Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is second in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
The Andes mountains loomed on the horizon as we arrived in Lima last evening. After an hour long rush hour traffic jam we checked into the hotel and enjoyed a dinner of Peruvan delicacies at Casa Luna—a home museum dedicated to Peruvian folk art, particularly nativity scenes and retablos, or altars, of every style.
This morning we flew over the Andes landing at Cuzco—about 11,000 feet above sea level and nestled in the Urubamba valley, the sacred valley of the Incas. Cuzco was conceived as the navel of the Incan universe, and the capital of an empire that prior to Spanish conquest spread over a distance of 4,000 miles.
I was joined by my daughter Danielle, an archaeologist from Vanderbilt University who is running a project near Andahuaylas about 150 miles from Cuzco. She took an all night bus ride to join as a volunteer lecturer for a few days. I hadn’t seen her in months—so it was a fine father-daughter reunion.
Our Smithsonian group visited Sacsayhuaman—an Incan temple that overlooks Cuzco and in the colonial era became the site of a siege by the Spanish conquistadors.
Though some of the tour guides say it was a fortress, Ramiro Matos pointed out the ritual markers—a snake- like rock wall around the site—rather that fortification. Danielle noted a recent study of skeletal remains that show no record of trauma that would indicate a battle site. The Incan stone work was well engineered, with tight-fitting cut boulders finely angled to form walls.
We later visited Coricancha. This was an Incan temple of the sun upon which the Church of Santo Domingo was built. Some of the Incan walls and rooms were re-constituted. The Church held massive and dramatic paintings of Spanish colonial Christianity. We then visited the main Cuzco Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. Seeing the elaborate gold gilding, there was no doubt where the fabled gold of the Incas had gone.
What struck me most in these sites was the cultural syncretism of Andean culture with those of Spanish colonial Christianity. A painting depicting the Last Supper featured Jesus and the Apostles eating a cuay—or guinea pig—an Andean staple. Similarly the supper table featured corn and other items native to the Americas. Similarly other paintings incorporated Andean symbols—like a crescent moon. A depiction of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus had both attired completely in Andean native dress. And the Church floor stones, cut and placed by native workers, included a few with carvings of Andean deities most likely done in resistance to forced labor.
Such examples illustrate how people adapt, interpret and mold their culture in light of ever changing circumstances. Culture is made and constantly remade by the living. We had a good illustration of that—with a musician playing new tunes for tourists based on old folk songs, and a weaver using a traditional loom to formulate novo-traditional styles of textile weaving for sale.
Tomorrow we are up before dawn for a journey to Machu Pichhu.