Building heritage on colonized countries: The case of Coricancha complex in Cuzco, Peru.


Peru is one of the countries with the greatest cultural wealth in South America, and like other Latin American countries, it has a shared Inca and Spanish heritage. Peru was the heartland of the Inca Empire during its most prominent period from 1400 to 1533 CE (Cartwright, 2014b). The process of Spanish conquest in Peru occurred during the years 1532–1533 CE, and started when the Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, arrived to the northern region of Peru in early 1532. After the Spanish establishment in the area and the fall of the Inca Empire, Peru entered into the colonial period from 1533 to 1821. During this period the Spanish crown had complete control over the region, and Pizarro had founded Lima as the capital. In 1542, King Charles V established the Viceroyalty of Peru, which had an extended power over most of South America. The Peruvian capital functioned as an economic center for the crown during a time of great prosperity; since the wealth of the kingdom (gold and silver mainly) passed through here to be sent to Spain. Finally, after almost three centuries of Spanish domination, Peru acquired its independence on July 28th of 1821. (The Colonial period, n.d.).

In this context, the City of Cuzco was a key location for both the Inca Empire and the Spanish occupation. The City of Cuzco is located in the Central Peruvian Andes over the southeastern region of Peru (Figure 1). The settlement was built on a fertile alluvial valley and it is at an elevation of 3,400 m above sea level. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire (Tawantinsuyu) from the 13th century until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century; it was developed as a religious and administrative complex (Cartwright, 2015; UNESCO, n.d.).

Figure 1. Cuzco geographic location.


Figure 2. The City of Cuzco, Cuzco Valley (May, 2016).

The City of Cuzco (Figure 2) was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1983, in accordance with the following UNESCO’s criteria:

Criterion (iii): The City of Cuzco is a unique testimony of the ancient Inca civilization, heart of Tawantinsuyu imperial government, which exercised political, religious and administrative control over much of the South American Andes between the 15th and 16th centuries. The city represents the sum of 3,000 years of indigenous and autonomous cultural development in the Peruvian southern Andes.

Criterion (iv) : The City of Cuzco provides a unique testimony to the urban and architectural achievements of important political, economic and cultural settlements during the pre-Columbian era in South America. It is a representative and exceptional example of the confluence of two distinct cultures; Inca and Hispanic, which through the centuries produced an outstanding cultural syncretism and configured a unique urban structure and architectural form. [UNESCO]

The case of Cuzco results particularly interesting because it is a city that holds significant remains and assets of Inca and Hispanic culture. This combination of background creates a framework in which heritage is conceived as dual, shared and integrated concept. Its historic relevance for the region and its architectural attractiveness caught UNESCO’s attention, and this led to its selection and acceptance.

Numerous archaeological investigations and research from other disciplines, have been developed in the Cuzco Valley. By analyzing urban planning, architecture, construction materials and building functions, researchers and archaeologists have developed a deeper understanding of Inca society and how they developed through time. In addition, experts have also analyzed the appropriation process of Spaniards on the architecture of this area (e.g., Kosiba, 2014; McEwan et al., 2002).

It is necessary to understand that Cuzco was both an administrative and religious center that harbored more than 150,000 people at its peak (Cartwright, 2015). Therefore, in and around the valley there was a great amount of archaeological sites, temples and Inca infrastructure that showed their mythology and way on life. However, after the city got colonized by the Spaniards, infrastructure, urban planning and type of building were completely changed. The Spanish conquerors needed to build catholic churches and European infrastructure in order to establish, and maintain control over the new prevailing and imposed culture. During both processes the city endured several changes and modifications from its original shape, this entailed the creation of a mixed infrastructure with Hispanic and Inca elements. Such elements would eventually be a key part of Peruvian patrimony.

But before going into more details about Cuzco, it is also important to observe what other World Heritage Sites are in Peruvian territory (Figure 3). By considering the spatial relationships not only at an internal level, but also at a regional level, one can have a deeper understanding about how Inca civilization, and the Spanish colony appropriated this area. Moreover, it is also important to consider this spatial distribution when thinking about current World Heritage Sites and different perspectives of heritage.

Figure 3. World Heritage Sites in Peru.


How do we build our how heritage? This is a question worth asking when you face a case of combined heritage like Cuzco. First of all, it is necessary to understand what cultural heritage is. There are several definitions for this concept, but for the purpose of this paper the following definition developed by ICOMOS (2002) was used:

Cultural Heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values. Cultural Heritage is often expressed as either Intangible or Tangible Cultural Heritage.

Building heritage for a community, country or even region, is always an integrated process in which several cultural elements play an important role both synchronically and diachronically. These elements are intangible and tangible, and they are built, modify and reconstructed through history.

Building heritage is also a process that requires reproduction and maintenance. In order for heritage to endure through different generations, it is strictly necessary to promote a sense of conservation of both tangible and intangible elements of culture.

The next step is the awareness that conservation can no longer be based on the object’s intrinsic quality. It must be founded on our ability to recognise its aesthetic, historic, scientific, social values etc., or rather, it is society, the community that must recognise these values, upon which its own cultural identity can be built. [Vecco, 2010, p. 323]

Peruvian identity has been built from a combination of Inca and Spanish background. People in Peru recognize that their past has values and traditions from these two different cultures. They have accepted this heritage and they have built a ‘collective memory’ in which both backgrounds are a central part of their identity (Barthel-Bouchier, 2016).

The role of Inca heritage in Peruvian society is a clear indicator of why they value both Inca and Spanish heritage equally. “The prehispanic civilizations continue to provide a sense of national dignity and purpose, one often lacking in Peru’s currently unfavorable economic and political circumstances” (Burger, 1989, p. 38). This sense of identity has been embraced by both the Peruvian population and the government’s institutionalized national identity. Similar cases are seen in other colonized Latin American countries, for example in Mexico, both the government and Mexican people have also conceived and embraced a shared, multiple and common heritage; in which Hispanic and Prehispanic cultural and historical background have come together (Van der Aa, 2005).

In this sense, the invention and re-invention of Peruvian identity is a fundamental social core in the mindset of Peruvian people. This conception of their heritage is constantly reflected in their festivities, traditions and behavior. Cultural heritage for Peruvian society is so important that it is even reflected in the way they commercialize their culture (Chara Azurín, 2012).

They way Peruvian society projects their heritage to tourism includes the combination of Hispanic and Inca heritage. The role that both elements have is crucial for the development of this process. For example, the Inca heritage possesses and great attraction due to its exotic and impressive features:

The city of Cusco, former capital of the Inca Empire, exemplifies the diverse dimensions of Peru’s archaeological tourism. Impressive Inca walls form the very fabric of the urban environment of the Historic Center, which attracts tourists because this is where the Inca kings resided in grand palaces and where the most important temples and public buildings were located. Today, this zone is the crowded, negotiated space of conflicting dreams, multiple ideologies, overlapping identities, selective histories, and vibrant representations. “Picturesque” Indians in traditional dress move about the Historic Center among its more assimilated and non-indigenous inhabitants. [Hoffman at al., 2002, p. 31]

In the same way, Spanish heritage is also valued by the Peruvian society and it is clearly exposed for the tourist to appreciate:

Catholic pageants and folkloric performances occur regularly in the streets. Inca walls support Spanish Colonial superstructures. Republican and later buildings are constructed around and over these. New buildings accommodate themselves to the remaining space in the city or gain space by destroying vernacular architecture and other buildings deemed unworthy of preservation. [Hoffman at al., 2002, p. 32]

These elements are part of daily life in Cuzco, and interaction between the locals and the tourists is the engine of Cuzco’s economy. The process of reinvention and reproduction of heritage has become a constant aspect of Cuzco’s daily activity: which pinpoints how important is people’s involvement in the conservation of heritage.

Cusco is a city that is reinventing itself. The challenge faced by Cusco’s authorities is to create a new ancient city for the international tourist market at the same time that Cusco is a complex, heterogeneous living city for its racially and culturally diverse residents. [Hoffman at al., 2002, p. 32]

The City of Cuzco has a variety of buildings and infrastructure that represents precisely how Spanish, Inca and even current culture comes together into an integrated location; where these elements coexist and work in favor of the socio-economic development of Cuzco’s population. In addition, this sort of interaction supports a sustainable conservation of Peruvian heritage.


Cuzco valley still maintains the urban disposition, organization and architecture from the Inca Empire and the Spanish Viceroyalty, as it is pinpointed by UNESCO’s description:

The City of Cuzco maintains the spatial organization and most buildings from the ancient Inca Empire capital and the Viceroyalty. Along its streets and squares, it shows its original urban and architectural characteristics. Despite urban growth, the sectors that make up the Inca imperial city are recognizable, including the ancient stone structures and their advanced construction technique. Such structures define and enclose streets and canchas (housing units), on which colonial and republican houses, monasteries and churches rose and kept intact all their architectural components and works of art inside them. [UNESCO]

In the city there are several examples of this combined architecture, however the Coricancha (Qorikancha) is the site that best reflects such context nowadays. The Coricancha (Figure 4) was considered as a religious complex located right in the center of Cuzco. The main function of this complex was to serve as a ‘Golden Enclosure’ to praise the gods from the Inca Pantheon. For example gods like Viracocha (the creator), Quilla (the moon goddess) and Inti (the god of the sun) received special attention in Coricancha. Within the complex it is located The Temple of the Sun dedicated to the god Inti, this is maybe the best preserved Inca structure in Coricancha (Cartwright, 2014a).

Figure 4. The Coricancha (Qorikancha) complex, Cuzco, Peru.

Coricancha, as mentioned before, was an Inca temple originally. The Inca architecture lies still underneath a Christian monastery that was build on top of the complex with a colonizing purpose. The Christian monastery of Santo Domingo was built upon the arrival of the Spaniards in 1572 CE, and it was intended to superpose their religion over the Inca’s mythology (Cartwright, 2014a). However, the intention made by the Spanish conquerors did not endure long. After the independence of Peru, and the beginning of the process of building a national identity, authorities and Cuzco’s people decided to have experts working on this complex. The main objective was to be able to expose both Inca and Spanish elements of heritage, because they have this sense of shared identity precisely. Nowadays, Coricancha is visited by a great amount of national and international tourism that has the opportunity of observe and appreciate a more complete perspective of Peruvian past.


The City of Cuzco in general, and the Coricancha temple in particular, are a clear representation of how heritage is built from the perspective of a country that has been colonized. The combination of Inca and Hispanic background, traditions, architecture and legacy, certainly creates a dual, intertwined and shared heritage that Peruvian people has embraced. People in Peru value both backgrounds, and their identity has been built by bringing together the cultural tangible and intangible elements of Inca and Spanish societies.

Coricancha complex is an interesting example that reflects how this dual heritage is very important for Peruvian people, and how they look to preserve both sides of history. Projecting and showing Inca and Hispanic background is a consistent practice in Peru, as it is a central aspect of their tourism management. Government, organizations and people in general have a common interest in giving the tourist a sense of what Peruvian identity means, and providing them an experience in which Hispanic and Inca heritages are integrated.

Places like the City of Cuzco and the combination of cultural elements that it holds, are certainly invaluable for world’s heritage. Since it is a site that represents not only cultural assets and traditions from Inca and Spanish culture, but also it represents the diversity of human history. Colonized countries have a more clear segregation of their heritage, because one culture imposed itself over the other one generally (through violence). Therefore it turns out really difficult to match both elements of history, and sometimes the way these elements are embraced in today’s identity is very unbalanced for some societies. Nevertheless, Peru is a perfect example of how to deal with these differences, and it is a useful model to show how to build and preserve an integrated, shared and balanced heritage.

Coricancha and Cuzco, Peru.


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