Coricancha and Santo Domingo
The greatest prize in the Spaniards’ 1533 sacking of Cusco was Coricancha (Plazoleta Santo Domingo, 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 2–5 p.m. Sun., US$3.50 or US$5 with entry to Museo de Arte y Monasterio de Santa Catalina), the sun temple.
For the Inca, the building had many functions. It was foremost a place where offerings were burnt in thanks to the sun, though there were also rooms devoted to the moon, stars, lightning, thunder, and rainbows. Like so much of Inca ceremonial architecture, the building also served as a solar observatory and mummy storehouse.
The south-facing walls of the temple were covered with gold in order to reflect the light of the sun and illuminate the temple. Inside was the Punchaco, a solid-gold disk inlaid with precious stones, which represented the sun and was probably the most sacred object in the Inca empire.
Pizarro’s scouts had already produced approximately a ton and a half of gold by stripping the inner walls of Coricancha. When the main Spanish force gained Cusco, they gathered hundreds of gold sculptures and objects from the temple, including an altar big enough to hold two men and an extraordinary artificial garden made of gold, including cornstalks with silver stems and ears of gold. Tragically, everything was melted down within a month—except for the Punchaco. It disappeared from the temple and its whereabouts are unknown to this day.
The Dominicans took over the Coricancha and dismantled most of it, using the polished ashlar to build their church and convent of Santa Domingo on top of the sun temple’s walls. For centuries, many of the Coricancha’s walls were hidden beneath the convent. But in 1950 an earthquake caused large sections of the convent to crumble, exposing Inca walls of the highest quality.
It requires considerable imagination today to picture how the Inca’s most important temple must have once looked. The eight-sided sacrificial font, stripped of the 55 kilograms of gold that once covered it, stands in the middle of the Coricancha’s main square. The rooms that surround it may once have been covered with silver and dedicated to the moon, stars, and thunder.
The wall running along the temple’s eastern side is 60 meters long and 5 meters high, and each block is perfectly interlocked with its neighbor. But the highlight is the curved retaining wall beneath the facade of the church, which has not budged an inch in all of Cusco’s earthquakes.
Sharing the same entrance as the Coricancha is Cusco’s most serious contemporary art gallery, Galeria del Convento de Santo Domingo (Plazoleta Santo Domingo, 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat., US$3.50). It is the best place to see young emerging local artists.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition