Sunday, January 9, 2011

Before and After

By Hilary Davidson

The first rule of travel writing is this: Whatever is before your eyes tells more than one story. This is something I've become almost painfully aware of when I'm on the road. When I first visit a place, I tend to immediately get caught up in its beauty and charm, and later discover that there is a lot of blood behind that facade.

The photo that I'm using here is one that I took myself in Cusco, Peru. It's a place less than a mile south of the city's Plaza de Armas, and it's now know as the Temple of the Sun. In Inca times, it was called Qorikancha. Instead of writing the "witness reports" from two different people, I'm writing them from the same perspective, but with a time lapse. The first was from my first full day in Cusco, when I walked past the site and gave it a cursory examination. The second comes after I learned about its history.

Day One: I've discovered the most beautiful building in Cusco. It's called the Temple of the Sun and it was an astronomical observatory in the days of the Inca. Apparently, in those days, the stones were covered in gold — not just the stones of the temple itself, but of the long walkway leading up to it; the niches in the walls were filled with gold and silver statues, all paid in tribute by the different corners of the Inca Empire. I've read a little about the Inca, but I still don't understand how the Empire expanded so rapidly — in the space of three generations, it went from controlling a small section of the Andes to ruling more than a third of South America. The building is beautiful, but it's been destroyed by earthquakes several times and had to be rebuilt. The Dominicans have run the place since 1536. I'm going to take one of the tours tomorrow. I can't wait to hear about how the windows of the complex line up with certain constellations. Someone told me that if you're here during the summer solstice, the entire complex is filled with an eerie golden light. It sounds like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Why didn't I time my trip for that?

Day Two: Gold. I keep thinking about the gold. But instead of imagining what Qorikancha looked like in its splendor, I keep thinking about the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, and how his people tried to buy his freedom from the Spanish conquistadors. More gold, Francisco Pizarro demanded, again and again. He held Atahualpa hostage, and he led the Inca people on for months, telling them that he would free him if only they paid the ransom. And so they turned over the contents of Qorikancha to him, stripping it not only of its glory, but of the historical record of the Inca that was kept there. The Inca didn't have a system of writing, but they used a series of pictographs — often emblazoned on sheets of gold — to tell the story of their people. But instead of releasing the emperor, Pizarro murdered Atahualpa. Then he gave Qorikancha to his brother Juan. It's a horrifying story, but what came next is what really makes me wonder. Francisco Pizarro was assassinated. His brother Juan died battling an Inca uprising. The Dominican order that inherited the site built over the Inca stones, only to have their efforts destroyed by successive earthquakes. The current building has only been standing since 1953, in spite of its ancient appearance. The wages of sin is death runs through my mind, and I wonder if the Inca had some equivalent saying, and if it was represented in a gold plate that was melted down and shipped across the Atlantic.

Hilary Davidson is the author of The Damage Done (Forge 2010) and the upcoming The Next One to Fall, which is set in Peru. Visit her online at


Michael Wiley said...

A great post, Hilary. I've always been interested in the divide between complex historical reality and the ways that we -- tourists, etc. -- idealize past blood.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, Michael! Sometimes the less I know, the easier it is to enjoy a place. I do believe it's important to learn about the history of the places I travel to, but that definitely affects the way I see them.

Christine said...

So very true, Hilary! I hear the less-than-cheerful history behind places and it's hard not to feel that bit of guilt that I feel after I've been fawning over the same place with "Oohs!" and "Ahhs!"

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, Christine! I honestly believe the "Oohs!" and "Ahhs!" are still perfectly valid — and natural — responses to a beautiful place, no matter how bloody its history. The first time I went to Paris, I remember seeing the Place de la Concorde, and thinking how lovely it was... then going back to my room and reading about how it was the main spot for public executions during the French Revolution. Perspective is everything!