Thursday, 4 February 2010

From the City of Kings


By A. Hyatt Verrill

Travel magazine January, 1925. Digitized by Doug Frizzle February 2012.

Relics of the Incas in the Streets of Lima—Southward Along the Coast to Barranco and Chor-rillos—Pachacamac, the Ruined City of the Desert—The Bones and Belongings of the Incas

TRAVELING by bus, trolley car or auto between Lima and Miraflores, one sees numerous dull, grayish-brown piles of earth rising conspicuously above the level plain with its endless adobe walls, its well-kept gardens and its handsome residences. Near the ancient Olive Grove and the Golf Club there are several of these hills and in one spot a stone crusher and derrick shows where a hill is being torn down and transformed to broken stone for use in concrete. If one looks closely one may notice an odd, squarish, unnatural form to these little eminences and may discover that they are artificial—the remains of adobe structures that have mainly crumbled and disintegrated until they have again returned to their original and fundamental status as brown earth. Probably not one in a thousand of those who travel daily along the Avenida Leguia ever give these unobtrusive hillocks a passing glance or a second thought; and certainly very few of the innumerable passers-by realize that in the crumbling bits of adobe they see the last vestiges of that wondrous civilization—the great cities that were so ruthlessly destroyed by Pizarro and his gold-mad men. Through the long centuries that have passed since the Incas held sway, these remnants of their homes have remained, mute testimonials of the wantonness of the Dons, pathetic reminders that, long before the coming of Europeans, the Indians dwelt and raised their crops and lived and loved and died where now the noisy, busy City of the Kings rises above the plain, with the twin towers of its vast cathedral marking the last resting place of him who destroyed a civilization and massacred a nation. But the march of progress and modernity is rapidly destroying even these small fragments of the Incas' domain near Lima. The stones, cut by infinite labor, transported at tremendous cost to build the Incas' palaces and temples, are being broken into bits for paving motor highways; the crumbled debris of homes and citadels is being again formed into adobe for erecting dwellings to house Lima's suburbanites, and soon the last of the Inca ruins about Lima and its environs will have utterly vanished.

But within an hour's ride by automobile, a marvelous sight to all interested in the fascinating story of Peru's past, is the dead city of Pachacamac with its imposing Temple of the Sun.

By way of Miraflores the road, roughly cobbled with round stones from the river bed, leads through Barranco, a delightful Old World town, typically Spanish-American in life and architecture. Despite its trolley line, its numerous motor cars, its lofty windmills—unmistakably modern and of Yankee make—Barranco is a truly attractive spot, combining the secluded aloofness and grandeur of the old Spanish mansions with their patios, grill work and statuary, and the spick and span, obtrusively showy, though often architecturally beautiful, residences of the well-to-do, up-to-date Peruvians and foreign residents. Beyond blank walls of buff or pink, one glimpses great rambling, massive, one-storied houses in the midst of palm-filled gardens that are almost miniature jungles. From jutting Moorish balconies, women in mantillas and immense tortoise-shell combs lean out and watch the passers-by. Poncho-draped men, huge silver spurs on heels, their feet resting in immense carved wooden stirrups of a century ago, canter noisily over the rough cobbles astride lean wiry ponies and swing to one side to avoid a honking motor truck or a clattering squad of gayly uniformed cavalry from the near-by military institute. Surrounded by glorious flower beds and half hidden by masses of climbing, pink-bloomed geraniums, are the pristinely clean and fresh houses of those who have discovered in Barranco a charming residential suburb. On every hand the old rubs elbows with the new. The ancient streets whose cobbles through long centuries have been worn smooth by the bare-soled feet of Indians and the booted feet of proud hidalgos, now echo to the roar of tramways and the protesting rattle of Fords. Behind the adobe walls of a one time bullring the native youths play soccer football in flamboyant blazers. But the clanging bells of the squat old church are as discordant and insistent as though all had remained unaltered, and the changeless sea rolls in and thunders against the bluff at the foot of the Malecon as it must have done ages before Balboa first looked upon the Pacific. To many, no doubt, Barranco and its neighbor, Chorrillos, would appear merely Peruvian towns, not too clean, a bit dowdyish dusty, and with outrageously bad streets—necessary evils to be passed through as rapidly as consistent with a due regard for tires and springs and one's bodily safety. But to me there is ever something most fascinatingly romantic about these outlying towns of Spanish America, an indescribable and foolishly sentimental feeling, no doubt. But in them to me there is much more of what one imagines a Latin-American town and Latin-American life should be like— despite the modern innovations and progress—than in the great cities, and always I can revisualize the past in such spots and in my mind's eye see them as they were in the long ago. Of the two, Chorrillos is perhaps the more attractive, for the streets in many places are narrow and bordered by poplars and laurels that meet in an arch overhead; the buildings of old Spanish types are more numerous—there is less of the modern; and the town stands prominently and picturesquely forth against its background of frowning, austere, bare brown mountain with the crosses of a cemetery on one hip and the massive obelisk marking the grave of Peru's Unknown Soldier on the other. It is a fitting spot for his lonely grave, for not far distant, just outside Barranco, was fought a decisive battle in the war between Peru and Chile in which the Chileans were signally victorious.

Leaving Chorrillos, the road wanders across vacant fields between adobe walls and follows beside the tracks of the quaint mule tramway, bordered by broad fields of the long-staple Peruvian cotton, with towering, dun-brown mountains on the west and green-carpeted peaks to the east. Then, leaving the cultivated lands behind, the way leads onto the lagunas—broad, marshy, coastal plains covered with sparse blue-green grass and swept by the sea breeze from the Pacific that breaks in thundering surf along the distant shore. Here the sand hills begin and, as the marshes are left behind, the traveler finds himself in a veritable desert. Immense rounded hills of yellow sand—gigantic dunes or miniature mountains—sweep in endless ridges from the roadside. Here and there, black ledges or ridges of rock jut from the sand; but aside from these and the narrow road of pulverized stone, outlined by upright bits of rock bordering the two sides, the barren surface of the land is unbroken from the edge of the sea to the distant mountains. Like the Sahara, the desert has been carved by the wind into wavelike ridges, and like the caravan trails on the Sahara are the irregular, crisscrossing trails of goats. What these creatures find to eat upon this barren, arid land is a mystery, unless they subsist upon the sand. Almost equally puzzling is why vultures should endlessly wheel above the waste, unless they are hoping that the goats may starve to death. Aside from these signs of life, it seems not only a desert but a deserted land, until in the distance an approaching motor car appears, seemingly floating in air because of the mirage.

As the roadway is barely wide enough for a single vehicle, little turnouts have been constructed at intervals, and, drawing aside into one of these, one car awaits the other's passing. The desert seems endless, but at last a few patches of green break the surface of the sand far ahead. Near the sea, a high, conical hill looms above the lesser dunes. Oddly terraced and with strangely irregular summits, these appear very different from the softly rounded desert hills. Then, as the car speeds down a slope and swings about a sharp curve between adobe walls, one is amid the ruins. On every side, bordering the road, jutting up from the waste of sand, crowning the hillocks, terracing the slopes, are crumbling walls, disintegrating buildings and roofless houses extending for miles. The distant hill that towers far above its fellows is a mighty mass of vast, ruined and partly ruined structures; the Temple of the Sun—the sacred place of worship of those who once dwelt in this immense ancient city of Pachacamac. Topping a lesser hill, still imposing in its decay, its walls nearly six feet in thickness, is the King's House wherein once dwelt the Inca who reigned over this silent city in the desert. Close to the roadway are the square, binlike storehouses and the shops wherein the denizens of Pachacamac once bartered and traded, and no doubt haggled over the prices of rawhide sandals, cotton cloth and earthen jars, and bemoaned the high cost of living. And if one clambers up the debris-strewn hillside across the road and picks one's way through the ruins of the King's House, a vast panorama of the ancient city lies spread like a map at one's feet. There to the north is a huge, rectangular open space inclosed with high walls still intact. A public plaza or market place perhaps, or possibly a field wherein sports and athletic contests were held. Just beyond, to the west, is the main street, a narrow, steeply sloping thoroughfare hemmed in by the walls of large houses—the mansions of the well-to-do Incas no doubt—and the remains of once imposing buildings that perchance were the offices of officials, or Inca department stores. Fascinatingly interesting it is to stand in the midst of this deserted desert city of adobe and try to revisualize the past, to reconstruct Pachacamac, and in the mind's eye see it as it was before the advent of the Spaniards. But it must be confessed that it cannot be recommended as a spot to be visited by those timid, nervous or superstitious persons who are disturbed by sight of human bones, for Pachacamac is a bit gruesome. It was a large and populous city. It was inhabited for centuries, and countless people died and were laid at rest in cemeteries and burial mounds so extensive that, as one visitor expressed it, "the principal occupations of the Incas must have been dying and burying the dead." And for years excavations having been going on in these burying grounds, partly by scientists searching for archeological treasures, partly by natives seeking pottery and other objects which could be disposed of at a good profit; partly by curio seekers, and largely by visitors who had nothing better to do and devoted their time to disinterring the bodies on the chance of finding pieces of pottery or guacos. As a result the areas between the buildings resemble the battle grounds of France, with the pits marking excavated graves like countless shell holes. But it would have been a bloody battle indeed that would have left such an array of whitened bones and grinning skulls as lie scattered about the desecrated graves of Pachacamac. They are everywhere: singly, in groups, or in veritable piles and windrows— thousands of them—in one spot so numerous that the depression' wherein they lie is literally a valley of skulls; some crumbling to bits through long exposure; some bleached white as snow; some with the parchmentlike skin and the long hair still adhering to them. And among them, cast aside like the human remains by the diggers, are the strips of cloth with colors and patterns still plain and the coarsely netted bags of rope that formed the shrouds and coffins of the dead. Ethically, no doubt this desecration of graves is quite wrong, even though the graves be only those of pagan Indians; but it must be admitted that it is extremely interesting and quite exciting to dig and delve in these ancient burial places, and few indeed can resist the temptation to try their hands at it. There are, however, few spots left where graves remain undisturbed, and hours of laborious shoveling are in store for anyone who expects to secure specimens of pottery or other worth-while objects by one's own efforts. But there are plenty of souvenirs and very interesting things to be secured with little effort and without disturbing the remaining graves. A very little digging in the piles of debris cast aside by former searchers will usually result in finding cotton spindles with the thread still wound about them, decorated hairpins of wood with the paint still bright, shriveled but perfectly preserved sandals, woolen and cotton rope strips of beautifully woven cloth and similar things. And so perfectly preserved are these, so untouched by time and the elements, that it is hard to believe that four centuries and more have passed since they were laid away with their dead owners for use by the spirits of the deceased in the hereafter. One marvels, too, that a city should have been built in this desolate, arid desert until, climbing the higher ruins, a wonderfully beautiful panorama of green fields and gardens dotted with houses, divided like a vast checkerboard by adobe walls, and with a little town topped by the twin towers of a yellow church, is revealed scarcely a mile distant to the south. This is the rich and fertile valley of Lurin, the spot wherein the denizens of Pachacamac tilled the soil beside the sparkling river and irrigated their fields of cotton and corn and raised their crops. No doubt there was much method in their seeming madness of building a great city on the desert so far from their gardens and their water supply. The wild tribesmen of the mountains often swept down upon the peaceful agricultural settlements and raided fields and granaries. At such times the inhabitants of Pachacamac could retire to their desert homes and, behind the thick adobe walls, seek safety and defy their enemies, who could not approach unseen or unexposed across the bare sand wastes. The city was, in fact, very similar in many ways to the Pueblos of our own Southwest, where the Indians dwell in security upon the bare mesas and have their gardens and fields in the fertile valleys at a distance for the very reasons that caused the people of Pachacamac to dwell in a town upon the desert though their cultivated lands were in the valley of Lurin.

Today this valley is as rich and as well tilled as in the far-off days when the Incas held sway and the desert city was a busy, teeming, populated place. Also most of those who dwell within the valley have a goodly strain of the Indian blood in their veins. Beyond doubt, the ancestors of many of the present inhabitants of the valley, and of quaint, old-world Lurin itself, were denizens of the ruined city, men and women whose bones lie scattered about upon the sands. But the living have no respect for either the bones or the spirits of the near-by dead and no doubt would be grossly insulted were one to hint that they were of Cholo blood. One might think that the people of Lurin, and more especially those who dwell near the borders of Pachacamac, might be afraid of ghosts, for as a rule the Latin Americans, and more especially the humbler people, are exceedingly superstitious, and surely if spirits walk, then Pachacamac should be most thoroughly haunted. But apparently the people of Lurin have not the slightest fear of either ghosts or spirits. Perhaps, to their way of thinking, only Christians have ghosts, or it may be that they feel that the Pachacamac ghosts have plenty to attend to within the confines of the ruined city and will not wander far afield. Whatever the reason, the proximity of the city, which is a most spectral and uncanny place at night, does not appear to trouble them in the least. Indeed, those who live on the very borders of the ruins have done a bit of excavating on their own account and human bones and grinning skulls lie scattered about their dooryards, while those who have business abroad do not hesitate to ride at dead of night through the ruins, passing the cemeteries with their countless skeletons as casually as though the whitened bones were so many stones, and trampling many a skull under their horses' feet.

The traveler who visits this dusty city of bones must bear in mind that it is only one of many Inca cities which the European conquest of Peru reduced to nothing. Perhaps the most celebrated of these cities, although the least accessible, is Machu Picchu, explored some years ago by Professor Hiram Bingham and described in his book "Inca Land."

The present article is one of a series by Mr. Verrill which will appear from time to time in the pages of TRAVEL. Mr. Verrill is now traveling down the west coast of South America gathering material for these articles.

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