan-American Highway. In 2014, the Inca Road was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, partly because of the research done for the fascinating exhibition that opened recently at the National Museum of the American Indian — "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire (through June 2018).

All this for a mere road?

The curators — Ramiro Matos Mendieta and José Barreiro — answer by exploring the road's place in both the South American landscape and the Incan cosmos. It winds across plains and grasslands, desert and coastland, the peaks of the Andes and the rain forests of the Amazon. It had to be carved out of the surroundings, its steps paved with stones, chasms crossed by rope bridges, drainage arranged and erosion controlled. And all this was accomplished without writing, without iron tools, without heavy draft animals, without even the invention of the wheel.

It represents a political achievement as well. The Inca empire lasted only a century or so before falling to the Spanish in 1533, but the road was then the largest construction in the Western Hemisphere — allowing control of some 772,000 square miles. It made the empire possible: It was its circulatory system, its communications system, a political and military instrument, and an integral part of religious rituals. It left no part of the empire without access, shaping a culture that claims adherents even today, with millions speaking varieties of Quechua, the Inca language.

This exhibition surveys the road as it passes through the region, accompanied by artifacts that span time and space: a first-millennium B.C. gold head ornament, a tunic made of still-vivid bird feathers from 1000-1500, a 20th century Peruvian hat. There are also spectacular images: At the edge of a gorge in Q'eswachaka the road gives way to a 100-foot-long suspension bridge made of braided grasses and vines that sways over the rushing waters of the Apurimac River; it is reconstructed annually during a local festival.

In Quechua the Inca road is called Qhapaq Nan, meaning "road of power" or "way of the ruler." That is how it functioned: as a royal road, used for state purposes. At regular intervals of 12 to 15 miles (a day's journey on foot) way stations or inns were built, often used by relay messengers. The road was also punctuated with stone altars to the sun god, and with storage houses for surplus grain. This was a meticulously planned artery of the empire.

Two years ago, I followed one of its offshoots on Huayna Picchu, a peak that towers above the magnificent Machu Picchu. That ancient path runs through tunneled boulders and lush mountain growth, corkscrewing upward or weaving through switchbacks. In some areas, I mounted steep, half-millennium-old stairs that lack the pretense of safety guards. Here — as at other extraordinary Incan sites like Písac — the passage is not just through a landscape; it feels like it is about the landscape. There is a ceremonial aspect to such paths.

That was true of the main road as well, which was associated with the heavens. An interactive display shows that the Inca perceived constellations not as arrays of stars, but as patterns of darkness — evoking, say, a shepherd, a fox, a llama. Such patterns had symbolic significance and bore directly on earthly matters. The Milky Way, for example, was thought of as a river and the Inca Road its earthly mirror. Celestial features may have inspired the shape of other Inca sites as well, creating a kind of sacred geography.

The exhibition might have been more detailed and coherent in these explorations. How was the road built? How did the Inca get boulders weighing more than 125 tons up a mountain? Human labor, surely. The exhibition alludes to "mita," a kind of tax: A certain percentage of time had to be devoted to serving the state. Labor, we are told, was based on "ayni," reciprocity — "the central code of Andean peoples," which was reflected "in the idea that members of a community support one another." It is a concept, we also read, that is "very much alive" today as "communities work together for the common good."

But try to imagine the human labor required, even with ropes and ramps, to erect just one 20-foot-tall wall of hundred-ton chiseled stones taken from quarries miles away, let along raise a massive complex like Saqsaywaman, its ruins presiding over Cuzco like the Parthenon above Athens. Many thousands of workers must have been required to submit to the work — a condition more consistent with slavery than socialized labor. An illustration of such labor by a 16th-century Incan chronicler shows an overseer holding a rod above the workers. The grave sites at Machu Picchu suggest that laborers there may have been slaves of many ethnicities captured in war. None of this can be understood from the exhibition, which also decorously fails to mention what one of the scholars explains in the published catalog: Children were part of some of the road's ceremonial processions, led to mountain tops and sacrificed. How is any of this related to ayni?

October 23, 2015 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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