The ﬁrst Spaniards to see Cusco were three ruffians sent from “Caj amarca” by Pizarro early in 1533 to speed up the collection of treasure for “Atawallpa’ s” ransom. They came and went, leaving posterity no word of their reactions. Not long afterwards, literate Spaniards arrived, and were hugely impressed by the great structures of Cusco. “We can assure your Majesty that it is so beautiful and has such ﬁne buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain,” wrote an early chronicler.
The Spaniards arrived as allies to the Cusco-based faction of the Inca civil war, and for a while they had the run of the city. They passed the time looting, extorting treasure and abusing the natives, leaving most of Cusco’s buildings undisturbed for more than two years after Pizarro’ s triumphant entry, on November 8, 1533. But then a much abused native, Pizarro’ s puppet Inca, Manco II, escaped and retumed—-puppet no more—leading a massive army of between 100,000 and 200,000 Indians against the Spanish.
Thus began the six-month siege of Cusco—and thus also began the destruction of the Inca city. On May 6, 1536, Manco launched his main attack on the trapped Spaniards. The Indians used slingshots to rain red- hot stones on the city. “They set fire to the whole of Cusco simultaneously and it all burned in one day, for the roofs were thatch,” wrote the chronicler Cristobal de Molina. The Spaniards—bottled up in the Inca armory of Suntur Wasi—survived to break out and put own the rebellion. But the glorious Imperial City was left a smoking ruin.
Despite the enthusiasm of some chroniclers and conquistadors for Inca architecture – some even built their mansions in the Inca masonry style – the buildings and streets did not generally suit Spanish taste. Moreover, evidence that the Inca civilization was highly advanced provoked discomfort among the Spaniards; it complicated the task of justifying the destruction. And so the dismantling of Inca Cusco began soon after Manco’ s rebellion. Inca cut stones were re-used higgledy-piggledy in new construction, while the buildings of “Sacsaywaman” served as a public stone quarry.
For a few decades after the Conquest, Cusco remained the major city of Peru. It became the focus of conﬂict during the civil wars between Pizarro’ s men and a faction led by “Diego de Almagro”, as the conquerors fought among themselves over the spoils of victory. It was also the headquarters of the Spanish campaign against the last desperate resistance of the Inca Manco and his successors, in their mountain-ringed refuge of Vilcabamba, northwest of Cusco.
But in 1535 Pizarro had founded a new capital at Lima on the coast. Other new cities rose: Trujillo, Arequipa. The focus of power shifted to Lima, and the focus of wealth moved to the fabulous silver deposits which had been discovered at “Potosi” – Bolivia, hundreds of miles to the south. There was no more loot to be had in Cusco; even the silver route from Potosi had passed it by. Gradually the city faded into relative obscurity.
Events, natural and political, shook Cusco out of its torpor occasionally during the long centuries of eclipse. In 1650 a violent earthquake transformed many of the fine colonial buildings into heaps of rubble. The Inca walls and foundations stood ﬁrm. In 1780 the Cusco region came to the shocked attention of the Spanish crown as the scene of an Indian uprising led by the mestizo rebel Tupac Amaru II. The insurrection came closer to succeeding than any indigenous movement since Manco Inca’s rebellion, but it was ultimately crushed.
Tupac Amaru II himself was put horribly to death in the main square of Cusco. Three decades later there were a couple of premature, abortive creole uprisings against the Spanish, two tremors among the early rumblings of Independence from Spain that were being felt across the continent. But those great political convulsions of the 1820s largely passed Cusco by. Another violent earthquake shook the city in May of 1950. Once again many post-Inca buildings came tumbling down; once again the Inca structures held fast.
Now Cusco was beginning to emerge from the long years of provincial obscurity. In 1948 Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu, had inaugurated a new road built from the Urubamba river up to the dizzying ridge where the ruins of the Incas’ lost city are perched. Overseas visitors began to arrive in Cusco, drawn by the mysterious ruins and intriguing customs of the Incas and their modern descendants— creating a momentum which has continued to build ever since Recently Cuscoitself has become one of the symbols of a new nationalism and a recovered pride in the greatness of Peru’s pre- Hispanic heritage. The Peruvian government has channeled millions of dollars into conservation and restoration of archaeological and colonial monuments, better roads and transport services, and new hotels. This has been part of a plan sponsored by UNESCO, which has declared Cusco a World Cultural Heritage site.