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  • Stuart Leavenworth /

    Machu Picchu, one of the world’s iconic landmarks, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22.

  • Stuart Leavenworth

Op Images: Inca icon offers lesson on the fragility of empires

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 18A

If you are still reading this by day's end, then clearly you have survived another overhyped prediction of apocalypse.

Sorry, no gnashing of teeth. No celestial cataclysm. No dogs and cats living together.

But even if it seems silly that so many people took seriously the end of the 13th baktun cycle of the Maya calendar, none of us should feel confident that our civilization is impervious to rapid upheaval. I reflected upon this recently during a visit to Machu Picchu, the icon of an indigenous civilization that, in a matter of years, saw its world turned upside down.

Up until the early 16th century, the Inca ruled over the largest empire in South America. They controlled all of Peru, and parts of what are now Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile.

Fearsome warriors and sophisticated engineers, they built monumental works of architecture. At Machu Picchu and other Inca sites in Peru, I marveled at Inca walls made out of massive interlocking blocks of granite and beautiful gravity-fed water fountains that date back to the 1400s.

The Inca empire might have thrived for centuries more, but then, right at its peak, the Spanish invaded. The first invasion was a spread of smallpox from Central America that weakened the Incan hold on power. The second was a group of conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers.

The Spanish were vastly outnumbered. Yet with their horses, armor, swords, resupply ships and willingness to massacre thousands, they were able to overwhelm the Incas with as few as 168 men. Within a few years, they had plundered much of the Inca gold. By 1572, they had brutally crushed the last of its resistance.

Amazingly, the Spanish never discovered Machu Picchu, one reason it remains so intact. Archaeologists still debate the purpose of Machu Picchu. Many believe it was a winter retreat for the Inca rulers – lower in elevation than Cuzco, the Inca capital.

My visit to Machu Picchu came on a bright spring day in Peru – Thanksgiving, as it turned out – when I was thankful for the opportunity to visit such a wondrous place. As clouds moved across the peaks of the Andes, altering the morning and afternoon light, I tried to imagine what life might have been like in this community in 1529. That was year the queen of Spain gave Pizarro permission to conquer an entire civilization.

Surely, as they worked their fields and raised their families, the Inca had no idea their days were numbered. They referred to Cuzco as the "navel of the world," and yet they were oblivious of the vastness of that world and how rapidly it was closing in upon them. For the Inca, Armageddon didn't happen in a day. It was the price they paid for being unable to see the storm that was gathering on the horizon.

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