THE MECCA OF ANCIENT AMERICA
Scientific American March 1931; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011
COVERING hundreds of acres of the desert that stretches from the sea to the Andean foothills, bisected by the modern motor highway from Lima, 15 miles distant, to Pisco, are the ruins of the ancient city of Pacha-Kamak. Everywhere are the massive walls of adobe bricks, the crumbling remains of great palaces, storehouses, and public buildings, the cubicles that mark rows of houses, the extensive plazas and ball courts, the public baths, and the shops, shrines, and market-stalls. Everywhere one may trace the once-busy streets, the broad highways, the narrow paved lanes.
A little apart, and isolated from the other ruins, is the temple of the Mamakunas or Virgins of the Sun, still well preserved with its lofty central altar, its cells that once housed the sacred virgins, its hallways and stairs, and its oddly Egyptian-like niches within which, in the long-forgotten past, stood magnificent images or idols ablaze with gold and jewels. And, dominating all, covering the summit of an immense artificial hill, is the vast temple of Pachakamak, the supreme god, the Creator, the Almighty of the Incan and pre-Incan races.
No ruins in all South America, if indeed in the New World, hold more historic and romantic interest than those of this holy city of Pachakamak. No one can say when the city was first established, no man even can guess at its age. It may be five thousand, ten thousand years old; but we know that, centuries before the days of the first Inca, Pachakamak was an ancient city; that it was a sacred spot, a holy city, the Mecca of the South American races; and that, from far and near, from points as far distant as Colombia and the Argentine, pilgrims journeyed to this Mecca of ancient America to worship at its temple, to pass their last hours within its sacred precincts, and to be buried in its consecrated ground. So firmly established had its sacred character become, so reverenced its temple and its shrines, that the Incas made no attempt to suppress the ancient rites and religions that were followed at Pachakamak, and instead of forcing the people to adopt the Incan faith and worship Inti, the Sun-God, they erected their own Temple-of-the-Sun on a hill adjacent to that of the temple of Pachakamak. Hence the city became a Mecca for the people of the Incan faith as well as for the others, and the immeasurably ancient god of the pre-Incas and Inti, the Sun-God, were worshipped side by side.
NOT only did the people come to Pachakamak to worship; throughout the length and breadth of South America—even in far distant Central America—the image of the supreme god was credited with working miracles and of curing the crippled and the ill. Men and women barely able to crawl up the temple stairs, or so weak with illness or with injuries that they were carried by others, emerged from the holy presence strong, whole, and well. In addition, the image of the god was believed to utter oracles and prophecies, while the faithful desired nothing more than to be interred in the sacred ground of the vast cemeteries about the temple. Hence it is no wonder that through centuries—thousands of years—the desert sands about Pachakamak should have become a vast necropolis literally filled with the mummified bodies of the dead, and that the temple and its shrines should have been enriched by the gifts and offerings of pilgrims until it was reputed—and no doubt rightly—to have contained a greater treasure than even the famed Temple-of-the-Sun at Cuzco, the Incan capital. In fact, it was the stories of the wealth of Pachakamak that lured Pizarro to Peru, for tales of its riches in gold, silver and precious stones had spread northward to Panama and beyond.
A grand and imposing sight the famous temple must have presented before the days of the conquest. And almost incalculable must have been the time and labor devoted to its construction. The hill upon which it stood, a miniature mountain, was built entirely by hand, of adobe bricks and faced with squared blocks of stone. How many centuries went into the making of this gigantic mound, how many men toiled and labored at it, how many millions of bricks and stones went into its construction, are beyond computation. But the probability is that it was erected gradually, little by little, through countless centuries.
UPWARD from the base—more than two miles in circumference—a flagged stone ramp extended in a spiral. At every turn was a shrine or small temple and a short flight of stone steps that led to the next turn. As the pilgrims and worshippers ascended the huge mound they stopped at each of these spots to pray and make offerings. Everywhere rose the massive stone-faced walls, sloping inward toward their tops, rising in tiers like a modern "zoned" skyscraper, and everywhere covered with red or yellow stucco and elaborate frescoes.
Along the topmost wall bordering the last portion of the ramp, facing the Pacific, was a line of immense stone statues rising above niches in which were smaller images of wood covered with plates of gold. At the very summit of the temple was a huge rectangular level court or plaza surrounded by ornately sculptured walls with niches in which were more than one hundred sacred and symbolic figures gleaming with gold and silver and ablaze with gems.
In the center rose the holy of holies, the most sacred of shrines in all the New World, a small rectangular structure of stuccoed and frescoed stone, containing the idol or image of the almighty Pachakamak, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Ruler of the Universe—a wooden image of gigantic size so laden with gold and precious stones that it was scarcely visible. The timbers and woodwork, as well as the doors to the various shrines, were of hardwood fastened together with gold nails, and the massive portals of Pachakamak's shrine were completely covered with magnificent mosaic work of turquoise, mother-of-pearl, rock crystal, coral and semi-precious stones. When the ruthless, destructive Spaniards under Hernando Pizarro reached Pachakamak— having been sent from Cajamarca by Pizarro in order to secure the treasures that were to form a portion of Atahualpa's ransom—they found little of value in the temple. Word of their coming had been carried to the city, and the priests of the temple had hurriedly stripped the idols and images of all precious metals and precious stones and secreted them. To be sure, the idols and images were still there, the magnificent mosaic work adorned the doors, and the Dons found a few bits of gold and two or three emeralds that had been dropped by the priests and overlooked. Still the Spaniards did not return empty-handed. Having torn down and destroyed every image, idol, and statue they could find, after erecting a cross upon the temple's top they piously proceeded to torture the priests in an effort to force them to reveal the hiding place of the temple's riches. In this they were partially successful. One priest, unable to withstand the agonies imposed by his inhuman captors, told of a horde of silver in a storehouse (which still stands) and of gold and silver buried near the temple. But though this treasure was in itself a fortune—so great was the quantity of silver that the Dons shod their horses with that metal—yet it is believed to have been but a drop in a bucket as compared with the riches that had been hastily removed and which never have been found. One of the Spaniards also discovered the gold nails in the woodwork, and when the latter had been burned and the precious spikes had been raked from the ashes, they were found to weigh 32,000 ounces—roughly half a million dollars in value.
From that day Pachakamak was doomed. Deprived of their most venerated deity, with much of their temple and their city wantonly destroyed, and with alien men and an alien faith established in the ancient, holy city, the natives deserted it. As no more pilgrims journeyed over deserts and mountains, through torrid jungles and over arid plains to worship at the desecrated shrine, Pachakamak soon became but a memory of the past, a dead and ruined city tenanted only by the soft-winged burrowing owls, the soaring black vultures, and the desert rats. The thatched roofs of the buildings decayed, fell in and vanished in impalpable dust; the adobe walls, uncared for, exposed to the elements, crumbled and fell apart; the Spaniards tore down the temple walls and used the cut stones to build their tawdry dwellings in the neighboring valley of Lurin, and where once were green, tilled fields and gardens the desert drifted in until today the ruins of the city stand in a glaring, barren waste of sand. Alone with its countless dead the forsaken city lay silent in the shadow of its once magnificent temple, an accusing monument to the ruthless destructiveness of the Spaniards.
BUT even the dead could not be left in peace. Everywhere men dug where, for thousands of years, the bodies of the faithful had been laid to rest, because gold and silver sometimes were buried with the corpses. Ruthlessly the cotton-wrapped mummy-bundles were dragged from the graves, feverishly the cloths, the priceless textiles and the garments were torn from the shrivelled, desiccated bodies and these, torn limb from limb, were scattered about, tossed aside, trodden underfoot. Treasure seekers, archeologists, curio hunters and tourists—all have played their part until there is scarcely a square yard of the sand in or about Pachakamak that has not been turned over. In many places the desert looks as though it had been exposed to shell fire. Everywhere are the great pits, the crater-like depressions where graves have been excavated, and everywhere are the skulls and bones, the human hair, the fragments of textiles, and the broken pottery that have been disinterred and cast aside. In many places the skulls form veritable windrows, and one can scarcely move anywhere without treading at every step upon human remains.
Bad as this was, the worst was yet to come. Up to the past year the great temple upon its artificial hill had remained almost intact. To an extent, time and the elements had left their marks upon it. Most of the frescoes and much of the stucco had disappeared, little of the sculptured stone and adobe remained, and vandals had scribbled their names and had painted advertisements upon it in places. But the walls still stood, solid, massive, impressive. The ramp could still be traced and afforded a pathway to the summit, and one could trace the outlines and details of the shrines and visualize it as it was in its heyday. The stairways were as perfect as on that day when Hernando Pizarro, sword in hand, dashed past the protesting priests and, bursting into the sacred cubicle, with characteristic bigotry hurled the venerated god over the temple walls.
Within the past year this most famous and most historic relic of Peru's ancient civilization, the temple itself, nearly 1800 by 1500 feet in dimensions, has fallen to the insatiable lust for gold that still fills the hearts and minds of many of the descendants of the Spanish conquerors. Some charlatan claimed to possess an ancient document telling of vast treasure buried beneath the temple. A syndicate was formed and a gang of men was put to work tearing it down, undermining its walls, destroying the stone facings and tunneling into the hill itself.
IN vain were the protests of those interested in preserving this magnificent relic of the Incas and pre-Incas. Soon great gaps appeared in the ancient walls, columns and stairways that were ancient when Pompeii was built, fell crashing in clouds of dust down the hillside, and shrines were reduced to piles of debris. It is the greatest pity that the money and the energy expended in this destruction was not devoted to reconstruction, that the government of Peru did not realize the inestimable historic and scientific value of preserving the temple for all time.
The saddest part of this wanton destruction is that the destroyers will have accomplished nothing aside from the destruction of the temple. No gold, no treasure will reward them, for it is beyond the bounds of reason or of credibility to suppose that valuables would have been concealed under the temple in the heart of that stupendous pile of adobe bricks. To have done so would have been practically impossible without leaving obvious traces, and had there been such traces the avaricious and keen-eyed Spaniards would have seen them and would have left no stone upon another until they had unearthed the hidden treasure.