Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire (Tahuaninsuyo: Empire of the Four Regions) and is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas (some 3000 years). It is in modern day Peru. I used the spelling generally used in Western countries. Though earlier inhabitants had other names for it (some not quite clear coming down through history), as capital of the Inca empire, it was named Qosco (from a Quechuan word meaning "navel" or "center" of the world). That name dates back to the 11th or 12th centuries. The Spanish changed the spelling to Cuzco, later the the"z" was dropped in favor of an "s" due to differing pronunciations of the letter. Near the end of the 20th century, a movement to restore the original name was launched and in 1990, the city officially stated that the name was to be Qosco.

Origin Stories
The Incas has a number of stories about the founding of the city. A common theme involves the legendary first Inca ruler Manco Capac (or variations on the spelling, including: Manko Qhapaq). In one version Tayta Inti ("Father Sun"), upon seeing chaos and starvation of the world, sent his two (sometimes more than two) children to bring order. Emerging from Lake Titicaca with a golden staff from the Father. They were to plunge it into the ground where the city was to be founded. Another legend has four brothers and sisters (or wives) emerging from the cave Pacariqtambo (pacariq, meaning "dawn" or "origin" and tambo, "place of lodging"). After traveling some way (the the area is about 15.5 miles/25 km from the site of Cuzco) they were given a sign that there was to be founded the city. One of the brothers became Manco Capac. There are numerous variations on those two and some others. It is thought that the different origin stories were aimed at different audiences and served different purposes for the Inca rulers.

As Capital
At an elevation of 3400 m/11,150 feet above sea level, Cuzco was built with narrow, paved (with cobblestones) streets that had separate channels carved into them for running water and sewage. The buildings were mostly made out of stone, though in areas farther from the main part of the city, walls of mud brick were found, lined with painted stucco or plaster made from clay. Roofs were thatched. There was little pollution and the city was kept quite clean. Evidence for the sturdiness and the longlasting quality of the work can be seen in the many original Inca foundations upon which the Spanish built their own buildings. There have been earthquakes which have severely damaged the later construction but left the well-built foundations and other Inca buildings relatively unharmed. From above one can see that the city was planned to be built so that the downtown section was in the shape of a puma. It was considred a special deity to the Quechuas.

At the time of the empire's height (the Inca empire only lasted a bit over a hundred years, not that the Incas only lasted that long, just the large empire), it was one of the largest cities in the Americas (Tenochititlan was larger). Around the time of European contact (1530s), the estimated population of the empire was around twelve million and Cuzco, alone, had 200,000-300,000 inhabitants (one estimation puts it at 126,000 in the urban area and another 100,000 in more rural areas). One of Francisco Pizarro's soldiers, acting as his secretary, wrote that there were 100,000 houses. Of course true demographic information is difficult to verify in many cases. For context: some 40 years later in 1575, London (largely due to continual epidemics and the plague) had only about 180,000 people and Paris around 300,000.

At the center of the city (and of social life) was a large plaza that could house as many as 100,000 people. It often was the location of dances and festivals. There were numerous palaces with halls where large banquets could be held and decorated/built with with marble, rare wood, and precious metal. Gold was in great abundance and would eventually lead to the empire's downfall (made easier by civil war preceding the Spanish contact and conquest).

The Spanish had arrived on the coast of Peru in the 1530s. Despite having a small number of soldiers (but horses, guns, and artillery), he was able through deception, kidnapping, and murder to make the retreat (after the strangulation of the emperor Atahuallpa, who had been held as a hostage and promised release if he could fill the chamber he was held in with silver and gold—which he did). He then was able to take the city of Cuzco with next to no resistance and sacked and looted it of its treasures. Later, he moved the capital to Lima, which remains the capital of Peru.

Following the Spanish colonial period in 1821, the population was only 40,000. The estimated population by the year 2000 is 300,000.

Modern Cuzco
Cuzco is a modern city that has a thriving tourism industry. Not only because of its own history, with architecture ranging from the days of the Incas (including walls, ruins, temples) to the days of Spanish colonialism (numerous churches and other buildings) to the sort of buildings one can find in any major city of its size, but also because of the beautiful mountain landscape it's nestled in. Another draw is the famous "lost city" of Machu Picchu, which is a reasonable traveling distance away by train.

(Sources:,,, David E. Stannard's 1992 American Holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World, modern city info comes from a variety of travel sites)

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