The zigzagging rows of stone walls at Sacsayhuaman doubly defended the fortress by providing a physical barrier and creating an optical illusion.
Question: Where in the world did builders try to hide a 7,500-acre fortress in plain sight by disguising it as a mountain?
Answer: Sacsayhuaman, Peru
There’s nothing small about Sacsayhuaman, the massive fortress that occupies the position of the head of the panther in Cusco’s layout. It took 20,000 workers in two shifts to dig the foundations, import and refine the boulders, and then fit them together. The resulting complex of walls, towers, and ritual buildings sprawls across more than 7,500 acres of ascending hills.
So what made the builders believe they could camouflage such a site? Call it wishful thinking, but they decided to make the walls of the fortress resemble the mountains rising behind the complex. The terraced rows of walls—some of which rise 60 feet high—are constructed in zigzag fashion, forming triangular indentations between sections, which mimic the overlapping ridges of the mountain chain. When the sun casts shadows on the peaks, the walls cast the same shadows. In the right light and from a distance, Sacsayhuaman appears to be an extension of the hills, and not the mighty fortress it actually was.
This natural disguise came with added bonuses: the indentations mean that anyone trying to scale a wall was either caught between the armed warriors of two wall sections or stuck scaling the end of a single point, which was easily defended. It is no wonder that when Sacsayhuaman fell, thousands of Spanish soldiers—including Juan Pizarro, the leader of the charge—died trying to get over the walls.
The Spanish dismantled some of the buildings afterwards and then tried to cover as much of the remainder as possible with earth, hoping the local people would forget it was ever there. That, of course, never happened. The complex they tried to hide—and that once tried to hide itself—is now a national treasure and one of the most visited sites in Peru.
Fascinating Facts about Sacsayhuaman
- The largest stone is 28 feet high and weighs nearly 200 tons, while the longest is 1,000 feet long.
- The stones were roughly carved in different sizes (largest for the bottom, smallest for the top) at quarries miles away.
- A system of ropes, logs, levers, and ramps were used to move the blocks from quarry to site.
- The stones were pounded into final shape on site with stone and bronze tools, and then the outward-facing surfaces were polished with a sand-and-stone mixture.
- The on-site finishing allowed the blocks to be placed so precisely that it is said you cannot slip a piece of paper between them.
- Each wall, some of which contained 40 segments, took months to build, from rock-finishing to assembly.
- Many of the stones from the original site were used to build new buildings during the Colonial era and still stand elsewhere in the city.
- Not only does Sacsayhuaman endure, it is still an important Inca site, as home to the Inti Raymi festival held every year on the winter solstice.
Decide for yourself how well-hidden Sacsayhuaman in when you visit the site during Machu Picchu & the Galápagos with O.A.T.